‘Contra La Máquina”: student-organized coalition clashes with grassroots nonprofit Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

Above, the symbol adopted by student coalition Contra La Máquina. Courtesy of Luna Aros/Contra La Máquina.

Nonprofit Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson (NLMH) is a well-known grassroots presence in the Poughkeepsie activism ecosystem. The Mid-Hudson region has witnessed the organization mobilize and win key victories for immigrant rights, housing and utility access and racial justice.

During the nonprofit’s 2020 remote summer internship program, interns and staff disagreed on which issues campaigns to focus on and workplace transparency. Amid uprisings for racial justice, students wanted to see NLMH take a stronger stance in support of Black Lives Matter. That discord crescendoed into the termination of the internship program for all 60 volunteers. Students and a former employee are now publicly critiquing NLMH’s integrity and reigniting past controversies. Their coalition is named “Contra La Máquina,” Spanish for “Against the Machine.”

NLMH Executive Director Jonathan Bix and other staff stand behind their decisions. They claim to have attempted to work with interns to address their concerns, but that the students were more interested in power grabbing.

“Once we saw [their] demands, we saw that they were ultimatums that were generally not about BLM, but about transferring power over our campaigns, programming, and endorsements from the Hudson Valley communities we work with…to temporary interns, and of course we can’t do that,” Bix said in an email correspondence.

The Internship Launch, George Floyd and #BLM

The internship program began on June 3—toward the beginning of the George Floyd protests. The shockwaves of the police killing and the revolution it ignited were deeply felt by both NLMH interns and staff. Bix said the organization’s leadership infused discussion on the organization’s response to Black Lives Matter into the program’s launch.

“It was a very difficult and emotional time. And we made space with our interns to talk about the moment and how we were responding to it,” said Bix.

In addition to conducting a moment of silence during their intern orientation, Bix said it included discussion on the importance of their organizing efforts and created a document about their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Students also had a conversation block to talk with their supervisors about the movement. 

An email sent by Managing Director Caitlin Munchick on the program’s first day encouraged interns to take pride in the upcoming summer’s work: fundraising, fighting for health care access and housing justice, and phone banking for political candidates whose platforms aligned with racial and social justice. These efforts would create a world where Black lives matter. “We are committed to the long struggle ahead, to make the impossible possible, to end oppression and realize a new world where we are all free and where Black Lives Matter,” the email reads.

Past advocacy under co-founder Margaret Kwateng ’14 to “develop the Black Lives Matter movement locally” was admirable, but occurred years ago. Kwateng now serves as the nonprofit’s advisory board chair. According to Bix, the board “helps guide the mission and programmatic direction of the organization and provides strategic thinking and planning.” 

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Some interns believed that these gestures were superficial and ineffective, which they expressed to the NLMH staff in a later statement. It wasn’t enough to contextualize the movement within existing or past organizing efforts. Some interns wanted to see NLMH pledge new energy and resources toward the movement. 

Their frustrations were bolstered by what they saw as an unwillingness to take their concerns seriously and a racialized top-down organization hierarchy.

Bix shared that staff provided multiple feedback avenues, including daily check-ins, anonymous forms and staff emails and phone numbers. “Unfortunately those feedback structures weren’t used to communicate what was raised in the demands,” he said.

Vassar student Luna Aros ’22 and Brown University grad student David (who preferred that only his first name be used) said between June 3 and 8 interns asked questions through their supervisors and the anonymous forms.

Aros shared that their supervisors liked their ideas, such as centering the emotions of Black interns—those they felt were most impacted by the political climate and police brutality. “[My supervisor] would say yeah, that’s a great idea. I just have to talk to Caitlin or Jonathan. I have to talk to someone else about it,” she said.

Aros and David say their supervisors were mostly Latinx compared to Bix and Munchick, who are both white, non-Latinx, speaking to a disconnect in communication with the organization’s top leadership. Similarly, with their questions about their political education exercises and other program logistics, Aros and David said they received few to no answers.

“Every two or three days we would speak to [our supervisor] and ask her questions and be concerned and confused about things,” said Aros. “We felt that we were exhausting most of the feedback forms and places that they gave us and we weren’t being listened to.”

By June 9, a group of interns announced to staff plans to produce a list of demands about their concerns and how the organization should move forward. 

