The community-engaged action research model utilizes multiple mediums to realize its goals of building community power, assisting local grassroots campaigns and power brokers in reframing the dominant narrative, and producing community-centered public policy solutions that are winnable. This sidebar analysis highlights a select number of community-based initiatives, events, or strategic coalitions that the CURA research team developed as a way to illustrate the impact and intention of the project. We strategically built these partnerships to aid in knowledge building to elevate the voices and expertise of the community. As such, the Research in Action sidebars in this report illuminate community work that has occurred simultaneously and collaboratively with The Illusion of Choice: Evictions and Profit in North Minneapolis project.
Supporting a Renters Forum Led by One Family, One Community
We can think a lot, talk a lot, and analyze, and adore the question. [However], we need folks with real stories in [spaces of policy-making]...there’s nothing more powerful than hearing from the people who are actually affected in these communities. -Community Member
In May of 2018, Dr. Brittany Lewis and Luke Grundman, from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, collaborated with Maleta Kimmons, more commonly known as Queen Nuchie, to engage tenants in North Minneapolis in a Renters’ Rights and Information Forum. The purpose of Queen Nuchie’s forum was to offer tenants the opportunity to learn about their rights as renters, share perspectives on housing, and help build community power. This event was hosted and facilitated by Queen Nuchie, the executive director of One Family One Community, and supported by a community engagement microgrant program. These community engagement funds were made available after the settlement of a fair housing complaint filed against the Twin Cities, alleging that they were perpetuating segregation in how they administered affordable housing programs and funds.
Queen Nuchie, an active member of her community in North Minneapolis, holds strong to her belief that housing is a human right, deserved by all. She has led many community-based initiatives, such as directing community members in the process of engaging with politicians and landlords who hold power over where these residents end up. In Queen’s words, “You can pay a lot of money to these different landlords, but you don’t know what’s a good landlord. It’s like it’s a secret. It’s really a landlord’s market right now...I needed to know, where is there some accountability for the landlords?”
Queen had a vision for the May Renters’ Rights and Information Forum, which was to ensure that tenants received direct legal advice regarding the process of eviction, a process that hit close to home for many of those in attendance. The forum began with a presentation on legal information intended to educate renters on both the technical requirements of Housing Court and their rights as tenants, including an explanation of the expungement, settlement, and escrow processes. The presentation was followed by a panel that examined the realities of eviction from the perspective of tenants and an exploration of what policies and practices are currently being changed or created to address its complexities. Dr. Lewis and Luke Grundman focused on the creation of a renters’ commission, access to homeownership, the perils of the social service runaround through Hennepin County’s EA program, and most crucially, the power and importance of hearing from those who are most affected by unjust eviction processes and unscrupulous landlord practices.
The last portion of the forum allowed for exactly this, wherein renters were given the floor to ask questions and provide their own perspectives on access to quality affordable housing. The outcome was impactful. Community members shared their own challenges with a lack of affordable housing options as a result in inflated rental rates and unjust systems. One attendee discussed the challenges that she faced as a victim of domestic violence who fears her former partner will discover where she now lives. Many of the tenants desperately expressed the need for solution-based answers to issues of affordability by the city and state and a feeling that there is a lack of representation for renters within these solution-based processes. As one resident noted, “[We] know what the problem is, and now let’s get into the solution.” This resident was looking for concrete solutions that will increase affordable housing opportunities, particularly in the context of lending institutions that have the power to support housing stability.
