The role of data

After we did our first project iteration, we realized that we had stepped away from the fundamental reason why we connected carnival games to the housing market: they are both rigged with the appearance of being fair. What we had started to do was to create rigged games that were obviously unfair (see the last post about CLVU). Not only is that no fun, but it does not invite understanding of the rigged nature of the housing market.

So in our second project iteration, we decided to go back to the original idea of regular carnival games and really apply our thinking around how to connect the unfairness of the game to the unfairness of the housing market and capitalism in general. To do this, we decided to connect the games to real statistics and data. As a team we knew that data would play a role in supporting our narrative – the questions was always how. We didn’t want the data to drive our narrative – the facts and data about foreclosures and housing have always been on our side. The dominant narratives that exist in society however make it hard to accept and digest numbers that don’t fit the frames we already believe. For example, you really believe it is the fault of the people who can’t afford their mortgages that they lose their homes, a simply citing a data point that says otherwise – citing predatory lending, the racial disparities, etc., for example, won’t normally change your mind.

We believe, however, that pairing statistics with the experience of the game – will allow for a “psychic break” if you will. When people are confronted with the sad fact that they can’t win the game along with the reality of the statistic, we hope that a deeper understanding of the way the system works can be reached. For example, we thought to assign different holes in the cornhole game with a dollar amount and make the goal to accumulate a certain total dollar value. This will be difficult, as most carnival games tend to be [but, hopefully also really fun!]. At the end, we will reveal that the total amount they should have accumulated is equal to the total amount of rent for a 2-bedroom in Boston. Boom. Shock. & Awe. [+Fun in a way]. The power of the statistic will come from the narrative under which it is presented – i.e., the undeniably difficult, rigged, and unfair, carnival games.

We will update with pictures of our second iteration as soon as possible. Looking forward to feedback from everyone!

Seizing every opportunity for feedback and collaboration

On Friday, we shared our draft project proposal with members of City Life/Vida Urbana’s Bank Tenant Association leadership team. BTAs form a significant portion of CL/VU’s membership and at this weekly Friday night meeting, BTA leadership team members discuss organizing strategy and figure out next steps for actions they want the membership to take.

Mike, Terry, and I presented the project idea our team came up with feedback from some of the CL/VU staff – to develop carnival games that reveal the deceptive nature of the market. We were only one agenda item on a long list of items they needed to cover during the meeting, so one major lesson learned in designing feedback activities is to keep in mind the time and stick to the process design! We designed a process for them to give us feedback on the idea – we told them about the project and asked them to record any questions, concerns, and general feedback/suggestions on separate post it notes and put them up on a flip chart. We then gave them space to ask any clarifying questions they had first. When the hands started shooting up, we started answer the questions. It was only later that we realized that we were trying to answer questions that they should should have written down for us to discuss and decide later! It was fine, we just ran out of time and told people to write the rest of their questions and concerns down for us to review later.

Still left to do is discuss these new ideas with our team members and revise our draft project proposal to reflect what we come up with. The feedback we got was really good and raised the point that I think we all considered early in the project but didn’t know quite how to address: could some CL/VU members join our team and therefore move from feedback givers to decision makers on our collaboration spectrum? Fortunately, some BTA leaders were really excited after hearing the project idea and want to contribute as team members – or at least come to some meetings. So, we also need figure out a system that works for including BTA leadership team members into our meetings – a great logistic problem to have!

Terry and I stayed for a bit more of the meeting as the BTA leaders discussed their plans for the National Day of Actions on the housing crisis on October 28th. The major demand nationally from organizations and coalitions working on housing and on the housing crisis is for the replacement of Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) director Ed Demarco. FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which has for the past six years, refused to do principal reduction, a practice that allows homeowners to pay on the current value of their home. This is ultimately cheaper for banks than foreclosure (1), but more importantly keeps families and family businesses in their homes. A later conversation with a BTA leader revealed to me how little support organizers feel from student organizations on college campuses. He wondered to me: why aren’t students organizing talks and lectures about this? Isn’t this an urban planning program? This issue and this demand is important – students and professors can have so much more influence on issues like this!

This was important to me because, as a new organizer who plans to continue to work in Boston on a range of planning issues, it gave me pause about whether I had some missed opportunities by not focusing more on how students at MIT and in my planning program at DUSP can partner with communities and community organizers to raise the profile of issues like these and increase pressure on targets as part of an organizing strategy. Further, however, it emphasized to me the importance of our codesign project because I think ultimately I want community members and leaders to feel like they have the tools to design projects that tell their stories, weave their own narratives, and win real policy changes – with or without support from people they might feel have more power. I hope this project accomplishes this, or at least encourages dialogue about it.


See draft Project Proposal here.

