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Interview: Janet Byrd

 Street Roots (USA) 11 July 2019

Janet Byrd is a walking brain trust on housing issues. Working behind the scenes locally and with elected officials in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, she has helped push forward a housing agenda statewide that is supported by scores of organizations, and individuals. (2013 Words) - By Israel Bayer

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Janet Byrd. Photo: Israel Bayer

Byrd is currently the executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships, which works to create opportunities for low-income people. Byrd cut her teeth in neighborhood organizing in Chicago, working on housing issues such as insurance redlining, neighborhood disinvestment and tenant rights.

At Neighborhood Partnerships, Janet has been central to the success of the statewide advocacy coalition, the Housing Alliance.During her tenure, Neighborhood Partnerships also helped launch the innovative multi-county collaborative to serve high-need homeless families, Bridges to Housing, and quadrupled the impact of the Oregon IDA Initiative, a unique statewide partnership that builds the assets of low income Oregonians.

Can you talk about the messaging and framing work you are involved with and what you've found out over the past few years?

Janet Byrd: Neighborhood Partnerships has had the privilege of working with some wonderful experts in strategic communications this past year and a half, including Patrick Bresette of Demos and Larry Wallack of Portland State. We've been training and supporting a group of more than 60 leaders and advocates from a broad swath of issue concerns in our trainings, our Leadership Salons and our Advocates College.

We're just coming to the end of the Advocates College now, and what I hear back from participants is that they've been able to use some of the new knowledge and skill in their work in Salem, in their communities, and within their networks.

The most exciting thing we're doing is honing skills to create the terrain for new conversations. Rather than getting stuck in polarized positions, we are now better able to move toward policy change by carefully choosing words and the order of the concerns raised.

We've probably all been in a situation where the conversation we set out to have isn't the conversation we end up having. We may be trying very earnestly to answer a question and realize mid-stream that we have no clear idea of what understanding lay behind the question, what viewpoint was shaping it.

That viewpoint is what the messaging folks call a frame. It comes from the recognition that humans aren't blank slates. We walk around with preconceived understandings of the world and new information is slotted into pre-existing "frames." All too often we don't stop to think about what those frames are in our listeners. The result is that we're talking, but we aren't really having a conversation.

Where before we might end up getting angry or polarized, we now know that it's possible to step back, spend some time analyzing and listening, and then re-engage in a different conversation. Sometimes the solution is to re-connect to the values that motivate our concern about the issue, because values shape thinking and create an emotional connection. Sometimes the solution is to offer a new way of thinking or naming something, so that you aren't triggering a negative response. And sometimes it's thinking about how you want to structure a conversation - the order of your points.

How has the Housing Alliance done?

J.B.: This Legislative session has been a disaster for low-income Oregonians. We've seen devastating cuts in essential services and supports, and we know that the impacts of these choices will hit hardest and be hardest felt by those who are already hurting. Our communities are stronger when we all have access to stable, safe and decent housing, and we have stepped backwards this session.

Housing resources have been cut less than many other programs, proportionately, but there have still been cuts made in terms of the numbers of people who will remain stable in housing or be helped to find new housing. There will also be significantly less emergency rent assistance available this year, as federal stimulus funds dry up while the recession continues. Many people will also be hurt by cuts to other programs that provide support such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. We must all do everything we can to build up our voices, to work across specific issue concerns, and to help legislators understand the impacts of their decisions on the men, women, and children in their districts who need the opportunity that stable housing provides to be engaged members of the community.

The Right and the Tea Party are becoming more successful in driving specific agendas with poor and working people. Does this have something to do with progressives always wanting to talk about policy specifics, instead of delivering a message of values?

J.B.: We're in a situation where working people are seeing their standard of living erode, their hopes that their kids will see a bright future are diminishing, and the information they get is confusing and overwhelming. People are afraid, and looking for things to hold on to. Freedom, liberty, the rule of law - those are powerful concepts, and they're being used to move a conservative policy agenda.

Progressives do forget to talk about values. Those of us who are religious rarely talk about faith. We may assert a "right," but we usually forget to talk about the communal benefits of guaranteeing a just society.

We also get really caught in the weeds, because policy is complicated,  or we get so concerned with the nuance of the policy argument that we don't reinforce one another in public. We have trouble articulating priorities, and we end up sounding conflicted, confusing, or bureaucratic. For folks who just want to downsize government, it's a lot easier to talk about deregulation than it is to talk about how the housing subsidy programs all intersect or interact. Reclaiming values helps us name what's important behind the policy changes we want.