For many residents, the answer to this question of available resources is dismal in their search for housing, as they are forced to accept unsafe conditions and excessive financial burdens in the form of double deposits and multiple application fees. For some, this means needing to accumulate at least three times their rent before being accepted into a home, a requirement that makes finding any home difficult and nearly impossible for the working poor. One resident elaborated that after the denial of several applications, including fees, she was left with no other option but to accept a mouse-infested, overpriced home that was not up to code, because it was the dead of winter and she simply needed a roof over her head. As she recalls, “We can’t afford [the home] but we gonna move ‘cause it’s winter. Or it’s getting to be winter, so we’re gonna go in here and try to fight and fend every month to try to come up with that $1,400.” This kind of crisis decision making is present in realms extending beyond the housing infrastructure itself and into the lives and relationships of these tenants. After escaping domestic violence, one woman shared her story of making the decision to leave her unsafe residence and seek out the resources and education she needed to expunge the eviction that she received as a result of her unsafe living environment. Others questioned their personal safety when surrounded by violent neighbors, asking where they should go for support and what to do in these situations.
Community engagement, which has become a required practice by many local institutions, is rarely void of power imbalances, and often community voices fall secondary to the priorities of the institution. Dr. Lewis notes that often “when [institutions] say they’ve engaged, they’ve proven to some other entity that they’ve done the work,” [however] “half the time, [the work] is not happening.” This situation occurs because the voices of those most impacted are not being fully engaged but rather nominally appeased. Institutional bureaucracy ensures a comfortable distance from the communities being served, which puts these organizations at odds with their own mission-based ethics to truly engage with those most impacted and to produce policy and programmatic interventions. During the Renters Rights and Information Forum, Queen Nuchie used her deep community ties to create a space to elevate those affected most by exploitative housing practices in the city, shedding light on what active and responsive community engagement truly looks like when you meet people where they are and allow them to share their stories to guide the direction and intention of any community engagement practice. Queen Nuchie and Dr. Lewis worked together to realize the One Family, One Community mission of true, human-centered engagement, eliciting vulnerable and provocative questions and responses from the people who matter the most.
What’s Behind Nonpayment of Rent: Filing a Declaration of Fact in a Minnesota Supreme Court Case on Landlord Retaliation
The Minneapolis Innovation Team’s Evictions in Minneapolis report states that nearly 93% of the city’s eviction filings were for nonpayment of rent. Similarly, of the 68 tenants interviewed in The Illusion of Choice project, 81% (55) of their evictions were filed for nonpayment of rent. However, CURA’s research findings highlight a need to demystify what nonpayment of rent really means from the perspective of those most impacted. From the perspective of landlords (both nonprofit and for-profit), most stated that because they cannot get the support from local law enforcement to appear in Housing Court, particularly for lease violations, filing nonpayment of rent becomes the easiest way to get rid of “problem tenants.” What is not captured by the Minneapolis Innovation Team’s analysis and the existing literature, however, are the ways that nonpayment of rent is used by many landlords to disportionately evade tenants’ rights to be free from retaliation. Two Minnesota laws protect tenants from retaliation by landlords. The first applies when a landlord seeks to terminate tenancy as a penalty for a tenant’s attempt to enforce rights. The other bans retaliatory evictions under the Tenant Remedies Act (TRA).
On August 3, 2018, Dorsey & Whitney, LLP, submitted an amicus curiae (Latin for Friend of the Court; a legal brief submitted on behalf of a party outside of a case that has expertise that may inform the case) on behalf of InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia (United Renters) in support of Aaron Olson to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Minnesota Supreme Court case was an appeal of the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision on April 9, 2018, in Central Housing Associates vs. Aaron Olson. The case focused on the anti-retaliation provision of the TRA, which states that “a residential tenant may not be evicted, have their obligations increased, or have their services decreased, if it ‘is intended as a penalty for the residential tenant’s or housing related neighborhood organization’s complaint of a violation.’” A “complaint of a violation” refers to a complaint on behalf of a tenant regarding landlord housing code violations or unaddressed issues with the property. However, the Court of Appeals constructed a limited and exclusionary definition of what legally constitutes a complaint of a violation.
