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Learning to ‘Be the Change’ in Fairfield County

Learning to ‘Be the Change’ in Fairfield County

By Eman Quotah, in conversation with Christie Stewart, Director, Fairfield County's Center for Housing Opportunity

When Fairfield County published its CaseMaking playbook, “The Way Forward: A New Narrative for Housing in Fairfield County," in 2020, local housing advocates like the Center for Housing Opportunity’s Christie Stewart were excited about having a new, resident-informed way to talk about and tackle housing opportunity.

Based on interviews with more 150 residents from all walks of life, the playbook avoids the pitfalls of past efforts to build public will for housing.

It reinforces shared values, makes everyday residents the hero of the story, and makes the case that an investment in affordable housing is an investment in the future. It helps people see what Fairfield County loses when parents work long hours to afford to live there, teachers turn down jobs because of home prices, young people move away, and seniors can’t afford to downsize near their families.

Stewart didn’t want to see the playbook sit on a shelf.

“We needed to figure out how to operationalize it in a meaningful way,” she says. “And we wanted to build the power of residents who have traditionally been marginalized at various decision-making tables. Everyone has a housing story to tell.”

Bringing Forward New Champions

The solution was to build a “community of practice” — a group of people invested in the community who could learn from each other and support each other as they honed their CaseMaking skills.

So, TheCaseMade and the Center for Housing Opportunity created a learning program, Be the Change, that included 8 sessions on the fundamentals of CaseMaking as well as open sessions during which participants could practice the skills they’d learned.

With support from the Melville Charitable Trust, which also funded the playbook, Stewart recruited three dozen people: one third residents with lived experience, one third human service organization partners, and one third municipal officials.

Resident leaders (anyone not participating as part of their job) received an $800 stipend.

“I wanted to include as many people as I could afford to,” Stewart says. “Our collective impact initiatives already had relationships with residents with lived experience, which we leveraged.”

Stewart wanted to make sure the group of participants was racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse and came from both urban and suburban areas of the county. They included renters and homeowners, as well as people who’d experienced housing instability or rent burden.

Because land-use decision making happens locally in Connecticut, rather than at the county level, residents of one town can’t generally stand up at a hearing in another town, Stewart says.

For that reason, she says, “We have to get as broad a geographic spread as we can of people who understand how to make the case for housing affordability as a critical part of any equitable and vibrant community. If you’re a resident of a community and can make a cogent argument for why land-use decisions should be made around housing affordability, that has a lot of power.”

Empowered to Make the Case

Stewart says it’s important to acknowledge that participants come with different levels of knowledge about affordable housing issues. She surveyed participants before the program began to learn not only their demographics but also their level of comfort with advocating for housing justice.

“There were a couple folks who were highly knowledgeable, and talked a lot and wanted to dive into their town’s issues,” she says. “Then there were folks who had experienced housing instability and were trying to wrap their heads around the goals of Be the Change.”

Given the nature of people’s busy lives, Stewart didn’t expect everyone to stick with the program to the very end. Those most likely to attend regularly were resident leaders, she says.

In the beginning, participants had to learn that they weren’t being brought together to air their concerns, as so often is the case in public forums. Soon, they started to understand there are things we can do in our everyday lives — at work, as a neighbor, in our communities — that influence housing, like speaking at public hearings and speaking to others about land-use and housing issues.

“The folks who stuck with the program told us they felt empowered to get involved, to make their case,” she says. “And to connect the dots between this Strategic CaseMaking and policymaking decisions that get made and how they can make sure their voices are heard at decision-making tables. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like my housing, and stop there.’ They came away understanding, ‘I could take some action to change that. I can advocate for someone else.’”

Building Momentum

Stewart says Be the Change resident alumni will be invited to join a resident-led coalition of grassroots housing advocates. The Center for Housing Opportunity also aims to help people get involved on decision-making boards and run for town councils.

Stewart would also like to see two Be the Change alumni join a new resident-led coalition for housing equity her organization is forming. And she’s hoping to bring resident-led narrative change to other parts of Connecticut in the future as well.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive,” she says. “The first step is getting low-income renters of color to see themselves having a role at decision-making tables. That’s a huge step forward. Narrative change doesn’t work when it’s just one organization talking.”

IN A NUTSHELL: 4 Keys to Bringing Forward Residents as Champions

1. Use existing partnerships to recruit a diverse group.

2. Pay a stipend to residents who participate in training.

3. Create a training environment that builds community and belonging.

4. Help residents identify how they want to get involved after they’ve been trained.

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