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

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.