InquilinXs UnidXs sought out Dr. Lewis for her research findings. She analyzed the 38 tenant interviews that had been completed at the time and wrote an official declaration for the amicus curiae. Of the 38 tenants, 11 had “experienced what the tenant perceived to be a form of retaliation by their landlord in response to the tenant complaining about an issue with their housing arrangements,” and 5 of these individuals reported specifically that their landlord filed an eviction action shortly after they reported a problem with their housing (through the city’s Inspections Department). In addition, due to deplorable living conditions, landlords would often make informal verbal arrangements for late rental payments. However, these verbal agreements would be immediately broken with an eviction action being filed by the landlord if and when the tenant called the Inspections Department.
Under the Court of Appeals’ interpretation, the tenant would only be protected under section 504B.441 if the tenant filed a civil lawsuit. Dr. Lewis notes that under this interpretation of what entails a “complaint of violation,” Minnesota’s retaliation would only get worse: “Unscrupulous landlords would be emboldened to retaliate against complaining tenants, landlords would be incentivized to take retaliatory actions at the first sign of a complaint (to head off a possible retaliation defense), and a chilling effect would result in more tenants choosing to live in unhealthy conditions instead of exercising their rights to live in safe conditions free from discrimination.”
This Minnesota Supreme Court appeal makes the argument that the “Supreme Court should reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and restore the proper interpretation of this statute” for several reasons. Given the plain language of section 504B.441, it is indicated that it should provide broad protection to tenants, and that the term “complaint of violation” refers to a complaint in its “common and approved usage” rather than a formal civil complaint. The legislative history surrounding the TRA shows that the anti-retaliation provision was expanded to prevent retaliation against tenants who complained about a more expansive range of issues than simply those raised to a city inspector. Landlord retaliation extends beyond the limits of evictions, such as fines, towing, and reduced use of common areas. The amicus curiae presents that a “proper interpretation of the statute would reflect the Legislature’s intent to protect the thousands of Minnesotans who experience and complain about violations short of filing a civil action, and would send a clear message to unscrupulous landlords that retaliation will not be tolerated.” The appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court is pending.
Data show that the landlord retaliation problem in Minnesota is widespread and extends far beyond what is represented through legal formal actions filed by tenants in civil court. For some landlords, evicting tenants who complain to the city is a type of business model. As a singular example, the city of Minneapolis noted that in the course of only 2 years, a single landlord filed 26 eviction actions after tenants filed repair or correction complaints to the city. Another example illustrates that in 2016, a staff member at InquilinXs UnidXs was declined a lease renewal by her landlord after beginning to organize tenants in her building to request repairs. This same landlord declined to renew the leases of five out of seven tenants who wrote repair requests. These acts of retaliation were in response to requests made not through formal complaints filed by tenants to initiate civil actions but rather to direct requests to the landlords, through InquilinXs UnidXs, or through police assistance.
A Three-Part Radio Series on Evictions
In the summer of 2018, Dr. Brittany Lewis partnered with KMOJ radio host Lissa Jones to develop a three-part series on evictions in North Minneapolis. Their goal was to help the community at-large understand the complexities and impacts of evictions in the 55411 and 55412 zip codes. In her KMOJ radio show “Urban Agenda,” Jones uses Black history as a lens to contextualize present-day issues that Black people face in the United States and across the world. The show celebrates Black people and Black culture, fighting the dangers of a totalizing story.
The first episode in the evictions series shed light on the economic trap that single Black mothers—locally and nationally—are often forced into. Dr. Lewis and Lissa Jones co-moderated a conversation between two Black women from North Minneapolis who experienced the painful realities of eviction as they navigated a world where, as Jones put it, there exists “a narrative frame that makes all Black women always already the problem.” Black women are disproportionately impacted by income inequality and often forced into the low-wage sector. This economic trap, as Jones described, keeps Black women and their families living in low-wealth communities where housing discrimination and violence is rampant and failing schools are underserving their children, which demonstrate the particularized intersections of race, gender, place, and class. The two North Minneapolis residents share their experiences with deplorable housing conditions, sexual harassment, and mental health issues, highlighting that “the economic trap determines where we live...and is all about who gets what and how much”—a continuous product of systemic racism and economic injustice.