Some progressives say Oregon won't succumb to right-wing rhetoric concerning anti-government messaging and framing that has engulfed other regions, but in this past election, Portland lost a school levy without any organized opposition, and Clackamas County voted down building a construction bond for the Sellwood Bridge that would have cost individuals $5 a year. The following is quote from an organizer who helped defeat the bridge levy in the Oregonian: "This grassroots effort showed the big money and big unions that they cannot push us around. This is a strong statement that people are really concerned about where their money is going. We should not be forced to pay for somebody else's bridge, the same as you should not be forced to pay for your neighbor's roof." What are your thoughts?

J.B.: Again, I think people are afraid, and people are really hurting economically. We need to consistently and persistently articulate how public investments in our institutions benefit all of us. At the same time, we need to be willing to admit where our public institutions have not met their mission while still upholding their important role.

For example, we should all be horrified at the graduation rates in Portland Public Schools, particularly in communities of color. We all benefit from a strong system of public education that will graduate talented and creative and capable young people, equipped to take on the challenges of the future. We cannot accept a system that fails our children, and we must all commit to doing what it takes to help children succeed.

A lot of what many social justice groups talk about is a response to how government addresses a specific issue. In today's climate it seems like for many, talking about government programs turns people off. How to we get around this?

J.B.: Government is invisible for many people. We forget that it's government that gives us sidewalks and street signs as well as invisible infrastructure like the Federal Communications Commission and services like animal control.

Government is also disconnected in our minds from community. We need to name and illuminate the vital systems and structures that are how we live together in community and how we reach our communal vision.

The concept of obtaining racial, class, health and/or gender equity, and how we use this language has become a key goal for many organizations and institutions. Is there a disconnect between what actually happens internally with many organizations and institutions surrounding equity, and how we are actually communicating and inspiring people to create change and leadership on the ground?

J.B.: Talking about equity challenges us in many ways. Talking about equity can trigger lots of unspoken frames, and so folks need to initiate these conversations deliberately.

Conversations have different goals. It's possible, and important, to decide what your goal is. Are you calling someone out for bad behavior? Are you trying to persuade a group to be sympathetic? Are you talking to policy makers about a specific proposal? You'll want to frame your statements differently based on your goal, think about how you're structuring the conversation, and think about how you can articulate a collective goal or benefit.

If your goal is a policy change, and you need widespread public buy in, one tested strategy is to articulate the benefit to the whole community to making the change. So the focus is not on the racialized outcomes, or the disparities, but on the ways the change will strengthen the community.

At the same time, we can't let go of the outrage that we absolutely must feel at some behaviors. Housing discrimination based on race, racial profiling by police officers - these deserve to be called out immediately and forcefully as unacceptable.

We fail at these conversations about race and equity on many levels in Portland, and I definitely include myself in the group that has failed, and, I'm afraid we'll fail again. But we can't avoid or delay these conversations. We live in a city, county and state that has systems that not only fail to provide opportunity to all of our residents, but systems that stand in the way of success. We all lose when we aren't capturing the energy and vitality and talent of our neighbors towards making a better future.

You wrote an indepth paper along with the Heritage Consulting Group in 2003 on funding strategies for Portland related to a housing levy and bond. In Seattle, they have been very successful with a housing levy. Why do you think they have been successful and we have not even tried?

J.B.: Seattle issued a housing bond in 1981, and when the bond began to run out they launched it as a levy. Portland has at various times funded housing quite substantially, but policy makers have always prioritized using other tools to do housing development. Urban renewal has been a major source, there's been a lot from the General Fund, and there were bonds used that didn't require a public vote.

I'm excited to hear a broader group of advocates thinking about a levy that would include housing. There are a lot of possible approaches that could resonate with people all over Portland and Multnomah County, tying housing to common values and widely helping community priorities. Having a broad conversation makes a lot of sense, getting ideas and interests shared early so that there's a strong base of support to build upon.

You've been doing community development work for more than 30 years. How have you seen the climate change surrounding social justice issues?

J.B.: People are both more connected and less connected. The incredible access to cell phones, the Internet and social media makes it easier to reach people, yet at the same time we are all bombarded with incoming information and opportunities for diversion.

We need to lose some old habits and get better at simplifying our message so that people can hear us. And we all need to listen more closely, so we can discern what the conversation is really about.

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