Two weeks later on June 23, students released the 8-page document “Intern Statement on Black Lives Matter” signed by 52 interns and four former interns.

“It is not enough to say that Black people are included amongst those who will be helped by our fight,” their statement reads. “The fact that Black individuals are disproportionately impacted by these issues means that, in turn, they should be centered–that Black liberation means all peoples’ liberation.”

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The Demands: #BlackLivesMatter

Among their demands were: a “firm, undeniable, explicit” statement in support of Black Lives Matter; directing some intern work hours toward Black-led organizations’ work; and an organization-wide town hall on how to move forward with regard to supporting BLM. 

Bix reiterated that the organization’s leadership would have responded to the demands had interns asked them through the official avenues.

“Many of the demands were things we were already doing, questions that we could have answered if they were asked, or lacked context we could have given,” he said.

Bix mentioned interns’ criticism in their statement about the speed with which they responded to the New Jersey State Trooper killing of Maurice Gordon, a Black Poughkeepsie resident.

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“We actually were working alongside his family and lawyer and many local organizations to coordinate all our actions and we were moving at their pace,” said Bix.

This summer, the nonprofit organized or mobilized participation in police accountability protests in Middletown, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Kingston and Beacon. Bix and other NLMH staff spoke at city hall meetings and rallied support for the Right to Know Act and establishment of Civilian Review Boards in Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Kingston. NLMH Newburgh Organizer Rene Mejia also serves on the Newburgh Police Advisory Committee as the city develops police reforms according to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203. The organization also opposed construction of a new Dutchess County jail.

“We believe our role is to be in support of, and not take the lead in, local BLM work. Locally, we will continue to work and partner with Black-led organizations as we have for many years,” said Bix.

With regard to the interns’ 14th demand for “clear and thorough” research into political candidates, Bix pointed to their endorsements of political candidates who’ve met with local and statewide racial justice and Black-led organizations. The organization has endorsed Karen Smythe for the 41st State Senate District, Michelle Hinchey for the 46th State Senate District and State Senator Jen Metzger’s reelection for the 42nd District.

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The demand stems from some interns’ experiences phone banking for these candidates. Aros said they sat through rushed briefings by officials from the Working Families Party on candidates’ platforms. Student-interns would then have to call constituents and inform them on the candidates. 

“[The Working Families Party] is going to explain to you who this [candidate] is in 20 minutes, and then you’re gonna have five minutes to look over a script, and you’re gonna call a bajillion people. And that was like, every day,” said Aros. “When we asked if we could have more time, they said they couldn’t give us more time.”

Bard student Skye Carter ’22 was shocked to learn about Metzger’s stance on the state’s cash bail reforms effective earlier this year. Advocates for the reforms believe cash bail creates a two-tiered system of justice that disadvantages the poor and people of color.

Metzger co-sponsored legislation in January to allow judges discretion to set bail for more cases than the original reform law allows. This is in the interest of public safety, according to Metzger.

“We were Black interns at a nonprofit campaigning for somebody that actively hurt us in our community or was advocating for things that would hurt us in our community,” said Carter.

According to Bix, the non-profit’s candidate endorsements have been on their website since March, well before interns joined the organization. He also shared that they provided interns with seven-page guides on each candidate, which they reviewed with students on multiple occasions.

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The Demands: Tides Advocacy, Financial Transparency and Who Are the Advisory Board?

Some of the interns’ other demands developed over the two-weeks they spent writing their statement. These include stipends for interns of color, creating or supporting  mutual aid/bail fund projects and transparency with the interns about the nonprofit’s finances. They wanted to know how the money they were fundraising would be used, and how they could direct some of it to the most financially stressed members of their program.

As the students looked into the logistics of these demands, they also researched the nonprofit’s finances. They were left with questions about the nonprofit’s tax statuses, its relationship with the mega corporation group Tides Foundation and how Tides influences the organizations’ finances and campaign priorities.

Since 2019, NLMH has been fiscally sponsored by Tides, a collection of public benefit corporations that channels money and other support to progressive, social justice-oriented nonprofits. Fiscal sponsorship describes the provision of legal and other support services by an existing nonprofit to another emerging non-tax-exempt organization. This support includes financial management, fiduciary oversight and other administrative services to help the new nonprofit as it grows. Such entities would otherwise incur financial and other logistical roadblocks in their growth.