Themes of perpetual and unavoidable degradation and assault by those in power pervade these women’s narratives, which leaves them with no alternative but to sacrifice personal dignity to protect and house themselves and their children. Jones explains that Black women “are trying to supply a life [and] trying to be human beings, and at every point in [the] housing process, our dignity is taken.” Structural injustices in housing policy shape Black women’s experiences of acquiring and maintaining housing. These conditions force women of color, especially single Black mothers, to accept egregious or even nonexistent leases to live in homes with existing infrastructural problems. Dr. Lewis explains:
There are good landlords and bad landlords, but unfortunately in the zip codes of 55411 and 55412, there is a business model that functions off of putting very little into their properties, knowing there’s a population of folks, folks of color, who are not going to be able to pass the criteria of certain other establishments that have high credit ratings, requiring three plus times the income. They know walking in that in some ways, “you [tenants] need [said homes].”
Even women with high levels of educational attainment get caught in this housing trap. While looking for work in her field after obtaining a master’s degree, one tenant stated: “[I] can’t afford to live where [I] would like, so [I have] to apply for low-income housing to make ends meet...and just trying to keep everything together for me and my daughter.”
Maintaining normalcy in the eyes of police and landlords is a mechanism used by these women to preserve dignity. It becomes a means of survival when few options exist to confront mental health issues or the exploitative practices of landlords and police. One woman revealed that she “was sexually, emotionally, mentally, physically abused [yet] was too embarrassed to admit everything [she] had been going through,” and as a result of shame she chose not to admit to her county worker what she had experienced and how it was impacting her. Some women “will openly admit depression, PTSD, or other mental health issues that they didn’t feel comfortable telling the police or sharing with their landlords” and “are having to still get up and take care of their children, still deal with these exploitative relationships [when] there’s not a safe space to have these conversations.”
Circumstances of painful and unjust sacrifice extend into the exploitation of women through sexual harassment by landlords, a theme far too pervasive in these women’s accounts. Dr. Lewis recounts similar narratives from many of the women she has interviewed: “Women that the landlord is being a sexual predator towards, and still having children and saying ‘But I have nowhere else to go.’” For these women, admitting histories and experiences of trauma and abuse gives power to their aggressors and furthers the erosion of dignity: “They have degraded us, humiliated us, touched us when we said no...and still we have to stand up, comport ourselves properly, put our back straight so our daughter doesn’t see us.” This implores us to question a housing system that favors the silencing of women over their well-being and security.
So what is the economic trap? As demonstrated by these narratives, it is being a Black mother with a master’s degree and getting turned away from a job because of your race. It is being evicted and going to the courtroom to see “nobody but people that look like [you].” It is “losing everything” to police who tear through your home, destroying your most valuable possessions, and still “[getting] back up, no matter how broken [you] might feel at the time.” The economic trap keeps these women in a state of economic disadvantage, eliminating the possibility of choice and submitting them to the effects of unjust systems that influence their everyday well-being and ability to thrive.
The second episode of the KMOJ evictions series drew upon the unique experiences of two Black female landlords who represent an anomaly in the demographic makeup of landlords in urban housing systems. Although two Black female property managers were expected on the show, only one showed up. The other property manager feared both how her white employers would feel about her comments and how local residents, whom she lives next too, might interpret what she intended to say on the radio. This episode explored the narrative of Edith, a Black female property manager in North Minneapolis who Dr. Lewis had interviewed. The narratives that these Black female property managers shared differed drastically from those of the White male landlords who make up 53% of the interviewed landlords in North Minneapolis. What makes these women’s stories different is the intentionality with which they have invested in the communities they work with, their desires to ensure that Black people were not pushed out of North Minneapolis by the realities of gentrification, and the history of housing discrimination that they too experienced.
