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From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. When one door closes, the best laid plans, clouds with silver linings. There are plenty of cliches about well-planned projects getting derailed and how sometimes something good springs from trouble.
Back in early Twenty-Twenty, Watson was working with some Brown University students who were involved with a student group housing opportunities for people everywhere or HOPE. We were organizing a screening of Providence Lost a film by recent Brown alum, Oscar d'Angeac, about one family's experience of eviction. And then for reasons we are all too familiar with, everything was suspended.
At the same time, COVID-19 had begun shining a glaring light on what it means to be able or rather unable to shelter in place. So we thought, we can't have a public event, but what if we made a podcast instead? Even though we were all working remotely and I was still trying to figure out how to record Watson's regular podcast in my daughter's bedroom, everyone was game. We began brainstorming over Zoom, then interviewing residents and activists, historians and policy experts. And we started researching, well, the history of housing in America. It was an unusual collaboration between staff, me, and the associate director of the Watson Institute Steve Blumenfield, and students, whom you're about to meet. The result was Less To Lean On, a special series on housing and eviction in Rhode Island and America.
We hope you enjoyed our series. And if you just found yourself here and haven't listened to the series yet, we recommend you do that first. We'll put links to all the episodes in the show notes. Today, we offer a bonus episode of Less To Lean On, about the Brown students and alumni, who brought this podcast to life. Because beyond contributing to the series, they are advocates in their own right. They've spent years thinking about housing, and they continue to do so.
DHRUV SINGH: Hi, my name is Dhruv Singh.
GABRIEL MERNOFF: My name is Gabriel Mernoff.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: My name is Nathaniel Pettit.
AMELIA ANTHONY: My name is Amelia Anthony.
LUCAS FRIED: My name is Lucas Fried.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: My name is Oscar d'Angeac.
SARAH BALDWIN: And I am Sarah Baldwin, the host, a roll I'll continue to have for this bonus episode. To make the episode, I interviewed our collaborators and contributors on the podcast. My first question was, how did you become interested in housing issues in the first place? For Lucas, it started at home.
LUCAS FRIED: It was something that my mom I think first got our family to start, working at Soup Kitchens, and seriously, we eventually did homelessness outreach with the church as well. So having that experience and then going to college, it felt quite natural to find the organization HOPE. Housing, sometimes, especially if you've lived your whole life stably housed, is kind of invisible. It's just like air. You're breathing it. You're living in it. It's a constant. But it's something that's so essential too like air. But it's not necessarily something that you're conscious of every day as an issue, as something that's political.
SARAH BALDWIN: For Oscar too, service was a family affair.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: I remember going on food runs with different groups when I was maybe 12, 13, going out into the city to feed folks who were experiencing homelessness at the time. I had grew up in a family in which that kind of service was expected. I continued through high school. And getting to Brown, I found HOPE, like everybody else that we've been working with. People experiencing chronic homelessness are such a extreme vision of the kind of inequality that we're facing as a country.
SARAH BALDWIN: Amelia agrees. Homelessness is inequality made visible.
AMELIA ANTHONY: My primary interest in housing was sparked by growing up in LA. There's obviously a lot of invisible housing insecurity as well. But it feels like the most visible issue in the city. And it seems like it's only increasing throughout the years.
SARAH BALDWIN: Everyone has different entry points to this work. For Dhruv, it was the people of HOPE, who sparked his interest.
DHRUV SINGH: And it's not like I came into it, knowing about rent control or eviction, notice from a suburb, the stuff. I didn't feel like it was in my life at all. What drew me in first was just the community of the student organization. Just like these folks care about one another and care about what they do. And then from there, I started doing outreach, and then got involved more in the advocacy, and the leadership, and was just with HOPE for four years after that.
SARAH BALDWIN: At HOPE, you can eventually choose between doing advocacy and doing direct service through nightly outreach runs. That's when service providers, including students, walk specified routes throughout Providence and Cranston, in order to make contact with visibly homeless folks on the street and connect them to social services like caseworkers, or even provide emergency help if need be. But as Dhruv explains--
DHRUV SINGH: The amazing thing about HOPE is that we don't let our advocates advocate, unless they have outreach experience and unless they do some sort of direct service. We feel that if you don't interact with the people you're advocating for on a weekly basis, you can't really advocate for them authentically. The way HOPE does advocacy is we see it as like we're students who occupy a position of privilege at Brown, and so legislators listen to us in a more unique way or sometimes we can catch their attention better. And so we just try to be a microphone for the community.
SARAH BALDWIN: Nathaniel, who's public policy thesis about Browns impact on the neighborhoods around it deeply informed our fourth episode, says he didn't get into housing because of housing per se.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: What I've realized is that whenever HOPE is drawn to housing as an issue, it wasn't because I was drawn to housing in terms of buildings or even in terms of cities. But I was drawn to housing because housing is one of our most central needs. Without housing, everything else falls apart. I don't know if I'll ever experience such a contrast that's born out of American inequality more than from a night of outreach.
