Report date
July 2022
Learning Log

My fellowship journey has been amazing and rewarding the past two years and will continue one more year so I can pursue plans put on hold due to the pandemic. While my journey continues, this is my final learning log. I want to use this occasion to publicly thank the Bush Foundation for this remarkable opportunity to reflect and grow in the leadership, which I exercise on behalf of manufactured (mobile) home park communities.

I sought a Bush Fellowship to strengthen my leadership on behalf of the 900 park communities in Minnesota and the 180,000 people who call them home. Some of my family have lived in manufactured housing, and, since 2004, I have led All Parks Alliance for Change (APAC), the state association of manufactured home owners. There have been many encouraging signs that both the public and policy makers have developed a deeper recognition of manufactured housing as a path to both affordable housing and home ownership. However, there are still decision makers with the power to either help or harm these communities who see them as a problem rather than a solution.

I have long recognized the principle reason for this hostility: manufactured housing is on the wrong side of a bad narrative. Simple phrases like "trailer park" and "trailer trash" call to mind the deeply ingrained and reinforced images of low-income families as worthless, useless, something to be thrown away, discarded. I saw the need to learn how I can identify and control this narrative, to shift the perception of manufactured homes and the people who live in them from being outdated, trashy, and dysfunctional, to being innovative, high quality, and self-reliant.

I also saw other things I needed to learn. I needed to develop my ability to engage with diverse communities. I needed to develop my ability to build broad-based movements from local organizing campaigns. I needed to develop my ability to train and mentor others. Only with these skills could 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 park communities.

I was extremely grateful to receive the fellowship and it couldn't have come at a better time. When I applied for a Bush Fellowship, I was just wrapping up my studies at the University of St. Thomas. 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 received a great formal education, but now I was given the 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. In its place, I identified a leadership coach who worked with me to help me overcome my kneejerk desire to always stay busy and instead understand the need to engage in iterative cycles of divergent thinking (observing, empathizing, discovery, ideation, etc.) and convergent thinking (designing, developing, making, testing, etc.).

How I planned to start my fellowship changed, but I eventually was able to engage a variety of trainings and networking that, although frequently online, impacted me in important ways, including:

• Center for Story-based Strategy – To develop my ability to re-frame narratives, I participated in trainings on the use of narrative in social change from this California-based program. Their trainings covered social change storytelling, framing, narrative power analysis, and participatory message development. It deepened my understanding of dominant narratives and helped to identify the assumptions I need to challenge in my work.

• People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond – To develop my ability to engage with diverse communities, I participated in this Louisiana-based training program’s Undoing Racism Community Organizing Workshop. The training provided effective techniques for identifying and analyzing manifestations of racisms, undoing internalized racial oppression, and becoming agents of institutional transformation.

• Momentum – To develop my ability to build movements, I participated in a self-directed series of programs provided by this Massachusetts-based organization. Their approach fuses the strengths of structure-based organizing and “moment”-based organizing, into a hybrid model that involves escalating popular support through action, setting up systems to absorb new support, conducting mass trainings, and organizing decentralized teams.

• Training for Change – To develop my ability to train others, I participated in virtual trainings with this Pennsylvania-based training center. The trainings were redeveloped to focus on designing and conducting online meetings and trainings. Originally, I viewed virtual trainings as a necessary compromise during the pandemic, but I now see them as part of how I want to provide my own trainings in the future.

• Midwest Academy – To improve my ability to led and mentor other community organizers, I participated in a training for supervisors of community organizers provided by this Chicago-based training center. The training framed supervision around four principal roles (leader, manager, coach, and role model) and covered some useful techniques (building a shared vision, creating interrelated work plans, and holding courageous conversations).

Throughout my fellowship, I have seen my leadership expand and deepen in a variety of ways. I was presented with a lot of new leadership opportunities. It’s hard to say my leadership growth can be attributed to just one thing. Certainly, it was a combination of receiving the fellowship; completing my doctoral program; demonstrating successful leadership by, for example, passing significant legislation; and, of course, putting in the years and gaining the experience. Whatever the explanation, it led to new roles such as:

• I was elected as co-chair of the Homes for All coalition, which represents 270+ endorsing organizations at the State Capitol. I help to guide the coalition’s work and testify on behalf of its agenda.

• The White House Manufactured Housing Task Force convened a series of four listening sessions with manufacturers, financiers, lenders, and advocacy organizations. I was one of the invited participants and shared comments on the role of state and local governments, and homebuyer protections and education.

• I am consulting as part of a small set of “key legacy stakeholders” on the relaunch of I’M HOME (Innovations in Manufactured Homes), a national multi-sector manufactured housing network that has produced an annual conference, several working groups, and a variety of reports and toolkits.

• I advocated for the establishment of the Manufactured Housing Community Redevelopment (MHCR) grant program, and I’m part of the grant review committee. Based on our recommendations, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) has so far approved grants for 18 park communities benefiting 1,574 households.

With the benefit of an additional year, I can move beyond the limits the pandemic imposed on my fellowship. I can visit a number of community organizing and social movement training programs around the country and build many new relationships with veteran organizers, trainers, and movement leaders. When I train without expanding my network or visiting new communities, I often feel locked in my same patterns; perpetually planning rather than doing and seeing less personal growth and change. My own experience agrees with the saying, “It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

Some examples: I will join Midwest Academy's first organizing supervisor cohort. It will be an opportunity to both learn and share knowledge, since each participant will co-create and lead a session focused on a particular skill, role, or dilemma. I look forward to participating in the full 17-day sequence of training from Training for Change, which covers the fundamentals of experiential education, curriculum development, creative workshop design, cross-cultural work, and how to create space that allows healthy risk tasking and self-reflection. Using techniques I learned from Momentum, I will approach movement building activities in new ways and hope to consult with them. Finally, I will develop a podcast highlighting both the inspiration and lessons learned from the stories of park residents and the expertise and insights of experienced organizing educators, trainers, and mentors.

I am incredibly grateful for the rare opportunity to be a Bush Fellow. The fellowship has allowed me to expand my leadership in a multitude of ways, including as an organizer, advocate, teacher, mentor, scholar, and, most importantly, as a human being who wants to remain sufficiently healthy and inspired to keep doing this work for the long haul.