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How the Mel King Institute’s Public Housing Training Program is helping one tenant group to bridge divides amongst residents

August 6th, 2021 by Nadine Sanchara

The public housing residents in Salem have a strong tenants organization, and while they face many challenges, the Mel King Institute’s (MKI) Public Housing Training Program is preparing them to work together towards their common goals. 

In a recent interview with the Mel King Institute, Sue Kirby, the President of the tenant group’s board, said she found the MKI training on race, prejudice and bias to be very important. She highlighted the importance of having this foundation from the beginning. 

“I like that the training starts off by focusing on involving all the residents in the tenant group, and helps us understand and overcome the racial dynamics that can divide us against each other. If you can get tenants thinking that way right off the bat, that’s what’s going to make a difference in the long run,” Sue said. 

The Public Housing Training Program, now known as the Resident Leadership Academy, provides trainings for residents of public housing (and now residents of Community Development Corporations) to support their full participation in the oversight of their housing developments.  

Sue is an experienced organizer, and is also on the board of the Salem Housing Authority. She led one of our trainings last December, and then participated in one with nine other Salem residents this past February. Sue said she especially liked that the training addresses the balance of power at the Housing Authority, and how important it is to involve everybody. 

“As a result of the training, I feel like our tenant groups are speaking the same language. We use the materials to help us make decisions and that takes the ego out of things. Our groups have been fortified and we’ve taken a leap forward in getting things done. There’s less tension in the building and people are more ready to claim ownership of the tenant group instead of staying disengaged or hostile,” Sue stated.  

Sue noted that the Salem Housing Authority has a new Executive Director, and one of her [the ED’s] priorities has been to improve the relationship with the tenants. The tenant group has a meeting with the ED once every month, where they are able to voice their concerns. There have been some improvements to their building, and there are other longer-term issues that are taking longer to be resolved. 

One success she noted was the efforts being made to connect Spanish-speaking residents and make materials more accessible for them. She said Spanish-speaking tenants have experienced some language barriers in the past, but the Housing Authority’s documents are now being translated into Spanish and they also have Spanish robo calls. The tenant group was also recently able to get some translation headphones, so that Spanish-speaking tenants can participate in in-person meetings and events. 

The group continues to work diligently towards their goals. Now that COVID restrictions are easing and the weather in nicer, the group has held its first post-pandemic in-person event: a well-attended barbeque. 

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Mel King Institute Public Housing Training Participants Form New Tenant Groups

July 21st, 2021 by Nadine Sanchara

In spring of 2020, just as COVID was ramping up, Judy O’Kulsky began knocking on her neighbors’ doors at the public housing development where she lives in Belchertown, MA. Judy was able to get her neighbors involved in a newly forming tenant group. As of July 2021, the group has held an election, adopted by-laws, and is on the brink of being “officially recognized.” 

Judy took several trainings with the Mel King Institute’s (MKI) Public Housing Training Program (now known as the Resident Leadership Academy) last summer, fall and spring. The Program provides trainings for residents of public housing to support their full participation in the oversight of their housing developments. She has also worked closely with the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants in getting her LTO up and running. 

In an interview, Judy said getting people on board was slow at first. In many housing developments, residents are held back by fear and sometimes by a sense of hopelessness. After holding many conversations with residents, Judy and others have been able to overcome these barriers and involvement has been good. Eleven people from the Belchertown development participated in the MKI training on how to start a tenants’ organization.  

“As a result of the training, people are excited to get a tenants organization up and running. The training has breathed new life into this place. We’re pretty darn amazing to be able to get this far during COVID! If we can get a tenants’ organization up and running during COVID, there’s nothing we can’t do,” said Judy. 

Over in Greenfield, MA, the residents at the Elm Street development have also started an official tenant group. Along the way, the group experienced some roadblocks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview with MKI, Greenfield resident L’aura Jordan said the tenant group had some months of inactivity. Participation is relatively low at virtual meetings since many residents do not have access to, or knowledge about, the technology required to attend the meetings.  

L’aura also said that some members of their group do not have much experience and understanding of organizing, and that can be a challenge. Despite these challenges, L’aura was happy to report that as a group, they are having important conversations about bridging divides amongst tenants. She said the MKI training has helped them to brainstorm about steps they can take, and that that hearing from other participants at the trainings about their experiences and about what worked for them was very helpful.  

