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ISAAC HANEY-OWENS: Hello, this is Isaac Haney-Owens, and you’re listening to the Leaders for Inclusive Community Podcast hosted by The Kelsey, covering topics related to housing and disability. Welcome. Thanks for listening. Each episode, I’ll meet with different community leaders to learn about what they do and ask them questions about how their work can make housing and communities more inclusive for people with disabilities. [bright theme music plays]
RUSSELL RAWLINGS: We must be a part of these systems. We must be leaders. And we must be engaged in the work in order to actually see true change. Change doesn’t happen from the outside. It happens from those of us in our community being leaders and taking a leadership role.
ISAAC: Today, Monday, January 11th, 2021, I’m interviewing Justin Tsang, Kamilah Martin-Proctor, and Russell Rawlings. All of us are graduates of The Kelsey’s Raise the Roof: a 12-week, 6-session training program where leaders with disabilities learned about some of the fundamentals of housing, from access and design to finance and policy. 64 adults with disabilities from across the country completed the program and are now part of a growing network of disabled leaders for accessible, affordable, and inclusive housing. I’m excited to talk with three of the Raise the Roof graduates. [music slowly fades out]
So, welcome to the Leaders for Inclusive Community Podcast. I will go through a few questions. Feel free to ask me anything along the way. So, the first question is, could any of you share who you are and what led you to join Raise the Roof?
JUSTIN TSANG: Yeah, my name is Justin Tsang. And I am currently a senior at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, and I am studying Urban Studies. I joined the Raise the Roof program because of its uniqueness in building leaders for affordable housing, especially for those with disabilities. I find that very niche. And as someone who has a disability, I felt that the overall disability community has historically been kept out of public discussions, either through lack of access to these meetings. And that overall impacts housing. Housing is certainly a essential need, and for many people with a disability, housing provides access to these critical disability-related services. It provides access to transportation and employment and even for recreational and leisure activities.
KAMILAH MARTIN-PROCTOR: Good afternoon. My name is Kamila Martin-Proctor, and my pronouns are she and her. And I consider myself to be a triple threat: I am a Black woman with a disability. I am a fourth-generation Washingtonian, D.C. proper. And I currently serve as the Chair on the Washington, D.C. Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities. And the reason I joined the Raise the Roof program, ‘cause I saw the gap regarding accessible housing across this country, and I wanted to see what this program was about. And it was an amazing journey.
RUSSELL RAWLINGS: Hi, everyone. I’m Russell Rawlings. I am the statewide community organizer at California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. My pronouns are he and him. And what led me to join Raise the Roof was a belief that people with disabilities need to be a part of the housing policy pipeline. I really believe strongly that our community is capable of being a part of the housing conversation in a much deeper fashion. And I really appreciate that The Kelsey created a space for us with Raise the Roof, where we can educate ourselves and create a leadership pipeline. So, I’m really excited to see that graduates will go on to be the leaders in housing and be in the work. And we’re going to see transformation through that.
ISAAC: What did you, what did any of you, learn and enjoy most from Raise the Roof?
JUSTIN: Well, I learned quite a bit about housing as design and particularly universal design. I think that universal design is quite essential for the disability community. Just slightly over a year ago, I made a presentation about developing housing for the City of Napa for their 2040 Master Plan. I recommended that universally designed housing would benefit the needs of various age groups; however, I wasn’t too informed about how it would benefit people of disabilities. But after hearing more about universal design from Raise the Roof, it really helped me understand why it is so beneficial for the disability community and how we need to incorporate that when we build inclusive and affordable housing.
ISAAC: So, any of you feel free to answer this question if you would like.
KAMILAH: Hi, this is Kamila. And I would like to say that with regards to this question, some of the amazing work being done with regards to outreach in the community, especially using films and documentaries to better explain and expose the historical housing disparity within the disability community, I found that to be very impactful. And its direct impact on health was something I really appreciated learning. And also looking at other countries’ housing models and some of the best practices we can possibly incorporate here in the United States.
RUSSELL: This is Russell, and Kamilah stole my favorite one. But the other thing that I really enjoyed about this process was connecting with everyone and knowing that there’s a cohort that is out there. And I look forward to doing more of that going forward. But it’s something that I’m so glad that I’m part of an initial list of graduates and that this is an ongoing conversation, so.
ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Russell: What was the most challenging about the program?
RUSSELL: All right. The most challenging for me was balancing my time. And time management’s always an issue for me, especially considering I have to balance the work with Raise the Roof with my full-time job at California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. But the beautiful part about that was that in the cohort were several members of the Disability Organizing Network or DO network. So, they are the folks that I work very closely with at California’s Independent Living Centers.
ISAAC: Now, this question is for any of you: Please share how Raise the Roof has impacted your work.
JUSTIN: So, this is Justin, and I think that the Raise the Roof the program has affected how I can implement a stronger equity lens in my school work in urban planning that will eventually turn into practice. I find that the coursework in my school in architecture, planning, and real estate usually does not address the marginalized communities and other communities such as those with disabilities. I think that this program provides younger individuals such as myself an opportunity to raise the issues surrounding how the disability community can be negatively impacted by applying practices of the past, and how we can move forward to make it more inclusive.