SARAH BALDWIN: Talking to this new generation of housing advocates made me aware of a paradoxical, but also hopeful fact that although they've never known an America without omnipresent street homelessness, that very omnipresence, rather than normalizing visible inequality, ignited their passion for advocacy.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: What really kept me in the organization was a sense that it was a group of young people who really believed that we could make an impact. Finding the organization was, undoubtedly, one of the most important experiences of my time at Brown.
SARAH BALDWIN: Nathaniel, Oscar, Dhruv, Gabe, Amelia, and Lucas didn't join HOPE to make a podcast, yet, here we are. And something interesting happened in the process. It changed how a lot of us thought about housing period. Here's Gabe.
GABRIEL MERNOFF: Working on this podcast has definitely made me think about these issues in more structural way. I had always thought of my activism as a lens through which to help my local community. Two things can be true at the same time, that yes, like have a very local focus, but also think about the broad structural nationwide issues. This podcast definitely made me think about that.
SARAH BALDWIN: He also learned a lot.
GABRIEL MERNOFF: I knew some about a lot of the topics we covered, but I really not to the extent that we covered it. I mean, for example, like in the second episode, talking about the history of race locally was something that I was not very educated about, thinking about solutions in episode for, all these things were definitely so, so valuable. And we really tried to examine things and get to the root of things, which was really valuable, I think, for all of us.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lucas echoes this idea.
LUCAS FRIED: Big news outlets, even like MSNBC, the money section will report on evictions right now. But the question is, do we have context for this, first of all, when we're reading these things? In this podcast, we really tried to provide the context. I'm thinking of historically how does race play into the housing system and having like a dedicated episode to that where we were actually able to really go into detail about how these systems worked in the past, what was the line in the realtor's code that basically justified redlining? How these things have played out over time? Was it valuable? Also, to provide context for what we're thinking about in terms of the racial divides and racial injustice in our country today.
SARAH BALDWIN: For Amelia, making the series was valuable in terms of the content she learned, but also because of the teamwork.
AMELIA ANTHONY: I learned so much history when the team was working on, driving into urban renewal, and the deeply racist history of Rhode Island's housing policy. I also feel like it was such a consistent sustained effort by so many people, which was really beautiful to be a part of the team in that way.
SARAH BALDWIN: The process of learning about this history and context also brought us to some surprising places. Here's Oscar.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: I learned a lot in doing the second episode, about race and housing in Rhode Island, specifically, because I fell on those oral histories of people that had been removed from Lipid Hill and Mashapaug Pond and just spend hours listening to that. That's one of the strongest experiences that I'm going to take away from this. I mean, those archives were always there, just took us sitting down, and do this project to find them. And I'm very, very grateful that we did that.
SARAH BALDWIN: Our collaboration started in response to the lockdown. But that was only the beginning of a year of tectonic shifts in our country. Think worsening pandemic, Black Lives Matter, a fraught election, violent attacks on democracy, and millions of Americans still struggling. As history played out before our eyes, we tried to keep up and interpret it through the lens of housing. Our understanding of housing issues evolved. They became broader and deeper, and therefore, more complicated. That's left us with some unresolved tensions.
LUCAS FRIED: There's an unresolved tension between being a student living on Providence's East side, which is essentially the richest part of the city doing housing advocacy work that concerns the interests of low income people, people who don't have housing, people who are housing and stable. So I think that that's an unresolved tension and something that, again, involves listening and being a really critical evaluator of what things you assume, and what things policymakers are assuming. And I think the argument that it's just not your place period does not hold up. I don't think that's true in many cases.
But I do think it's true that we have seen the history of urban development and the history of these issues be that people are outsiders saying this is what this community wants. This is what I'm going to do. And they don't actually have any knowledge, any understanding of the actual wants, needs of the community, or the force something onto the community. They build a highway through the downtown. They build a development that segregates the city, things that are purposely meant to disrupt communities.
SARAH BALDWIN: Oscar was left with an even more profound question, one we all grappled with to some extent.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: For me, the biggest question when it comes to this housing conversation is, is it in fact, just a proxy conversation for systemic racialized inequality. I mean, are we even having the right conversation in the first place? Or is it conceding too much to the system to talk about housing specifically, rather than say wealth redistribution? I think sometimes it is really helpful to talk about housing specifically because without a stable home, it's impossible to build the foundation for all of the other rights and freedoms that we believe are necessary.
But at the same time, there's so many examples that I think about in which these conversations devolve into obscure questions of policy or zoning. Well, I'm thinking about NIMBY suburbanites, who refuse to have public housing developments built in their neighborhoods and the argument is well, this is going to impact our infrastructure. And our schools aren't ready for the influx when really what they're thinking about is their homes' property values.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: For me, there's an unresolved tension in the world of housing with home ownership. You know, episode four focused a lot on the dark sides of homeownership, that while for many Americans, specifically white Americans, homeownership has been a path to developing and passing down intergenerational wealth, a privilege that has been systematically denied for Black Americans. I still struggle with knowing how I personally am to live my life in relation to homeownership in no small part. Because I think the rental system is pretty horrible itself.