Threaded throughout these narratives are two representations of a larger collective of Black women going above and beyond for their communities, placing compassion at the forefront of all of their work despite the toll it takes on their own spirit and health. Edith illustrates this example: “I try to advocate [for my tenants] and get them the resources and the networks so that they can get help, but I’m only by myself here...I have to take them to get emergency assistance. I have to take them to get their ID. I have to give help to these people...you don’t just wake up and say ‘Hey, I’m going to grow up and be homeless.’” Edith helps her tenants despite the personal costs because she understands where they come from, having experienced homelessness herself: “I make four bucks an hour when everything is said and done...I’m running people back and forth trying to get these tenants on the right track, picking people up from under the bridge.”
Edith’s compassion makes these relationships no less complex than others, as unique tensions and conflicts arise when working with her own people. She recalls a time when some of her tenants spoke to her in a hostile manner. She believes that these tenants would not display this kind of animosity toward a White landlord, because “you know the white man’s only going to hurt you further. So maybe you lash out, just like you do in a marriage maybe, to the people who are closest to you.” The tensions within herself and her community do not stop Edith from engaging meaningfully with her residents: “Sometimes I have to take a blow or there has to be a financial lack to get these people on the right track and try to get them where they need to be victorious in every area of their lives. That’s my goal.”
While Edith describes the heart-wrenching work of trying to help those who have suffered from homelessness, she must also balance the demands of her boss. “I let [my tenants] in with nothing sometimes and try to help them get a job and then do payment arrangements. Last month it was a real big turnover with my landlord with my people. He said, ‘You’re cheating me, Edith.’...So, I had to promise that I wouldn’t let anybody in without money anymore.” She recounts having to turn away a mother who survived domestic abuse and her two children at 2:30 a.m., despite having open beds, and “tearing up” inside knowing that she could be helping this family. Accounts such as these, where a property owner has different motivations for property management, are not uncommon. Edith reveals to us the imbalance of power that exists between many mission-driven property managers and the owners they must report to, illustrating the difficulty of engaging in altruistic and compassionate care for one’s own tenants and fellow community members.
Edith displays a kind of property management style that Dr. Lewis describes as rare. Yet being personally invested in tenants’ well-being does not have to be an anomaly in a restructured system. There is an understudied power struggle between human-centered property managers and landowners who sought out the area because acquisition costs were cheap and the dehumanizing realities of eviction in which landowners play a major role.
The third episode of the KMOJ evictions series centered sociologist Matthew Desmond (2016) and his well-known book, Evicted. The book tells the stories of eight Milwaukee families and the two landlords who own their homes, highlighting the families’ experiences with eviction. Desmond also provides quantitative analyses using data from court records and the census that, along with information gathered through interviews with families and landlords, inform his policy recommendations. Through the Eviction Lab, a Princeton University research center founded by Desmond, he and his research team released the first national evictions database, widely hailed as a long-awaited tool for housing activism. However, numerous scholars and housing organizers have taken issue with the nature of Desmond’s research, particularly its funding sources and contributors.
A group of scholar-activists and community organizers authored a Shelterforce article entitled “Eviction Lab Misses the Mark,” where they critique Desmond’s methods and positionality, namely how Desmond purchased evictions data from big data companies that gather information for “tenant screening” processes. The group argues that the data collected by their organizations through community-led data collection efforts are more complete and accurate, demonstrated by the large discrepancy between the numbers reported. “Yet, because of the social (and economic) capital of Princeton University, the Eviction Lab, and Desmond,” the authors bemoan, "media, policy, and academic reporting alike is more likely to pay heed to Eviction Lab data than to that of smaller groups that understand the lay of local displacement lands much better.” Desmond is a White man and his status as a prominent researcher positions him with the privilege to cast a national spotlight on an issue that Black female scholars and activists have already identified, advocated on, and personally experienced for years. The fact that Desmond’s positionality distances him from the people his work involves is a valid concern for researchers and organizers of color alike. Dr. Lewis summarizes the issues with Desmond’s work: “Grassroots organizers, low-income Black women have been doing the work and always have been advocating and speaking, but no one was listening. We have to question why it is that certain bodies are able to propel certain discussions into public policy discourse and make it relevant.”