“I’m really grateful that I have had the chance to participate in the trainings, and I hope I can do more, because it has given me tools and awareness that have made a huge difference in how I approach my work in my community,” said L’aura. 

We also interviewed Randi Parks, a Greenfield resident who serves on the Greenfield Housing Authority board. Randi reports that the MKI training is helping residents to learn the system so that they can change, and then help others to change. Randi said she learned a lot about housing through the training, and it helped her to gain the confidence to speak up and act. 

“Everything I know about housing and the board is all because of the Mel King Institute. I wouldn’t have had any other way to learn it. I used to be scared and just sit back and listen at the board meetings, but I realized that I don’t have to do that anymore. I have more backbone because I get what’s going on now. It makes a lot of difference when I know what’s going on.” 

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Being an “Other” in America: Reflections from an Undoing Racism workshop

October 25th, 2019 by Nadine Sanchara

“Why is it important for you and your organization/institution to undo racism?” This question was posed to participants on the opening night of The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism training. As everyone in the room introduced themselves and answered this question, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Can racism even be undone?”

In September, three MACDC staff members and two resident leaders in the Mel King Institute’s Public Housing Training Program participated in the Undoing Racism workshop. The two-and-a-half-day workshop challenges participants to analyze the structures of power and privilege that hinder social equity, and prepare them to be effective organizers for justice.

Anti-racism training is mandatory for all MACDC staff members, as part of our internal efforts to advance racial equity. This year, our newest staff members, Communications and Operations Fellow (that’s me), Nadine Sanchara, and the Mel King Institute’s Community Engagement Fellow, Bianca Diaz, participated in The People’s Institute Undoing Racism training. Manager of the Public Housing Training Program, Sarah Byrnes, did the training for the second time, this time alongside two residents in the program.

The training took place at Tent City’s Community Room, which, given its history, was quite an appropriate location. About 40 participants sat in a circle in the large room, a deliberate set up so that we can look at each other, and everyone would be equally engaged. The first night of the training was set aside for introductions. Once that was out of the way, the next two full days were available for a deep dive into racism in America and how it impacts community organizing.

We examined the history of racism and explored topics such as power, internalized superiority/inferiority, and gatekeeping, among others. Many difficult, but necessary, conversations were had. One thing in particular that stuck with me was the use of language to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Even as a person who works in communications every day, I often fail to think about the words I use and what they mean to the people they are describing – often because many of these words and phrases have become socially acceptable.

Another part of the training that stood out to me was a segment where everyone had to say what they liked about being of a particular ethnic group. People were grouped into the “standard” ethnic groups: White, Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous. I had some difficulty answering this question. I am of Indian descent, born and raised in Guyana, South America. I identify as Indo-Guyanese or Indo-Caribbean. I moved to the US four years ago and that was when I became “Asian,” since I often have no other choice but to check the box for Asian when filling out paperwork. This really made me think of how people are sometimes forced into certain boxes. America is so diverse, yet everyone must somehow fit into these five categories. Sometimes, when I’m asked the race/ethnicity question, I completely ignore the boxes and write my own thing. I feel a little rebellious when doing this, but it’s my tiny effort to step out of the box.

One resident leader who attended the training said, “It was intense and very much needed. I look forward to applying all I learned to my work with other residents.” As for me, I left on the final day of the training with the realization that I have some introspection to do, and a lot to learn. Whether racism can be undone, I am optimistic, but I think it will be a long and difficult process. The trainers emphasized that this work must be done “from the grassroots up, and from the insides out.” So, I will start with myself and with those closest to me. I have a list of books to read, and podcasts to listen to. I will try my best to think more critically about my words and my actions. And I plan to continue to have those difficult conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues.

 

 

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The Mel King Institute’s Public Housing Training Program trains hundreds of residents across Massachusetts

August 26th, 2019 by Nadine Sanchara

PHTP particpants at a recent training in Ludlow.

“Before the (PHTP) training, I didn’t understand the way things work… The training is serious. I like to say it’s like an oracle, it gives answers.”

Those were the words of Nicole Beckles, a resident leader and peer trainer in the Public Housing Training Program. Nicole gave a moving testimonial of her participation in the program at the Mel King Institute’s 10th Anniversary Breakfast in June.