I think on a very deep level, I hate the idea of paying rent to a landlord, who let's face it, in my experience, has not done a whole lot to earn that money or to make me giving that money feel rational. I'm wondering maybe there are ways for me to think about homeownership, perhaps through systems like a community land trust ways that can help families own the homes they live in develop a certain degree of intergenerational wealth, but also to prevent some of the darker sides of homeownership, like preventing, for instance, displacement for long time residents.
SARAH BALDWIN: So we all got a lot out of doing this work, including an awareness of some stubbornly unresolved tensions. We hope that you will have taken something away, too.
GABRIEL MERNOFF: I hope that listeners come away from it, not with have all the answers, but that they have a foundation through which to think about how we get to those answers. Because I think this is all about making a better society. That's everyone's goal, you know, no matter ideology. But you can't make a better society without having some sort of foundation some sort of structure through which you work off of. And I think this podcast gives that foundation. I hope it also provokes them to think about their own accountability, what they can do, what the systems they're part of can do, how they can change it, how we can change these systems, and then ultimately, how to make a better society that works for everyone.
NATHANIEL PETTIT: I think we're offered few opportunities to question the water that we're swimming in every day. For sure, making the podcast was an opportunity for me to question. And I hope it's an opportunity for those who listened to the question as well. Why is housing the only way that most American families will pass down wealth? I think also the very real point that something like an eviction, something like a family being forced from their home is not a bug of the system, but it's a feature of the system.
LUCAS FRIED: I definitely hope that people will take away the interconnectedness between housing and health, and everything else in somebody's life. Hopefully, this will spur people to want to do more research on these issues and want to think about policy solutions that encompass these issues.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lucas also hopes it will inspire universities and the students who attend them to think about the impact they have on their surrounding communities.
LUCAS FRIED: Thinking about, as a student at Brown, how you can do research on these issues, and like Nathaniel did, really dig deep into, the history behind this, and then also thinking about pushing Brown to think about solutions that are out there, that they could move towards if they really had the willpower to do so.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: I hope that when people listen to the series, they realize that being a renter who can't afford their rent means living one step ahead of life shattering debt, a majority of people, especially on the lower end of the income spectrum are constantly running from an incredibly violent isolating machine that grinds up families daily. You don't need to be getting calls from a debt collector to be living in debt.
SARAH BALDWIN: And let's be clear, debt doesn't function the same way for everyone.
OSCAR D'ANGEAC: The huge schism in this country is that if you own some form of capital, and usually in the form of land, a home, then it's assumed that you can pay back your debt. You can pay your mortgage. f You can refine it, et cetera. You're allowed to take on debt. Whereas if you're a renter, you're not allowed to take on debt. And if you ever fall into debt, then you can be pretty sure that everything that you have is going to be taken from you.
SARAH BALDWIN: In other words, when it comes to debt, it all depends on who you are. For the wealthy, to carry debt is to leverage greater opportunity. It's the key to the kingdom. But if you're poor, debt is a cudgel that's used to keep you down. In fact, living in debt is antithetical to freedom. For Amelia and Dhruv, the take away is pretty straightforward.
AMELIA ANTHONY: I hope that people will be appalled at the reality of eviction and how it's gears have just sped up during the pandemic. So I hope that people will understand that every person, regardless of who they are, deserves to be housed and like needs to be housed with no butts, like no qualifications.
DHRUV SINGH: I hope that when people listen to Less To Lean On, they realize how much of what we see in the world, like housing insecurity and homelessness, poverty, in general, was a conscious choice that our institutions made hundreds of years ago and then all through the 20th century to essentially say there is a certain group of people, wealthy white people or just white people, generally, who we want to essentially give handouts to, right, who we want to set up to succeed, a product of choices somebody else made, institutions made to set you up for success is what separates you from any sort of precarity.
At the end of the day, is it OK for someone to have to sleep outside on any given night? And the answer is no. Do people deserve to know that they have a home, where the lights turn on, and the water runs, and there's food in the fridge? The answer is yes.
SARAH BALDWIN: For me, the experience alone of making Less To Lean On was quite literally mind altering. It taught me things I didn't know and made me question things I thought I did. And it gave me a very sobering sense of how much I still need to learn and what to do about it. Gathering over Zoom and working on Google Docs for a year was its own form of miracle. It took running into Lucas on campus recently for me to realize that most of our team members and I had never met in person or only once. And yet, they became my people.
Week after week after week, they brought knowledge, and opinions, and perspective, and passion to this project, as we tried to turn statistics headlines and history into human stories. In a way, Less to Lean On gave us a context in which to view community activists struggle for solidarity, which in turn serves as a model of what our society at large needs if it's to be one in which we all have a chance to thrive. What made this experience all the more amazing is that we were doing this while COVID-19 was washing over our lives like a tsunami, distorting how we work, and play, and teach, and learn.
And we were doing this at a time when arguably more people than ever before were waking up to the fact that racial and social justice are there battles too. No project has ever felt to me more urgently integrated into the larger stories of our past, present, and future than Less To Lean On.
This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Oscar d'Angeac with help from Dan Richards. The theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.