In the last segment in the three-part series on Lissa Jones’ “Urban Agenda” radio show, Dr. Brittany Lewis, Dr. Terrion Williamson, and Dr. Crystal Moten came together, as Black female scholars, to explore how their academic work uncovers the historical silencing that Black women have experienced in relation to housing insecurities, drug addiction, sexual abuse, raising children, racism, and sexism. They start their conversation with a provocative question: “Who gets to speak for and with Black women?” They provide insight into who historically has been able to tell these stories, especially in institutional settings. Lissa Jones asks: “Where is the recognition of the raising up of [women’s] voices as intellectuals and academics as researchers?” Dr. Moten references the silencing that occurs through covert and unquestioned methods, such as the overemphasis of quantitative data at the expense of qualitative data methods, particularly in regard to Black women’s personal narratives. She discusses how both the media and the academy privilege quantitative data, and she urges us to re-evaluate the suggestion that “Black women are not doing as bad as Black men, so that means Black women are not doing bad,” prompting us to instead “look at the qualitative data that suggests something different that is usually not privileged in thinking about Black women and labor.”
Through their collective work, these women discussed what it means to be a community-engaged scholar, meaningfully working with community members, and personally relinquishing power as scholars of elite institutions. Dr. Williamson notes: “When you’re steeped in community, you’re steeped in what it means to do communal work, and your accountability is not to the institution so much as it is to the community.” This deep connection to the community can be a lens through which people can actualize positive change. Engaging in deeply personal research herself, Dr. Moten struggles with the lack of credibility that comes with what some scholars perceive to be as “me-search” as opposed to “rigorous and unbiased” research: “When we include ourselves or our own experiences in the research, it’s seen as not as serious, or too personal, or we have a hidden agenda. When I think about the question of why can a white scholar research communities of color and it be taken seriously? Because in the academy, he’s seen as being distanced from his research study.” If the research of Black women is not embraced by the academy and mainstream media as credible, it will not get amplified and has no power to alter the national dialogue or create lasting structural policy change. This work must be recognized as powerfully legitimate for the purpose of helping to both heal communities of systemic inequity and the production of relevant public policy change. Drs. Lewis, Williamson, and Moten urge us to continue to question whose narratives we choose to uplift, as well as imagine, a more communal economic system in which we all can prioritize the well-being of ourselves and fellow community members over the security of powerful institutions.
Partnering with Former Congressman Keith Ellison to Introduce Federal Legislation and Create Local Partnerships for Change
On July 19, 2017, former Congressman Keith Ellison (now Minnesota Attorney General) partnered with First Focus Campaign for Children to invite Dr. Brittany Lewis, Dr. Matthew Desmond, and a national legal representative and housing advocate to Washington, DC to lead an educational staff briefing.The briefing was intended to provide information for policymakers on policy solutions that would increase access to civil legal services for families facing eviction. Following the panel, Congressman Ellison introduced the Equal Opportunity for Residential Representation Act (HR 1146), proposing a grant program to fund legal representation for those facing housing-related issues.
The panel began with an introduction by Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus and its Campaign for Children. Mr. Lesley gave an overview of the status of child poverty and homelessness in the United States. Keynote speaker Matthew Desmond then took the stage, discussing his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which follows eight families and their experiences with eviction. Panelists from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, New York University, the Legal Aid Society of Washington, DC, and lastly, Senior Research Associate from CURA, Dr. Brittany Lewis. Dr. Lewis described the work being done in Minnesota to provide civil legal services and other supports to families that had been evicted or were at risk of eviction while also introducing the goals of The Illusion of Choice project. Congressman Ellison closed the panel by detailing his legislation, HR 1146, the Equal Opportunity for Residential Representation Act, which is a pilot program that would provide grants to housing-related organizations, including those that provide civil legal services to families facing eviction, landlord/tenant disputes, or fair housing discrimination. Although this legislation did not make it out of the Committee on Financial Services, the recommendations in the report included increasing the supply of affordable housing, expanding access to civil legal services, strengthening family tax credits, reforming the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program, investing in early childhood education, addressing environmental hazards in housing, and increasing equity in public schools.