“Changes to public housing don’t affect where other people lay their heads at night, not the Housing Authority staff, or the legislators, the changes affect public housing residents, where we live every day and raise our kids. This is why this program of training residents to understand the process and giving and getting involved is so important. This is why I’m involved,” she continued.

Since its first training in 2017, the Public Housing Training Program (PHTP) has trained more than 200 residents across the Commonwealth, arming them with the knowledge they need to fully participate in the oversight of their housing developments. A recent evaluation report of the program showed that it is building resident leadership skills and knowledge in a variety of areas such as budgets, tenants’ rights, conflict resolution, community building, etc.

The Mel King Institute for Community Building launched the Public Housing Tenant Training Program in 2016 with the purpose of increasing the voice of residents as stakeholders in decision-making in public housing management and administration. Trainings are all conducted by Sarah Byrnes, Manager of the MKI Public Housing Training Program, along with co-trainers and residents.

Director of the Mel King Institute, Shirronda Almeida said, “We are proud to have this effort under the MKI umbrella. The program reaches residents in public housing across the state and gives them the tools necessary to be leaders within their housing authority.  When we hear from these residents, we learn about the powerful impact the training and networking opportunities is having in their lives, and communities.”

Though the Mel King Institute is based in Boston, trainings are conducted across Massachusetts. Recently, Sarah drove out to Western MA for a week of trainings. The week started in Great Barrington with a learning session with two resident board members, followed by two days of resident leader training, and concluded with a resident board member training in Ludlow.

The trainings in Great Barrington were attended by residents of the community who are working to address challenges around maintenance and other issues. Great Barrington residents take great pride in the physical landscape and beauty of the town, and many of them do their own gardening and landscaping. Peer Trainer Mildred Valentin Torres helped run the training, sharing her lessons of working with tenant groups in Chelsea.

Participants had the chance to sharpen their skills in team building, outreach, conflict resolution and running meetings, as well as the opportunity to learn about state regulations and tenant protections, and how to build a strong tenant organization.

In Ludlow, residents from five housing authorities in the area, including Ludlow itself, participated in the resident board member training. Jessica Quinonez, the Resident Board Member in Springfield, helped out as a Peer Trainer.

Resident board members enjoy meeting each other and being able to share and learn from each other’s experiences and challenges. In addition to networking, participants of this training had the opportunity to learn about budgets, capital plans, and the overall role of the board member.

Moving forward, the residents and resident board members who participated in these trainings will receive continued support from our partner, the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants. They will also be invited to the ongoing learning community supported by the Public Housing Training Program, which provides regular online meet ups and scholarships to other Mel King Institute trainings.

To learn more about the Public Housing Training Program, please contact Program Manager, Sarah Byrnes at sarahb@macdc.org

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Secretary Kennealy and Undersecretary Chan Visit MACDC Members’ Affordable Housing Projects

August 6th, 2019 by Nadine Sanchara

Secretary Kennealy on a visit to Valley Community Development's Sergeant House, a 31-unit supportive housing development in Northampton

MACDC would like to thank Secretary Mike Kennealy, and Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development, Janelle Chan, for taking the time to visit affordable housing projects across Massachusetts.

On August 6, they will be concluding a three-week long tour of 28 affordable housing projects. We are thrilled that they visited the real estate development projects of five MACDC members:

2Life Communities: The 132 Chestnut Hill Avenue project in Brighton boasts 61 units of affordable senior housing.

B’nai B’rith: A vacant elementary school in Swampscott is being redeveloped into affordable housing units for seniors.

B’nai B’rith: Phase 2 of The Coolidge project in Sudbury is currently in development and, when concluded, will add 56 units of affordable housing for seniors.

Housing Corporation of Arlington: The Downing Square project in Arlington spans two sites with a total of 48 units, including 16 deeply affordable, five units for homeless tenants, and a space for a food pantry.

Valley CDC: The Sergeant House Expansion project in Northampton consists of the renovation of 15 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units, and the construction of 16 new SRO units.

Valley CDC: The Lumber Yard project in Northampton is redeveloping the former Northampton Lumber Company into 55 units of family rental housing and commercial space.

Way Finders: The Live 155 project in Northampton is a 70-unit transit-oriented development, 47 of these units being affordable housing, with access to support services for tenants.

 

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