Dear President Hamilton:
We, members of the Collective Action for Puerto Rico (CAPR), would like to begin by applauding NYU’s participation in the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program (HMAP) for the Spring 2018 semester. As you know, HMAP has saved lives by addressing key social determinants of health, particularly by providing students with safe housing and access to clean foods and water as they pursue academic endeavors that will allow them to pour economic resources back into their communities.
In light of this, we feel compelled to share a key finding of the ecological devastation reported on Puerto Rico in The Souls of Poor Folk, an assessment of the conditions today and trends of the past 50 years in the United States. This key finding, appropriately, highlights a building movement across the nation which elevates the narratives of poor individuals to the forefront of policy change. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival incorporates these key findings around ecological devastation directly into their platform, forcing us to recognize how intimately our moral choices affect the lives of young, poor, Puerto Rican individuals. The report on Puerto Rico states:
The tragic effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico in 2017 are a disturbing example of rising climate change threats, particularly for the poor. Catastrophic events like hurricanes and flooding are partly attributable to climate change and are expected to become more frequent. When Maria hit Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate was already 43.5%, almost the entire island lost access to electricity.
Two months later, more than half of the island’s residents still lacked power and about 9% lacked water. The delay was partly due to the poor state of the island’s infrastructure, which had been allowed to deteriorate as the U.S. Congress pressured the island to prioritize debt payments to Wall Street. Further, a New York Times analysis indicates as many as 1,025 people may have died as a result of the hurricane.
Hurricane season begins again on Friday, June 1. On that day and in cooperation with the Poor People’s Campaign New York Chapter and our Collective Action for Puerto Rico (CAPR) members, we will lead a National Day of Action. This citywide event will include leaders from an estimated 100 houses of worship across the 5 boroughs, and it will call attention to the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico. With the help of our communities and the media, we will draw attention to the systemic issues that have not valued the lives of Puerto Rican people, sacrificing them to climate change, failing infrastructure, and continued neglect by government agencies.
As stated, we applaud NYU for activating the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program (HMAP). However, we are aware that there are many students requesting to be heard in their request to extend their stay for an extra semester. In your letter to these HMAP students dated May 2, 2018, you conclude that “extending [NYU’s] program would in fact cause harm to their own recovery efforts.” Members of CAPR have completed multiple field trips to Puerto Rico and can conclude that this is not the case. We are only beginning to assess infrastructure needs, as so many residential homes remain uninhabitable – blue tarps are visible across the entire island from satellite images indicating the extent of the problem.
To put it simply, daily life in Puerto Rico is anything but normal and despite the status of its institutions, families are far from recovery. Nearly 8 months since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico continues to struggle, communities are in the dark, and access to healthcare is limited, including mental health services, which are desperately needed as evidenced by the climbing rates of suicide and self-reported rates of depression and anxiety. Many of the University of Puerto Rico students we know continue to struggle on a daily basis as the economic realities of their families have changed. Access to books and resources are a challenge to many. This is exacerbated by the inconsistent service of power and water in many communities. It is erroneous to assume that because the institutions may be functioning, the lives of the students have stabilized.
We respectfully request that you meet with us so that we may share our findings in more detail. And we ask that HMAP benefits be reevaluated on a case-by-case basis. Every student deserves to be heard. We will stand with you to listen to them; we must act on what is right and good for each student to continue their academic study. This is our obligation as Americans, and we implore you not to let NYU relinquish its moral responsibility to these students who “humbly request that you consider the reality under which HMAP was first conceptualized, compare it to the one [they] face today, and then consider [their] proposal to extend the program from its original one-semester plan to a two-semester plan.”
With faith and prayer, we move confidently forward that our actions are not in vain. We look forward to your response.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister – Middle Collegiate Church, UCC
Rob Stephens, Minister for Congregational Life – Middle Collegiate Church, UCC
Edna Benitez, Deacon – Middle Collegiate Church, UCC
Rev. Dr. Damaris D. Whittaker, Senior Minister – Fort Washington Collegiate Church, UCC
Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, J.D. – Intersections International
Jonathan Soto, Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives – Union Theological Seminary
Jorge Fontanez, CEO & Founder – Marca Studio (NYU Stern 2007)
J. Michael Wiener, M.D., M.P.H.
The Collective Action for Puerto Rico (CAPR) is a collective of faith-based organizations, community leaders and concerned citizens of the U.S. and of the Puerto Rican diaspora, based in New York City and includes support from Union Theological Seminary, the United Church of Christ, the Collegiate Churches of New York, Middle Collegiate Church, Fort Washington Collegiate Church, Intersections International and the Bronx Coalition for Hurricane Maria Evacuees.