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.”