Many look to manufactured (mobile) homes as a source of affordable housing. In fact, one out of every 20 Minnesota families live in a manufactured home most often in a park community. So many people make this choice because, it turns out, renting a lot in a park is half the cost of renting an apartment and, with new model homes, there is no difference in quality. Some of my family have lived in manufactured housing, and, in 2004, I started working for All Parks Alliance for Change (APAC), the state association of manufactured home park residents.
There are some signs policy makers are beginning to recognize the value of manufactured housing. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency indicated in its new 2020-23 strategic plan and 2020-21 affordable housing plan it wants to focus significant attention on manufactured housing. In 2019, the Minnesota Legislature finally made manufactured housing eligible for state affordable housing funds. At the same time, there continues to be opposition in the same local communities that have the power to either help them thrive or target them for redevelopment.
The principle reason for this opposition is simple: manufactured housing is on the wrong side of a bad narrative. For example, simple phrases like "trailer park" and "trailer trash" immediately call to mind the deeply-ingrained and reinforced images often applied to low-income families that allow them to be regarded as worthless, useless, something to be thrown away, discarded. I need to learn how to identify and control the narrative, including how to make skillful use of symbols, metaphors, and storylines. This will help me to shift the perception of manufactured homes and the people who live in them from outdated, trashy, and dysfunctional to innovative, high quality, and self-reliant.
But, in order to truly meet the threats and seize the opportunities, I realized there are some other things I need to learn. I need to develop my ability to engage with diverse communities. I need to develop my ability to build movements from organizing campaigns. I also need to develop my ability to train others in order to share what I learn. With these skills, I hope to build a more unified and powerful group of residents to achieve larger scale change that supports a broad range of strategies to preserve, protect, and promote manufactured housing.
Receiving the fellowship any time would have been fantastic, but receiving it now couldn't be better timed. I applied for a Bush Fellowship at the same time I was wrapping up my studies at the University of St. Thomas. Last spring, I completed and defended my dissertation and earned my Doctorate of Education in Leadership. The focus of my research was on social movements and community organizing, and, more specifically, on the education and training of community organizers, which culminated in my dissertation, "Pedagogy of Community Organizing: Lessons Learned from and with Formal Educators, Professional Trainers, and Community Organizers."
I had received a great formal education, but now I had a chance to travel the country, participate in training programs conducted by movement leaders, and greatly expand my network. Or, at least that was the plan until the pandemic hit. The emergence of COVID-19 seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. But, it actually became an opportunity for deeper reflection and refinement of my fellowship plans. I originally planned to launch my fellowship with a flurry of travel, training, and meetings. Instead, I identified a leadership coach who has worked with me to help me overcome my kneejerk desire to always stay busy and understand the need to engage in iterative cycles of divergent and convergent thinking, in order to identify the right problem and find the right solution.
Over the last six months, I did engage in some trainings from my original plan, although frequently online. My plans to attend social movement trainings from the Massachusetts-based Momentum became a video series. My plans to participate in a training on supervising community organizers from the Illinois-based Midwest Academy moved to an online series. My plans to participate in an advance training on the use of narrative in social change from the California-based Center for Story-based Strategy will be a series of virtual sessions this summer. I also picked up a number of interesting books from the training programs and movement leaders who were in my original fellowship plan.
How I planned to start my fellowship has changed, but the experience has already impacted me in important ways. I’m using new techniques to reflect and make decisions. I’m adjusting my approach to community organizing and movement building. I now view virtual sessions as a part of how I want to provide training in the future and not just a necessary compromise. The fellowship hasn’t gone as I expected, but it has been incredibly valuable and I’m excited for the rest of the journey.