Nine months later, Congressman Ellison hosted a similar panel on April 5, 2018, in North Minneapolis with Dr. Lewis and other affordable housing providers and legal representatives serving as key experts. Congressman Ellison’s intention was to bring together local power brokers from across multiple sectors to name the problem of evictions and in breakout sessions discuss potential solutions. The event prompted its participants, most of whom were nonprofit leaders or policymakers, to discuss solutions and policy fixes in four key areas: (1) legal representation and remedies for tenants facing eviction; (2) policy and funding solutions to preserve and develop additional units of affordable housing; (3) emergency assistance (EA), social services intervention, and wraparound services; and (4) city, county, and state policy solutions to strengthen and protect tenant rights.
Through this event, Dr. Lewis was invited to share the stories and perspectives of those who do not often get heard—those most impacted by evictions. She chose to pull out direct quotes from the interviews conducted with evicted tenants that centered around their experiences with EA. Naturally, by bringing in the voices of tenants, Dr. Lewis put policymakers in an uncomfortable position, wherein they were forced to confront an issue that they were too often able to ignore. It was at that forum that Dr. Lewis was able to compel former Hennepin County Commissioner Peter Mclaughlin to arrange a meeting with Hennepin County Emergency Assistance leadership to present the data being collected and discuss potential policy and programmatic solutions. Communities of color are far too familiar with those in positions of power admiring the problem without any real, tangible action steps taken to address it. By partnering with Congressman Ellison, Dr. Lewis was able to explore the problem of evictions by centering the voices of those most impacted, while using those voices to show policymakers how to co-develop policy solutions at the federal and local levels with those most impacted at the center.
Investing in the Capacity of Youth Researchers to Produce Knowledge
For years, CURA has partnered with the North Minneapolis–based youth arts organization Juxtaposition Arts, also known as Juxta. Juxta classifies itself as a nonprofit youth art education program, a teen-staffed art and design enterprise, and a locally rooted cultural development center. Juxta’s mission is to “develop community by engaging and employing young urban artists in hands-on education initiatives that create pathways to self-sufficiency while actualizing creative power.” In 2018, Juxta began its Young People’s Action Research (YPAR) team, consisting of five youth researchers, a youth facilitator and tactical lead, Adrienne Doyle, and Director Kristen Murray. Dr. Lewis reached out to the YPAR team leadership to determine if the youth would be interested in partnering with the CURA Evictions research team to explore the inequities behind a differential social service system that tenants consistently described in their interviews.
When tenants were interviewed, it was quite common for them to describe their experience of applying for Hennepin County EA as “dehumanizing” and show emotional anguish or often cry. Interviewees would go further and state that when they were in the process of applying and seeking support, they felt they were given the “runaround.” In short, the “runaround” was quite literally the process of collecting forms, paperwork, and permissions at different places, within a frame of limited information. For example, tenants were often told, after the fact, that they needed a formal eviction filing to be eligible for services, forcing them to “run around” between social services, Housing Court, and property managers to gather the paperwork needed to even apply for support services. These processes were described as inefficient and frustrating but more than anything, dehumanizing. The YPAR team agreed to partner with CURA on this aspect of the project, with the goal of using interviews they conducted with local social service navigators to create a game simulation called the The Social Service Runaround.
