Gretchen Maneval, a relative newcomer to the Borough of Churches, is fascinated by the who-what-when-where-why-and-how of her adopted city. As the Executive Director of the five-year-old Center for the Study of Brooklyn, the Pennsylvania native quickly rattles off statistics. Less than half of Brooklynites speak English as a primary language at home, she begins, which is not surprising since 37 percent of our neighbors were born in another country.
Over coffee at Ozzie’s on an unnaturally warm late-September morning, Maneval marvels at the borough’s quirks as she describes the Center’s efforts to quantify just about everything—from the languages spoken in particular communities to the reasons people with HIV/AIDS fail to get consistent treatment.
Back in 2007, shortly after Maneval took the Center’s helm, the NY Daily News described the program’s raison d’être: “[It is] a resource hub for scholars, business people, and the academically curious looking to do research and analysis on housing and public policy issues affecting the 2.5 million residents of the borough and urban communities in general.”
The idea for the Center came from a conversation between Marilyn Gelber—currently the president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation—and David Eichenthal, former Chief of Staff for Mark Green’s failed 2001 mayoral bid. “After Mark lost the election, David called me and asked if we could have breakfast,” Gelber recalls. “We met and he raised the idea, out of frustration, for a local research center, saying that Brooklyn needed a source of information on borough-wide trends. As we talked we found ourselves wringing our hands over the absence of a daily newspaper in Brooklyn and asked ourselves how we could create a body to analyze and collect data for the borough. Brooklyn College is Brooklyn’s university so it seemed the obvious place for such a center.”
A meeting between Eichenthal, Gelber, and then-College President Christoph Kimmick was arranged and in short order a planning grant from the Independence Community Foundation—where Gelber was working at the time—got the wheels turning. By 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and journalism professor Paul Moses was hired to lead the Center; he left after two years and by the time Maneval replaced him, the four-person staff had determined its current course: Working to give community-based organizations, elected officials, and long-time Brooklyn institutions the numbers they need to buttress their work.
“What we’ve found,” Maneval says, “is that data is usually out there somewhere, in some agency report. But people who are working 12-hour days at their jobs don’t necessarily have the time or skill set to navigate finding it, or to put together maps or charts to illustrate what’s going on where. It’s our job to do this to support them.”
One of the many issues the Center has studied is prenatal care, specifically who gets it and who doesn’t. Ivy Turnbull, chair of the 11-year-old Brooklyn Prenatal Care Coalition, works with women who typically fall through the safety net’s abundant cracks—the homeless, teenagers, and substance abusers. These are people who lack the resources to get medical care before, during, and after giving birth. While anecdotal evidence about this population is in vast supply, the Coalition turned to the Center in 2009 to document which neighborhoods had the largest numbers of women getting late or no medical care during pregnancy and which areas had the highest rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and other STDs.
A several-month survey by Center researchers identified communities with the highest levels of STI transmission and lowest levels of prenatal attention: East New York; Sunset Park; Central Brooklyn; Williamsburg/Bushwick; and Flatbush/East Flatbush. Once the research was completed, the Coalition used the findings strategically—developing a plan to direct outreach to the neighborhoods that need it most. “Our goal is positive birth outcomes,” Turnbull says. “We want to avoid maternal HIV transmission so we work to connect pregnant women with pre-and-post natal care to help insure that they deliver and raise healthy kids.”
Lorna Mason, a Senior Research Associate at the Center, says that providing statistics is essential in helping community activists prove that the work they do is needed. “It also gives people a platform to ask for change,” she says. “We’re not an advocacy organization, but when we find data it lends an aura of legitimacy to those who do programmatic work. What we’re doing is closing the information gap, making hard figures easily accessible to people living and working in Brooklyn.”
The magnitude of this information gap came to the fore in the aftermath of January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, when the United Way and the Brooklyn Community Foundation asked the Center to document the needs of the borough’s more than 86,000 Haitian residents so that the grants they disseminate can be as effective as possible. “We identified 12 diverse groups that serve the Haitian community in Brooklyn,” Maneval says. “Each one collected information on its clients its own way. We developed a standardized intake form that the groups began using in August. By May we’ll have compiled the collected data to learn about income, family composition, employment status, and living arrangements.”
The ongoing Haitian-American research project is being conducted at the same time as several other large-scale initiatives, among them the Brooklyn Trends Report—due out in early 2011—a first-ever study that will not only describe the borough’s demographics, but will also offer information on the labor force, public safety, civic engagement, participation in cultural activities, educational achievement, and inequities in income and health status. Maneval recalls her reaction, and that of her coworkers, when the idea for the Trends Report was initially floated. “We asked ourselves who we were to write this. We realized that we needed to talk to people working in the field to hear what they identified as the most important issues for residents. We brought a cross-section of people in as advisors—100 of them—and they determined what data we needed to collect to illustrate what impacts Brooklyn most.”
Marilyn Gelber hopes the Trends Report will be a boon for both the nonprofit sector and lawmakers. “I think it will clarify community development needs. We’re not a static place,” she says. “This report, which can’t be a one-shot deal, will function as a link between data and policy and will lead to discussions about investment and change.”
The Center is also in the throes of finalizing an online Brooklyn Organizations Directory. “Every community group has its own list of contacts, but we realized that there wasn’t one comprehensive directory for the borough,” Maneval says. “We’ve pulled together lists from a bunch of umbrella groups and have used GuideStar to indentify Brooklyn nonprofits.” The result is a roster of more than 1,000 organizations, searchable by 15 categories including zip code, to connect people with resources.
“A lot of what we do is match-making,” Maneval laughs. “The directory will allow people to be their own matchmakers. All we’re doing is facilitating. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re simply organizing the wheel better.”
To date the Center for the Study of Brooklyn has written 15 reports and has compiled data for a wide array of Brooklyn agencies, from the Brooklyn Borough President’s office to CAMBA and the Lutheran Family Health Center. “Except for people who call us with questions about Brooklyn history, which is not our focus, we’ve said yes to every request that’s come to us,” Maneval boasts. “But we’re almost to the tipping point where demand is starting to exceed staff resources.”
Nonetheless, Maneval exudes enthusiasm and it is clear that she is proud of the work she and the Center have done over the past few years. “It has been an amazing experience to look at the disparities that come of diversity, as well as the opportunities and challenges,” she says. “The most rewarding part of the job has been meeting the many tenacious people who staff community based organizations and who dedicate their lives to the work they do. It’s humbling and exciting that the Center can facilitate linkages between people doing such an incredible job.”
The Center for the Study of Brooklyn is located on the campus of Brooklyn College, 2900 Bedford Avenue, 1209 Ingersoll Hall, Brooklyn, NY 11210, 718.951.5852. Website: www.studybrooklyn.org; Email: CSB@brooklyn.cuny.edu.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader