SCS Housing: Unfolding and Unlearning As We Go
“You are not breaking. You are not broken. You are unfolding” – Luca Fogale “Unfolding” song lyric
At a local neighbourhood meeting 25 years ago, a mental health advocacy group asked local churches what they were doing for the increasing number of homeless people. At the time, Grandview church wasn’t doing much. After that meeting a few members of the church formed Salsbury Community Society (SCS) and they began to operate three community houses in the neighbourhood. The idea was to bring a diverse group of people together and share life in an increasingly unaffordable neighbourhood. The “host community” in each house were often people from Grandview Church, and they invited people who needed housing to live there alongside them.
Gentrification moved through the neighbourhood and more people needed housing – Salsbury was compelled to think bigger than just a few houses. We began dreaming and planning CoHere: a medium sized building that would use a similar housing model to the one we had used in our small houses. Deeply affordable housing with 26 contained suites, built on top of the Church’s parking lot. It was designed for connection: lots of amenity space and gardens that drew people together.
SCS has a long history as an organization adjacent to Grandview Church. We are literally across the street. As we grow and mature as an organization, we want to be thoughtful about our associations; what they mean to the individuals we serve. Just as non-profit organizations are asked to communicate their affiliations (i.e. funding sources, partners, etc), we need opportunities to reflect how our affiliations shape understandings. Who SCS is, in relation to “the church” has been something we’ve been talking about as an organization. We’ve also been listening to what our Co:Here community (tenants, funders, staff, volunteers etc.) think. Clarifying real (or perceived) affiliations has been key to our development as we co-create an authentic community together.
In the spirit of practicing vulnerable leadership, I am going to pull the curtain back and share some of our learnings and unlearnings – hoping that it might help others along the way. Our experiences teach us important lessons. Here are four stories that reflect an aspect of life together at Co:Here. Each begins with an SCS value as we define it and a reflection on that value related to the learning and/or need for unlearning.
Grace: “We offer one another forgiveness, knowing that we love poorly; acts of restoration, knowing that we are all in this together; and laughter, knowing that it is the best medicine.”
A Co:Here tenant was triggered after they saw people praying in the reflection room. They let us know that it reminded them of the residential school that housed their grandparents and parents. Later, the same tenant came down and carefully removed the Christain art and imagery on the main floor. They placed all the art pieces in a neat pile and centered them on a large table in the common dining hall. The tenant later told me that having it on the walls was too painful and that leaving the art on the table was a statement of resistance. SCS staff and tenants decided to leave the art off the walls, even after the tenant moved out. We are grateful for their courage to share with us what they experienced at Co:Here, grateful that we were prompted to think critically about SCS’s relationship with the church, the perceptions and operational impacts of our affiliations.
Over the course of our short history, SCS has been further challenged by revelations of the institutional church’s role in removing indigenous children from their families, and forcibly housing in residential schools. SCS staff and board have been on a learning journey of decolonization; and the unfolding complexity of investing in Co:Here while seeing the ways affiliations in the neighbourhood impact our community.
Grace in action: Through this experience and others, we have offered apologies and one another forgiveness knowing that we love poorly. And we have seen acts of restoration – a sign that we are on a learning journey together.
Belonging: “We cultivate community life in which every person feels important and accepted…”
Early after Co:Here opened, SCS staff and the Community Formation Committee (tenants, SCS volunteers and staff) began to discuss the inherent power imbalances present in the language we used to discuss different kinds of tenants, that is, co-residents (‘mature Christians’) and residents (‘other’). Thanks to conversations with tenants, we recognized this distinction was both inaccurate, and unhelpful in differentiating roles tenants play at Co:Here. We had no desire to set up power imbalances between “mature”, “Christian” and “other” tenants. Since 2018, we have abandoned language that makes such distinctions between tenants.
Belonging in action: It is important to cultivate a community where EVERYONE feels important and accepted, where everyone has something to offer.
Friendship “We companion one another, nudging each other toward greater trust and openness.”
SCS received feedback from tenants and staff about perceived nepotism. These individuals felt SCS was filling unit vacancies with “mostly church people”, and not seeking a diversity of tenants. In response, the Board revised the organization’s tenant selection policy to ensure staff were appropriately enabled to seek a diverse tenant mix. We worked with tenants to develop the tenant selection policy, which is now a public-facing document. It was distributed to tenants and brought clarity and transparency regarding the entire tenant selection process.
Friendship in action: Friendship develops over time, and greater trust often happens through little nudges, like responding to a call for more openness in how we select tenants.
Stewardship: “We give thoughtful care to our buildings, our spaces, and each other by honouring the fragility and resilience of one another and our environment”.
For SCS’s leadership, these experiences above serve as lessons in humility. How we need permission to change our mind, relinquish some power, ask more questions, be awkward, and take up less space in order to honour those tenants who perceive our affiliations as harmful – however strong or weak those affiliations are. We definitely haven’t arrived – but our understanding of who we are, and who we are not, as a housing operator is unfolding and happens in the context of our community relationships.
Stewardship in action: In working together, we honour the fragility and resilience of one another.
The learning journey SCS has been is nonlinear and iterative. Iterative change involves repetition and does not occur in a straight line! In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes “If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves – how do I learn from this?” I am grateful for SCS’s openness to keep learning and to keep asking for constructive critique – knowing that it is part of a feedback loop and important for meaningful change.
What are you unlearning in your community? What iterative cycles are teaching you? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.