KAMILAH: Hi, this is Kamilah. The course helps me with regards to being able to better frame how housing is critical. Most people consider housing to be a luxury, some sort of unattainable goal. They don’t look at the credit disparities. They don’t look at the economic disparities that directly impact individuals with disabilities. In addition to that, they truly don’t look at how housing is a path to health. Without it, you’re truly not gonna be able to be healthy, between the anxiety and exposure to the environment. Your health is put at a risk when you don’t have a home. Raise the Roof really helped to frame that conversation and that impact for me.
RUSSELL: This is Russell. And for me, it was nice to be able to introduce advocates, to have a common language that we could all speak from, to introduce them to concepts of housing. I really appreciated the way that The Kelsey structured the entire program because it was structured around fundamentals and leadership. And I think that that was so valuable. Already we’re seeing the payoff from that in our work. We will be starting a housing work group starting this month. So, I’m looking forward to allowing some of the other graduates to be leaders in that space and encouraging the rest of the network to look at future Raise the Roof cohorts and opportunities to jump in and join as well.
So, I think for me, it was an inspiration. It allowed me to have a shared experience. I’ve had similar experiences in housing advocacy in the past, but never was it centered within my own community, within the disability community. So, it felt very refreshing to have something that was led by us and for us, right? So, I think that that’s really how it’s been very impactful.
ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Justin: How do you plan to use the skills you learned from Raise the Roof?
JUSTIN: I think once I go into urban planning practice, I will continue to become an advocate that pushes for meaningful urban policy change that can benefit the disability community, either through zoning, transportation, community and economic development, and even health access and sustainability. I feel there’s an opportunity to encourage younger individuals with disabilities, and even all abilities, to learn and become aware of what an inclusive environment can be, how we can build equitable housing that’s affordable and accessible. And I think that ever since this pandemic happened, it motivates us as leaders and as professional planners or architects for future changes that we may have not thought of before.
ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Russell: In your opinion, why is disabled leadership important to increasing affordable, accessible, and inclusive housing?
RUSSELL: It’s imperative because our community knows that nothing about us without us is such a key part of everything that we’ve accomplished in our movement. So, we must be a part of these systems, we must be leaders, and we must be engaged in the work in order to actually see true change. Change doesn’t happen from the outside. It happens from those of us in our community being leaders and taking leadership roles. So, I think it’s so important, because if we want to see more people of color and disabled people in leadership, then we need to provide the spaces and create the spaces and promote opportunities for the channels for that to happen. It’s also important for inspiration purposes. People see themselves in us. Whenever they see someone that looks like us, they understand that they, too, can achieve these things, so.
ISAAC: And Kamilah, you can answer this question if you would like to.
KAMILAH: Absolutely. Thank you so much. And I would love to continue our conversations and connect with everybody with regards to leadership opportunities in the community. I think it’s critical that we do targeted outreach and that we share these opportunities. I don’t think there isn’t a person here that shouldn’t be running for ANC Commissioner or community outreach advocate. Our voices need to be at the table because we come with that lens that most people don’t necessarily understand, and it needs to be shared in order to make housing truly more accessible.
But with regards to a direct answer to the question: I think we need to definitely have more disabled leaders to the table. We need to have better perspective with regards to what accessible finance and that impact when it comes to housing. When one is living with a disability, how does that intersect with SSDI? How does that intersect with going with chronic medications? How does that intersect with transportation? Making sure that housing doesn’t just look at if the structure is accessible, but is the location accessible? We talk a lot about what currently happened here in Washington, D.C. Where was the financial emergency plan for individuals with disabilities that happened to live downtown? There was nothing in place. We need to do better about that. The only way to do better and to get better about that is to be at the table, to share our stories, and to continue work with amazing groups like The Kelsey.
ISAAC: And also to have leaders that wanna help move this issue forward, not leaders that are just working for themselves and their interest. ‘Cause we want leaders that work for us.
KAMILAH: I can definitely agree with that. I think that some of that is a matter of sharing information. I tend to be an optimistic person, and I want to believe that nobody comes to the table with malice in their heart. I think they come to the table with an emptiness of not understanding. So, as a member of the disability community, as a member of the Black community, it is unfortunately put on us to share our stories, to open up that window, invite them in, and say that, “I know that you might not know this, but let me share this with you. And hopefully in reflection, you can see how in doing so, this makes this better for everybody.”
ISAAC: So, this question is for any of you that wanna share: Share one way you would like to see the housing industry be more inclusive of people with disabilities, especially people of color with disabilities.
KAMILAH: I have no problem beating this drum over and over and over again. I think that we need to promote ourselves, we need to share our stories, and we need to put ourselves out there to be members at the table in paid positions. I don’t think we need to continue to volunteer our services. We are subject matter experts and our amazing amounts of expertise, and you can and should demand the honorarium that you are worth. You know, put yourself up for that Board position, put yourself for that advisory council, have targeted outreach, and invite people to the table. I might not always be available, but I plan on sending out information about The Kelsey to my list of cohorts and hope that they join it.
