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Piano0-AUTO8Quality

One hot July evening, I had a conversation with a contractor that literally went as follows:

After pitching my green collar jobs idea, he responded:

“Wayne County?!?! Wayne County has the laziest people I’ve ever met. Nothing is ever going to work in Wayne County. Everyone just pulls SSI or welfare checks and they don’t want to ever do anything else.”

I responded,

“Well I’m seeing a lot of good things happening in Wayne County. And as for the people who you’re talking about, my program is going to help get them back to work.”

“Well,” he said, “I certainly hope you’re not planning on changing anyone. People never change. You need to learn that.” “I disagree with that.” “Well, you’ll change your mind eventually. You can’t just be serving some ‘higher green purpose.’” He waved his hands in the air mockingly. “All you can do is find something that makes money, raise a good family, and try to be an honest man. But if you want to stay in West Virginia, you’re going to have a hard time even just doing that, I guarantee. There just aren’t any opportunities here and people are lazy.”

His view of HUD and the need for housing assistance in general was even more discouraging, but I’ll spare you. This contractor is not, by any means, alone in his sentiments. I wish my recording of this conversation were an embellishment. It is not in the slightest.

Most disturbing of all to me were the contractor’s thoughts on the people of Wayne County (and on people in general, for that matter). Unfortunately, I have heard, time and time again, similar sentiments among many individuals in West Virginia-even individuals in the housing and community development field. I have literally heard statements such as “you can’t trust poor people in nice homes because they don’t know how to take care of things.” Or, “all that lives in public housing are pill heads and welfare moms.” Worse yet, “these people are just stupid and they deserve what they get.”

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Now, I have seen with my own eyes some pretty bad situations on public housing grounds and in private complexes dominated by Section 8 vouchers. I will admit that tenants sometimes make unwise decisions. Yet for every criticism of public housing, I can retort with a criticism of wealthier neighborhoods. Should every measure be taken to ensure public housing is a safe, decent, and enjoyable place to live? Of course, and that will sometimes mean making the difficult decision to evict a person. But bashing residents and demeaning them in both subtle and not so subtle ways does nothing to accomplish providing safe, decent, enjoyable living quarters.

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Be the economy you want to see in West Virginia

It is my firm belief that any person in the housing and community development business must believe in those whom they serve. We must believe that our tenants and clients are capable of changing for the better. We must believe that they have the capacity to succeed in life. We must not rush to judgment. We must encourage them. We must be patient. Sometimes, we must do all of this despite the evidence before us.

A public housing tenant once expressed her frustration to me that “people assume when you’re poor that you’re stupid. And ultimate oppression happens,” she said with a quivering voice, “when we buy into what others are telling us we are. We allow their negative beliefs about us to become our belief about ourselves. We let others decide for us who we are and what we’re capable of. That’s oppression, and it’s awful, awful hard to get out of it once you’re in that mindset.”

It is my firm belief that any person in the housing and community development business must believe in those whom they serve. We must believe that our tenants and clients are capable of changing for the better. We must believe that they have the capacity to succeed in life. We must not rush to judgment. We must encourage them. We must be patient. Sometimes, we must do all of this despite the evidence before us. A public housing tenant once expressed her frustration to me that “people assume when you’re poor that you’re stupid. And ultimate oppression happens,” she said with a quivering voice, “when we buy into what others are telling us we are. We allow their negative beliefs about us to become our belief about ourselves. We let others decide for us who we are and what we’re capable of. That’s oppression, and it’s awful, awful hard to get out of it once you’re in that mindset.”

Instead of contributing to this oppressive mindset adopted by so many tenants, we must affirm their value as people. Perhaps we must push them to push themselves. Perhaps we must go beyond our written job descriptions and find new, creative ways to inspire them, encourage them, motivate them, and empower them. I’ve learned that all national organizations are moving affordable housing toward becoming more holistic in the services provided. It seems that to win any grant (and indeed I’ve written many this summer), you must offer supportive services. It’s no longer enough just to provide a house and collect reduced rent payments. This is a very good direction for the affordable housing field to move in.

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Oftentimes, we will have to believe in people even despite the evidence before us. This does not mean we ignore the flaws and mistakes a person makes, or that we do not deal appropriately with these mistakes. It does mean, however, that we refuse to allow ourselves to get dragged down in trash talk and people bashing. It does mean we refuse to take the easy route that so many others take, the route of negativism and fatalism. When in meetings, people will offer reason after reason into the discussion as to what’s wrong with a community or why an idea or program won’t work. Yet when it comes time for solutions and ideas, there is generally much less spirited discussion. We must be the ones to speak up and offer ideas. And talk will never, ever be enough. We must also be the ones to act upon ideas.

Central to all of this is trust. The biggest impediment to success in Wayne County, in West Virginia, and in any community development effort is lack of trust. Let us count the ways mistrust infiltrates community development: there is mistrust between tenants and housing providers, between organizations, between counties, between towns, between rival public officials, between employees, between neighborhoods, between races, between genders, between different age groups, between people of differing religious beliefs, between professions, between sectors (private, nonprofit, public), between people of different income levels, between people of varying education levels. Then there is lack of trust in people not from West Virginia, or even people not from our particular county. And of course, there is a lack of trust in all things associated with government. I’ve personally witnessed each form of mistrust this summer.

But just as trust can be broken down, it can be built up. Building trust begins with believing in each other. It begins with respecting and valuing people.

Brandon Dennison - Reflections on my Work

1 Comment

  1. Thomas McEntee July 11, 2017
    Reply

    To use one’s advanced education not as a ticket out of poverty and depression but as a means to uplift your community is immensely inspiring. Your story appeared in the 7-8 July weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and I was very interested in what you’re doing. Be resolute, see it through.

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