City Life/Vida Urbana team: exercises in challenging dominant narratives

Our visit to City Life/Vida Urbana was extremely productive and exciting. At the meeting was our team (Nene, Dara, Terry, Mike) and the Executive Director of CLVU – Curdina Hill. We began the conversation by reflecting on the CLVU-produced documentary video called “Communities in Peril” that Mike asked us to watch before the meeting: We also reviewed the CLVU blog about Yolanda Nova, the woman featured in the video who faced foreclosure and eviction and eventually won the right to stay in her home:

After much discussion, we decided: the story was powerful, and the message was clear; what was not clear was the overarching narrative that CLVU wanted to reiterate – that the housing crisis is not over, and the cycle of housing bubbles and crises would continue until housing is de-commodified. This is our overall project goal: to find a narrative and a project that would combine the different campaigns CLVU is working on: 1) an anti-investor campaign – many of the foreclosed properties are being bought up en masse by investors looking to sell the houses when land values rise so they can turn a profit, 2) fighting gentrification in Boston neighborhoods, and 3) a law to assert the rights of tenant to stay in their homes even if the property is foreclosed on. Although the campaigns seem only tangentially related to each other in that they deal with housing, they are all under-girded by the idea that housing is not a commodity, that people need places to live, and housing being on the speculative market causes problems for working class and low income people.

The goal of our meeting on Thursday was to leave with an agreed upon project idea, but coming up with a project to “combat the cultural narrative that the housing crisis is over” and link the work of CLVU was harder than you’d think! The task is daunting: shifting cultural narratives – both how to come up with new narratives that are broad enough to capture the core ideas of what we are fight for, and how to communicate it in a way that actually challenges the dominant narrative. And it is the task faced by every social justice group fighting for better policies and practices for people.  Terry and I used tools from the Center for Story-based Strategy to facilitate a conversation within our group about dominant narratives and cultural narratives.

We needed to link the campaigns that CL/VU is working on through one cultural narrative that is powerful enough to combat the idea that the housing crisis is over. In the They Say/We Say activity, we brainstormed narratives, assumptions, and ideas that people in power, and the status quo believe, such as market forces always work, there is no one to blame for this crisis, and people who go into foreclosure are irresponsible. We then brainstormed ideas and narratives that we believe and want to assert through our work, for example: housing is a human right, market is a human construct that can change, and people are more important than profits.

Because CLVU is currently running these campaigns, we did an activity called Points of Intervention (POI) to see how we could tie in action around the assumptions and dominant narratives to CLVU’s current actions. POI calls out four points that organized action usually happens at: the point of destruction (eviction blockade), consumption (housing auction), decision (housing court), or production (factory).

These points are usually where the problem is most visible or where the impact of the problem is most felt. It makes logical sense for actions to happen at these points – any passerbyer who sees an action at one of these points should be able to make reasonable sense of why the action is happening. There are also points of assumption – not physical places, but spaces where the narrative that keeps policies in place are not working. The Center for Story Based Strategy asserts that actions must also target points of assumption by pointing out what is invisible, reframing the debate, and create the space for alternatives. We had a lengthy discussion about the way Occupy Wall Street was able to do this.

With these brainstorms, we then attempted to synthesize our ideas by pulling out common themes as well as identifying “fissures” in the dominant narrative – areas where the narrative is weak or contradictory: for example; the dominant narrative is that market forces provide the best distribution of resources, yet it is actually the social safety need that makes market capitalism bearable for most people.

We revisited our logic model from class on Tuesday in order to start brainstorming potential outputs. Video, vines, and social media all came up as potential avenues to get the message across.

My group still has a lot of thinking to do before we decide on a course of action. Importantly, Mike is going to take our ideas back to CLVU’s organizing team. Ideally, these conversations happen together – the organizing strategy is pulled together with the narrative framework already in place. Otherwise, you get powerful pieces like Communities in Peril that amplify individual stories of actions, but don’t advance a new cultural narrative or challenge the dominant narrative that keeps communities struggling for housing and basic needs. Furthermore, without concrete, organized actions to support it, a narrative runs the risk of being ineffective and difficult to advance.

I am hopeful that we can come up with something good. Using tools to facilitate the conversation was productive and fun so I think we will continue to pull from the Center for Story Based Strategy and Terry’s newly forming civic hack lab “Intelligent Mischief” for tools and processes to have conversations like these. The major challenges we have are how to create a strategy that is culturally appropriate, that has buy in from CLVU’s organizers and membership base, that also has the cultural and strategic capacity to force a conversation about current housing policies and the ideas and ideologies that keep those policies in place – and do it all this semester – no big deal.

Hi, I’m Nene

Hi everyone, I am Nene. My parents emigrated from Nigeria in the 80s and we moved around a bit before settling in Stone Mountain, GA. I moved to Cambridge for college at Harvard in 2005 and spent my summers as a youth worker running summer camps in Boston. I did some consulting work in D.C. right after I graduated in 2009 before I came running back to Boston. I’ve been a youth worker/organizer in the city for about 4 years now. I am also currently a Masters in City Planning student at MIT. I am interested in the intersection of “new/alternative” economic development, shifting culture/challenging dominant narratives, and [youth/multi-generational] organizing. I hope to eventually support young people in developing new economic and political institutions such as worker/housing cooperatives, credit unions, participatory budgeting etc. as part of community economic development and organizing strategies.

I think this course will build on my previous experience in participating in/designing collaborative processes, as well as teach me some multi-media skills I can use and pass on to others.