While managing four graduate classes and assistantships, first-year Stevenson Center Fellows still find time for additional learning opportunities. This fall, several fellows served as moderators for the annual Housing Matters! Conference organized by Housing Action Illinois.
For the first time, the conference was both entirely virtual and part of a larger event, the Strengthening Resilient Communities forum organized by the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations. This partnership resulted in the Fellows’ access to a broader range of topics and speakers discussing interrelated issues surrounding community and economic development, with an emphasis on racial discrimination and housing policies. Renowned historian and author Ibram X. Kendi was one of the keynote speakers.
Two of the Fellows who moderated online discussions and attended sessions left the conference both encouraged and eager to learn more about how they could apply the things they learned in their communities.
Natasha Moodie, an Applied Community and Economic Development Fellow in sociology, initially attended the conference because she wanted to learn more about an important topic in community development today. “I volunteered for the conference because my knowledge about the housing industry is currently limited, but I recognize the importance of understanding housing in community development,” she said. Before joining the Stevenson Center, Moodie worked mostly in education, including service with Teach For America.
Moodie learned about the courage and effort of many people from across the country who are working to ensure better and fairer access to affordable housing: “The main point highlighted by all of my sessions was around intentionality. The presenters from public health, housing, finance, community development, (and) municipal government all stated that working simply within the designed system would still be detrimental to low-income marginalized communities. It takes a holistic and intentional commitment to anti-discriminatory and anti-racist practices to truly change the lives and experiences of residents in low-income communities.”
Peace Corps Fellow in political science Haley Ehlers volunteered for the conference due to her existing interest in the topic. “I see housing as central to community and economic development in the United States,” Ehlers said. “All people should have access to safe and affordable housing. I’m especially interested in the relationship between housing policy and environmental policy, or rather the lack of relationship between the two areas.” As a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2016 to 2018, Ehlers learned about development issues directly in Timor-Leste and can now continue to extend that knowledge in the U.S.
Ehlers said the sessions she attended are highly relevant to the current unprecedented public health crisis: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on how interconnected environmental conditions of housing and the health of residents is, and how these environmental health disparities are highest in communities of color.”
Both Moodie and Ehlers are grateful to Housing Action Illinois for the opportunity to participate in the conference, which renewed their commitments to community development and social justice.
“This experience was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had this semester,” Moodie said. “It pushed my thinking and forced me to control my own complacency within the system and how I could be contributing to perpetuating racist and discriminatory systems. The lessons I learned during that conference will influence my thesis and my future work in community development.”
For those interested in becoming a Stevenson Center Fellow like Moodie or Ehlers, the Stevenson Center is now accepting applications for fall 2021.
Dani Park is the Stevenson Center’s public relations graduate assistant.