JUSTIN: It’s Justin, and I would like to share that it is imperative for the housing industry to seek more diversity in stakeholders. I feel that a more grassroots approach with the local community is needed. And I certainly think that there is a need to address certain issues such as environmental justice, social supports, access to employment, and affordable housing. And typically, we see that with new housing developments, they just need to be ADA compliant. But that’s just the bare minimum of supporting specific disabilities. So, we need to have an overarching idea of disability awareness and engagement. And I think it would be profoundly important for developing affordable and inclusive housing, we need to be aware of the culture of the people, of our history.
RUSSELL: I think one very concrete thing that we could see is, with the new coming administration federally, see more leaders within Housing and Urban Development, that HUD, could really reflect an opportunity, I think, for disabled leaders. And I’m hoping that we will begin to see a real commitment to appointments, both appointments and hiring, at all levels of government. And I know that coming out to Raise the Roof, we are well positioned to start pushing for this, showing that our community is educated and capable of being a part of these conversations and is ready to be in the room. And Kamilah definitely highlighted that it’s so important that we be compensated for our work, and I would even say so far as to go that many of us need to be given pathways to employment within the sector. So, I think that that’s something that really needs to happen.
[upbeat music break]
ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Kamilah: How can our listeners follow and support your work?
KAMILAH: Thank you so much for asking. They can definitely follow us on all the social media platforms. With regards to supporting The Kelsey and following the work that we do here or that is done here, I think it’s critical that they offer to donate, that they promote the programs that we offer to become partners or informational ambassadors with The Kelsey and with that program. Following our work directly here with what regards to we’re doing in D.C., you can always find us online at the D.C. Commission on Persons with Disabilities. You can also find us at the Martin M.S. Alliance Foundation. And we work to try and spread information, advocacy, and awareness with regards to disability disparities, particularly in communities of color and those that are underrepresented in the community across the board.
ISAAC: And any of you can feel free to answer this as well.
RUSSELL: This is Russell, and you can follow the Disability Organizing Network, our statewide, California statewide, network of advocates and organizers on social media. You can find us at if you type in “Disability Organizing Network” in Facebook or @DONetwork—that’s DONetworkOrg—so, @DONetworkOrg on Twitter. And we’re going to be expanding our social media reach, but right now we’re primarily active on Facebook and Twitter. You can also contact us directly, and this is actually the best way to get engaged, is to drop us an email to let us know that you wanna get engaged. Our email address is Info@DisabilityOrganizing.net. You can also visit our website at DisabilityOrganizing.net. We have monthly housing work group meetings that will be starting soon, and really looking forward to engaging with California’s community and also hopefully bringing in some of you that have graduated from the program to help give us some expertise as well.
ISAAC: Is there anything any of you would like to share before we end the interview?
JUSTIN: I just want to share that being part of the Raise the Roof program gave me a unique opportunity to learn more about housing from a disability perspective. I would like to thank everyone from Raise the Roof for making this program possible. And I’d also like to thank all the awesome participants in all these meaningful discussions for advocating for affordable housing that meets the needs of the disability population. And I also want to personally thank Allie for being a mentor for disability advocacy and also pushing me to become a advocate for disability in the housing industry.
RUSSELL: This is Russell, and I’m just so grateful for the space that’s been created. I’m already seeing that there’s some exciting work that we’ll all be doing together. So, thank you for this. I’m just so excited to see and grow with all of you.
KAMILAH: This is Kamilah, and I’d just like the second all of that with a big thank you to Isaac and to Allie and to Team Kelsey as we move forward in 2021.
ISAAC: Yeah, thanks. And I joined this organization because I care about affordable housing for people with disabilities, because I see that it’s a big, it’s a huge problem throughout the United States where people with disabilities who wanna live on their own can’t find the housing that they want. They can’t find housing that can get them to that next level. And people with disabilities should have the ability to live on their own. They shouldn’t be denied that access. And we should change the narrative in society and make people see that people with disabilities are more than what the stereotypes make us out to be. So, we should continue advocating for affordable housing so that everybody has a home to live in.
One thing I would like to say is being part of the Raise the Roof was a great experience for me ‘cause I got to see people from different backgrounds and people’s different experiences when it comes to this issue. And I got to get a sense of how it is for all these different people when it comes to affordable housing. And I’m glad that this program exists ‘cause we need more programs like this to give people with disabilities a way to learn tools that they can use to speak up for their community and not feel like that that they their voice doesn’t matter. [bright theme music slowly fades back in]
RUSSELL: Well, thank you so much, Isaac, for helping amplify our voices and bringing us together in community like this.
ISAAC: Yeah. And also during COVID, it’s much easier to attend City Council meetings. So, we should all attend our City Council meetings and advocate for more affordable housing in our community.
Thanks for listening. For more information on The Kelsey or to check out more of my podcast episodes, visit TheKelsey.org. If you have a topic you’d like me to explore or a person to interview, email me at Isaac@TheKelsey.org. Goodbye.