Breaking from the Past

June 3, 2018

“But we’ve always done it this way.” 


It’s something newcomers to Roosevelt Island hear a lot when they go to volunteer their time with an organization. Traditions are important, of course. They help keep a community rooted in its collective past. But they can also make it hard for new ideas and new traditions to flourish. 


So it was heartening and inspiring to hear the lively, congenial, and solution-focused debate at the last Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association Common Council meeting around how to better serve a rapidly changing Island. If RIRA hopes to continue to serve as the voice for all Islanders and to positively influence policy and life on Roosevelt Island, they will have to remain dynamic. They will have to be willing to change.


One idea Southtown member Janet Falk offered was to reformulate how representatives to the Council are selected: rather than electing them by building, focus instead on bringing together our community stakeholders. In such a model, representatives from various community groups – such as the Garden Club, the Tennis Association, the Parent’s Network, the Disabled Association, and so on – would choose a member to attend RIRA meetings and discuss their challenges, goals, and the impact of policies on their own membership. It would also give them an opportunity to discover and explore common interests, resulting in new partnerships for new initiatives. This is similar to the way the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition, a group created to represent the Island organizations’ interests around the development of Cornell Tech – operates. 


The idea isn’t without its own challenges: Who decides who the community stakeholders are? And what about those of us who don’t belong to an organized group? But, it is also ripe with possibilities. For many of us, our ties to the community come not from our building, but from the like-minded groups we connect with, whether that’s dog owners, parents, seniors, or international students. Who do you trust to best represent your voice on the Island? 


This isn’t an appeal to toss away tradition for every new fad. Sometimes, the reason it’s always been done that way is because other ways were tried and failed. But far too often, it’s because of ego, fear, or apathy. To listen critically to new ideas can be the smartest and most courageous thing an organization does. It can also save them.




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