“Basically, Tides provides the back-end infrastructure and labor that lets us focus on our work: organizing people,” said Bix.

Ultimately, Tides Advocacy is responsible for NLMH’s funds and activities.

Other groups which also work with Tides Advocacy are the Dream Defenders, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives.

Fiscal sponsorship also involves a fee for services provided. Tides charges 10 percent of the nonprofit’s earnings, which is the average fee among fiscal sponsorships. Some interns expressed suspicion about sending funds to a distant, San-Francisco based organization rather than the communities NLMH serves.

“This was a scam, but to the capitalist degree,” said Carter.

Bix shared that without Tides, the organization would have to hire its own accountant, lawyer, Human Resources manager and operations specialist. The partnership has saved them “hundreds of thousands” annually, according to Bix.

As for how funds are used, Bix disclosed that they spend 80 percent on the category “Programs.” “We’re not a service provider like most nonprofits, we’re organizing people. Organizing is our program, so organizing staff time is booked under programs,” said Bix. This also includes costs for events, action campaigns, salaries and benefits, leadership development for community members and food for community meetings.

They also spend 19 percent of funds on administrative costs, which includes their fiscal sponsor fee, insurance, rent, utilities, technology and office supplies. Only 1 percent is spent on fundraising.

While their tax filings would be public knowledge, there are no recent tax records for NLMH as an independent entity due its fiscal sponsorship. “Tides’ filing includes all of their fiscally sponsored projects, including us,” said Bix. Tides Advocacy’s most recent available financial statement is for 2018, which does not include NLMH.

Adding to students’ list of suspicions was the existence of an oft-mentioned advisory board they knew little about. Interns were only familiar with the board chair, Kwateng. According to Bix, the Vassar grad worked full-time for NLMH between 2014 and 2017. She went on to work with a nurses’ union and is currently the National Green New Deal Organizer at Grassroots Global Justice.

Bix said that the board is composed primarily of women of color who are veteran community and labor organizers. But when asked to disclose the members’ identities, he stated that he did not yet have their permission to share that information. The organization hopes to list their names on their website within the next month.

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Rising Action: The Proposed Town Hall

As these questions lingered, the organization went forward with attempts to discuss the demands and the disharmony between the nonprofit’s leadership and the interns.

On the afternoon of June 23, NLMH announced their decision to pause the internship and plan an organization-wide meeting. Students could share their concerns with Bix or Munchick in the meantime. Some students of color were intimidated by the perceived power dynamic between themselves and Bix and Munchick, who are white. 

The day after, NLMH Organizer Molly Dolman sent an email sharing that the mandatory meeting would take place on June 30. The staff and advisory board would plan and facilitate the hour and 30 minute agenda.

Some of the original statement writers requested through email involvement in planning, so Black interns’ voices be prioritized and that the meeting period be extended. This would fulfill their original demand for a town hall. “Your decision to plan and facilitate the “meeting” on Tuesday without intern involvement denies us our agency in a meeting space that we specifically requested in our demands as an opportunity to voice our concerns,” the email reads.

According to Bix, the staff and advisory board saw this follow-up as an attempt to further escalate the conflict. 

“We proposed meeting with all the interns to discuss all of this, but a couple interns emailed back to refuse our plan forward and increase the number of demands,” said Bix.

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Termination

On June 26, all 60 interns—including those who didn’t sign the statement—were terminated.

When asked why they took a sweeping approach, Bix emphasized the ranging viewpoints among the intern cohort. He shared that staff later learned some interns disagreed with the demands and never signed on, others felt pressured to do so and still others signed but did not agree with all parts of the document.

“This was not a case of 60 interns versus the staff,” he said. “We couldn’t continue to pause all of our urgent work in order to parse out who was open to talk to us and who wasn’t.”

Both staff and the advisory board no longer felt it possible to talk through their differences. “It was a really difficult decision that we did not make lightly, and I appreciate all of the thought and consideration that staff put into it,” said Kwateng in an emailed correspondence.

“We know we have meaningful growing to do as an organization and we are constantly trying to improve,” said Bix. “But we need a level of trust and openness in order to have those conversations.”

