4 Years and 1 Global Pandemic Later – Keep Curious and Be Brave

Written by Jeanette Moss – Director of Strategy and Development at Co:Here Community. 

This is my 5th year of working for Salsbury Community Society (SCS) at Co:Here. Co:Here community is a group of people who live in a rental apartment building built on Grandview Church’s parking lot and operated by Salsbury Community Society (SCS).  SCS provides affordable housing with support for people from a range of backgrounds and works to foster a culture of neighbourliness.  

Five years 

As I look back at that first year before moving into the brand new building, I recall that it was such an intense time. For a small staff team of three, there was so much to do getting the building ready, screening applications and inviting the initial group of tenants, working with construction crews and tradespeople, setting up organizational and financial systems, and… and…. 

It was overwhelmingly challenging, but it was also a bit of a thrilling ride. 

As part of the senior leadership team, I felt responsible to take care of a multitude of embryonic ideas and plans and likened myself to an over-tired mother bird, fiercely protecting her nest of ‘idea’ eggs. Sometimes I forgot that I wasn’t ’the mom’ and that the building was built to stand strong, filled with capable and thoughtful people who had strengths and ideas of their own to offer. I just needed to lift my gaze and lighten my grip. Not realizing it then, I wish someone would have told me I didn’t have to protect our ideas of how things should be. 

Have you ever felt like that? That you might be overly invested in the success of the things you were working on? Ummmm… feel like parenting, anyone?  No?  Guess it’s just me.  

From those early days of Co:Here, I became increasingly aware of a paternalistic dynamic between our role as “landlord or operator” and the tenants we help house. I also began to recognize my own unhealthy need for Co:Here to “succeed.” In her book This Rise, Sarah Lewis writes about the difference between having success and mastering something – that mastery is a commitment not to a goal but to a constant pursuit.  “It’s in the reaching, not the arriving.” As housing operators, we have a kind of power and responsibility to pursue a healthier way of relating with staff and tenants, one that is marked not only by policy and power but also by curiosity and bravery. This keeps us reaching, and as we reach, we learn more. 

How can we landlords and housing operators hold power and authority in one hand and reach for vulnerable leadership with the other? 

Keep curious

When I think about how Co:Here began, I see that we – SCS team members – spent a lot of time trying to be right, justifying our tactics and focusing constantly on what the “next right thing to do” was. It was a kind of battle, and, it turns out, having to be the “knower” and always being right is heavy armor to wear. Needing to know everything was pretty miserable for “we the knowers” and, sadly, for everyone around us. It led to some bad decisions, (un)productive conflict, and distrust. 

To have tenants questioning SCS about how decisions were being made shouldn’t have been as uncomfortable as it was. But this discomfort actually played an important role because with tenants, we co-created the Community Builders Group (CBG). This became a pivotal step forward in our maturing journey. With an emphasis on training and equipping community members with the tools to be good neighbours, the Community Builders Group at Co:Here began to play an important role in providing the relational foundation for staff and tenants to set community norms and respond to conflicts. The CBG was established in the first year of Co:Here opening, and, going forward, if/when we operate additional sites, it’s our intent to spark CBG’s in each one.  As we learn to share responsibility together, we nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity about our community. Through consensus decision-making, this group helps by coordinating decisions, support, and education. 

The CBG is a unique opportunity for us to work together to build trust and discuss the health and well-being of the community. When things get hard, we use our agreed-upon processes to wade through the murky waters together. So when Covid hit, the CBG kicked into gear and supported the community through neighbour check-ins, meal trains, grocery shopping, and prescription pick-ups. When SCS team members couldn’t come onsite, we “Zoomed in” with tenants, which meant we met more frequently, to hash out how to care for operations and people. When I look back on the last year, I’m easily brought to tears – filled with gratitude and joy on seeing the community step into the call of being good neighbours to one another. 

Instead of deciding what our tenants need, how can we landlords and operators foster curiosity so that relevant solutions emerge? 

Be brave gosh darn it

Operating “safe” housing is a common benchmark for many housing organizations, but when we house people who have experienced generational trauma, the bar of what safe means is hard to nail down. It is common sense to have fire extinguishers, emergency instructions, and first aid kits on each residential floor. But do staff and neighbours know how to listen to someone who feels psychologically unsafe because when they see people praying in the common room, it reminds them of the residential schools that housed their grandparents and parents? At Co:here, we prefer the idea of co-creating brave housing. Brave housing looks like staying with people in an awkward conversation about how our actions impact them.  It looks like listening hard to what others are saying and recognizing that we see them. And this takes time. 

SCS is slowly growing to help train and skill team members and tenants to do some of this work because the long lasting impacts of colonialism are still being felt in our communities today.  Safety plans and first aid kits are really important, as are locks on people’s doors. However, operating housing where people can feel safe to become known takes a long-game strategy. It consists of engaging in tiny, intentional actions of bravery and being present to people in their pain. It also demands housing operators to dig deep and have courage  as we attempt to dismantle systems that have oppressed people: like paternalism, white body supremacy, individualism, and capitalism. These systems specifically have run rampant in Canadian housing strategies.  

Operationally-speaking, bravery can look like putting resources towards training to equip people so they have skills needed for hard conversations. Or workshops on toxic masculinity, active listening, conflict resolution framework-developing. And hiring team members that have skill in these areas, not only people who have a ‘big heart’, determination, and shared values.  We need brave team members with developing skills.

How do we help ourselves, staff and tenants become brave?  

Final thoughts

As a housing operator at Co:Here, I embody many roles: part community labourer and part community-doula (metaphorically speaking); part janitor and part overseer, part mediator and part coach. And if it’s a good day, I get to be a companion on the shared road of life in the present. Some of the parts allow me to have – require me to have – a sense of control, and that can be difficult. It is important for me to keep open to growing and learning so I can collaborate with others even when my title says I’m in charge.  

My observation is that when people talk about housing, it’s fairly two-dimensional: landlord and tenants… property and people… this department or that department… a new policy or a complaint form… us and them. It all sounds so simple.  But it is SO far from simple. 

Many have said that Covid has been the largest social experiment in history – testing our levels of trust and challenging the social fabric of how willing (or unwilling) we are to be there for each other in difficult times. I hope the last 17 months has helped me keep reaching for more social courage to stay curious and be brave. I wonder how other landlords and housing operators would characterize this time.

What are you reaching for? What have you learned or been surprised by?

I’d love to hear from you at jeanette@salsburycs.ca