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Minnesota communities lack safe, affordable housing, leading to instability for too many families. How do we advocate together for lasting policy change in a way that’s empowering rather than extractive, traumatizing, or demoralizing?

On May 31, Fartun Weli, Director and Founder of Isuroon and Michelle Rivero, Director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for the City of Minneapolis, engaged those questions and more in a Facebook Live conversation with MHP Policy Director Elizabeth Glidden.

From left: Glidden, Weli, and Rivero

The event was one of dozens nationwide to elevate housing issues during the #OurHomesOurVoices national housing week of action from May 30 to June 5, coordinated by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Housing stability is a top issue impacting Weli’s clients and their families. Based in Minneapolis, Isuroon is a grassroots nonprofit organization that empowers Somali women by connecting them to wellness information, providing case management for refugees, and promoting leadership and civic engagement.

“We aren’t able to deliver services consistently because our audiences are moving consistently,” Weli explained. “Regardless of immigration status, housing discrimination is alarming for Somali community members. On top of that, once they find housing, families have to choose between buying food for the kids and paying the rent.”

Weli emphasized, however, that these challenges aren’t the whole story. “The larger society wants to hear how bad an immigrant’s life story is,” Weli said. “People are sick and tired of that. We should be talking about empowerment. The real story here is that with a little bit of help, a person can stand on their own two feet. Deficit-based stories perpetuate people not getting off the ground. It demoralizes people.”

A sense of urgency often drives advocacy efforts. But, no matter the issue, the ways in which we engage in advocacy with one another matter; the strength of a movement depends upon the strength of our relationships, Glidden pointed out.

Nonprofits and government entities are recognizing that stories are a powerful tool to motivate lawmakers to address important issues. But people working for these entities must be more thoughtful about who tells stories and how.

Weli explained that access to advocacy is a privilege in and of itself. “If somebody is unstable in terms of housing and resources, they won’t be able to do advocacy because they don’t have time,” Weli said. “That’s what poverty does to people.”

But despite barriers, people directly impacted by issues do indeed engage in advocacy. Sometimes, organizations support these leaders. Other times, they spend too much time at the mic, co-opting opportunities for people with lived experience to tell their own stories and access decision makers directly.

In a Facebook comment, community organizer Linda Soderstrom pointed out that when that happens, people with lived experience are deprived of opportunities to access decisionmakers directly. On top of that, it can be traumatizing to hear someone else tell your story. “When our stories are collected and curated, it retraumatizes us every time,” she wrote.

People who have experienced trauma inflicted by unjust social and economic systems — and who are working to change those systems — occupy a complicated space, Soderstrom later pointed out. “I want to tell, and it hurts to tell,” she wrote.

Rivero provided additional insight on a recently-proposed HUD rule that could break up “mixed status” families who receive federal housing assistance. The rule has not been implemented, and is estimated to impact only a small number of Minnesota families. However, it could have a major impact nationwide.

Rivero emphasized that many Minnesota organizations engaged with immigration law are “extremely attuned to the issue.”

“If it does come to a situation where a final rule is implemented, these legal services organizations will mobilize immediately, in conjunction with community or trusted community organizations, to make sure the public understands the implications of any actual final rule,” Rivero said.

Glidden pointed out that a growing number of Congressional members care about housing. Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, is running for President in 2020, and our junior senator, Tina Smith, serves on the Banking and Monetary Policy Committee, which oversees funding for public and private housing legislation. By contacting our Congressional members, Minnesotans have an important opportunity to raise the profile of housing nationwide.

Watch the video and share it on Facebook.

TAKE ACTION

During the video, presenters encouraged viewers to call and email their Minnesota Congressional representatives to urge them to invest in affordable housing and block discriminatory housing rules. You can take action too!

Send an email message or call your representatives!

LEARN MORE

Check out the following resources shared by Michelle Rivero of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs:

Special thanks to Linda Soderstrom for review and comments on this blog post!