In their email to students on June 26, the staff claimed that the interns lacked humility and deference to their member base. 

“Whether this is your intention or not, the impact that the demands would have is to transfer power…from the staff, the majority of whom has grown up in the cities they work in, our majority-Black advisory board, and our majority working class Latinx base to a group of college students who don’t live here and temporarily attend elite colleges locally,” the email reads.

The email cites that 89 percent of the interns do not live in the Hudson Valley and therefore do not have the same long-term commitment to the organization’s objectives.

Some interns were disappointed in the sweeping generalizations they say the nonprofit made about them.

“There are [interns] who grew up in or live in Poughkeepsie, who are Black, who identify as people of color and who are low-income,” said David. “What does ‘elite college student’ mean when there are so many people who have such diverse experiences that put them at the level of their member base?” According to Aros, the majority of students who wrote the statement and demands are people of color.

Other interns pointed to what they perceived as hypocrisy for targeting their status as students at local elite colleges. Bix, Munchick and Dolman are Vassar graduates.

“Those are the people you recruit, right? You go to Vassar and you go to a Bard and you specifically recruit from these two elite institutions,” said Aros.

Bix shared that the nonprofit also recruits from local high schools, SUNY colleges and community colleges. They spend more time organizing with Hudson Valley residents than students, according to Bix.

Copied onto the termination email were officials from students’ schools, including the Vassar Career Development Office (CDO) and the Office for Community Engaged Learning.

Several Vassar students were told to return stipends they received from the CDO, including Maxwell Roberts ’22, who received $500, if they could not find other internship or volunteer opportunities. The grant program, which prioritizes students completing unpaid internships, typically disseminates stipends ranging from $250 to $2,500. Roberts was hesitant to find work in rural Georgia at the time due to the state’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the end, the CDO did allow them to keep their stipend. Aros did not find an opportunity in time to receive a grant.

Students could also re-apply to the NLMH internship through a “recommitment process.” This included a written reflection on what happened and why they wanted to work with the organization again. Administrators also spoke one-on-one with students and addressed their lingering questions and concerns. They accepted every intern who re-applied.

“We feel extremely grateful for everyone who recommitted and proud of the work we did together over the rest of the summer,” said Bix.

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“Contra La Máquina”

Over the next two months, students who didn’t return to NLMH processed the shock of their internship’s termination. Aros felt hurt and betrayed by an organization for which she had volunteered for more than two years.

“[Roberts and I] had developed very deep connections and relationships with a lot of the folks at Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson,” she said. “Over the course of us writing these demands, it was out of love for the organization. We thought we were aiding the organization to continue with its mission. It was never about power-grabbing.”

Some of the former interns reconvened to talk about their experiences with the internship. One recurring topic in their conversations was on the organization’s structure, which the interns felt was corporate-like and prioritized quotas over relationship-building with the communities the organization claimed to serve. For Carter, this was most clear during phone banking for political candidates. According to the students, one of the goals of the internship was to make one million phone calls in support of candidates.

“We weren’t really thinking about our membership base as people,” she said. “They just felt like a target audience for us to extract votes out of. We didn’t do anything for them in return.”

The students attributed this structure to the organization’s place within the “nonprofit industrial complex.” As a byproduct of the nonprofit system, where organizations must compete for limited funding sources, nonprofits often change their goals and workplace structures to focus more on staying economically afloat rather than fulfilling their original mission. These funds often come from foundations or governments. 

Roberts recognized that NLMH focuses on grassroots fundraising instead of large foundation donors. But the organization’s current focus on “building people power” does not seem connected to their past people-centered advocacy goals. “The hyper-fixation on quantitative growth had disconnected them from affected community members and caused them to drift from their mission,” they said.

When founded, NLMH focused on fighting foreclosures and evictions caused by the 2008 housing crisis. By 2015 they launched their Climate and Energy Justice campaign in response to unfair power shut offs and debt collection by Central Hudson Gas and Electric. By 2017, they launched their Immigration Justice campaign around the DREAM Act, municipal IDs, statewide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and other protections for undocumented immigrants

NLMH is currently focused on electoral advocacy. Bix said the organization surveyed 1,000 Hudson Valley residents in 2019 to determine its new campaigns—health care access, housing justice and independent partisan political organizing.

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Ignacio Acevedo

The pieces for “Contra La Máquina” fell into place with Ignacio Acevedo, whose experiences students say mirrored their own.

The former NLMH Lead Organizer said he and others in the Hudson Valley immigrant community were independently campaigning for municipal IDs and other immigration issues when Bix invited them to join NLMH. Over the years, other immigrant organizers, volunteers and staff joined, adding to a growing organization. 

At the time, NLMH’s fiscal sponsor was Right to the City Alliance, a national network of organizations devoted to housing justice and other urban causes. When Tides Advocacy came into the picture, Acevedo said that Bix’s leadership style changed.

“Everything changed. It became corporate. The immigrants weren’t being consulted anymore in decision making,” said Acevedo.

The more he asked questions about the organization’s finances, the more pushback he said he encountered. While he and another coworker were frustrated, they remained to continue their fight for New York’s Green Light law.

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Before a celebration in honor of the law’s eventual passage, where the organization raised $10,500 in donations, Acevedo and the organization’s Leadership Table, who are all volunteers, met with Bix about how to allocate the money. The Leadership Table was made up of other immigrants who volunteered their time organizing and helping lead the campaigns. They proposed that the funds be saved in case any members were deported or detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This money could pay for legal fees and other expenses when seeking their releases. According to Acevedo, Bix said that that decision lay with him, not them.

“If he cares about undocumented immigrants and their safety, he has over half a million dollars from all the fundraising and the grants that we know that we get,” said Acevedo. “How is he so upset over ten thousand dollars that we haven’t even raised?

Frustrated with what they saw as a lack of say in an organization they helped build, he and another coworker sought to take on more powerful positions. The two informed Bix of Acevedo’s interest in the Organizer Director position, and that his coworker would like to fill his Lead Organizer role. According to Acevedo, Bix questioned their qualifications for these roles, citing that they didn’t know how to write reports. He felt insulted.

“After all the work we’ve done, we can’t write reports?” said Acevedo.

The two were at the end of their rope. After Bix had left the room, they decided that they would resign. Acevedo said that Bix forced the two to sign resignation letters.

Four days later, Acevedo received a letter from a Tides Advocacy attorney on behalf of the nonprofit requesting that he turn over the fundraised money.

When asked to comment on the events that led to Acevedo’s resignation, Bix said that Acevedo demanded a promotion within 24 hours without consultation of any other staff, or he’d resign. However, Acevedo mentioned that he spoke with members of the Leadership Table about his desire to move up.

Bix also cited concerns that Acevedo’s promotion would make others uncomfortable because of his past behavior. “Other staff told us that they would have resigned themselves if the individual had been promoted to be their supervisor,” said Bix.

Former Leadership Table member Rey Virgen Morales said he and other members pleaded with Bix for a meeting to resolve the conflict and hopefully bring Acevedo back. Several weeks went by before Morales and others were told that Bix had dissolved the group. Bix asked if he wanted to reapply to the organization, but he declined. Several others also declined.

“I believe our power comes from the community, the power isn’t from one person. I don’t want to be a part of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson anymore,” said Morales.

Acevedo, Morales and other former NLMH organizers and volunteers have since joined a new group, Las Mejores Huellas de los Inmigrantes, or The Best Footprints of Immigrants. The Hudson Valley-based group has focused on municipal ID campaigns for undocumented immigrants.

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The Road Ahead

Neither the publicized experiences of the former interns, nor Acevedo’s story, seem to have irreparably tarnished NLMH’s image. Bix shared that 110 interns signed on to volunteer for the fall semester. However, harming the nonprofit is not Contra La Máquina’s goal.

In an open letter under their coalition’s name, members of the group have invited others to join them in an ongoing community conversation about their experiences with NLMH. The group recently hosted a “Virtual Community Dialogue and Next Steps” meeting to discuss their goals and answer questions.

They’ve also set out a list of steps they hope NLMH will follow in what Contra La Máquina dubs an “accountability process.”

“By entering into this process of accountability and healing together, we will create new bonds strengthening our communities and begin shaping a future as a collective,” the open letter reads.

Update 10/24/2020: This article has been updated to further clarify that the Vassar Career Development did allow certain students to retain their stipends after the initial request to return them.

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