In the fall of 2018, Dr. Lewis met with the YPAR team members to familiarize them with the scope of The Illusion of Choice project and share the interview instrument as well as de-identified interview transcripts. These tools and Dr. Lewis’s mentorship helped them gain a broader understanding of the goals and scope of the project and also some of the initial data findings. Dr. Lewis then led a series of technical skills trainings with the YPAR team, providing an introduction to interview guidelines, interview consent procedures, qualitative interview skills training, and effective interview question development. Dr. Lewis also helped the team to identify interview participants from across social service sectors in and outside the county.
The YPAR team interviewed 17 people over the course of 6 months, meeting as a group twice a week. Four of these people were from Hennepin County and worked in the Emergency Assistance Department of Human Services. They also interviewed supervisors, staff members, case managers, and rental assistance program workers from shelters, such as St. Stephen’s and Simpson Housing, as well as people from the Salvation Army, local churches, Legal Aid, and Inquilinxs Unidxs. The team reported interesting perspectives from those who work at community development agencies, such as Commonbond and Urban Homeworks, since they function as nontraditional landlords. These interviews concluded in early December of 2018. The interview data were compiled and used to create an interactive game simulation, The Social Service Runaround, which aims to cultivate a better understanding of the inefficiencies and difficulties inherent in the county’s current social service system.
Game participants are randomly assigned to certain realities, such as “unemployed, seeking housing,” and given a checklist of tasks they must complete, such as “seek unemployment,” before the end of the game. Participants engage in the “runaround” by traveling to and from different social service offices, such as the county and human services office, while waiting in long lines to receive documentation like an EA denial letter needed to obtain other services. The experience of YPAR’s simulated social service runaround is quickly and unexpectedly humbling. All participants are first given a booklet with the rules of the game and then asked to roll a die determining their current situation, whether it be unemployed or recently evicted and homeless. Each participant is then given a checklist of tasks to complete within a given amount of time, in no particular order, including tasks such as “apply for EA at the county,” “apply for unemployment at human services,” and “get UD expunged from record.” Additionally, players are made aware of the specific physical location of these services within the context of the physical place where they play. In a brilliant effort to emphasize time as a metaphor for money, YPAR designed the game such that each task—and the transportation required to reach each location—costs a certain amount of “time coins,” five of which are doled out to each participant in the beginning. Simulation participants quickly become frustrated, with long lines of people waiting their turn to be denied for EA, unreliable “transportation” to and from different social service locations, and unexpected requirements of unobtained documentation. To simulation participants, it quickly becomes clear that there are several unwritten rules to be discovered along the way, and that there are no clear ways to win this game. In this process, it is also notable that all roads lead back to the county. Whether it be to obtain a denial letter necessary to receive unemployment, or an approval on a request for EA, going to the county is almost always the first step in making any headway elsewhere.
Another tactfully representative element of the game is the inclusion of “blessing” and “curse” cards that are handed out randomly to participants. A facilitator can come by at any point and give a participant a card that either provides them a blessing—such as extra time coins—or a curse—such as suddenly being laid off from a job, thus becoming unemployed. These cards demonstrate the illusion of choice that many experience when struggling to stay afloat and obtain necessary services. Despite playing the game correctly, saving up time coins and applying for employment, the chance cards create an inability to fully control the outcome of the game, accurately paralleling the uncontrollability of life events before, during, or after seeking services.
The game ends after a set period of time, with no obvious winners, and participation concludes with a reflection on the simulation’s intentions and reality parallels. Most notably was the empathy felt by many participants toward those who cannot simply stop playing the social service runaround game, whose lives are dominated by interactions with flawed systems. YPAR team members explained that in their interviews, county resource navigators themselves expressed a need for systemic change at the county level specifically, recognizing the inefficiency and dehumanizing nature of the processes that occur (or do not occur) there. Team member Adrienne commented on the process of creating the game: “It’s been awesome. This issue is really important to me, and I know a lot of us have experienced first-hand these issues. It has been great to challenge who is an expert and also asking community and advocating for change.”
The overall goal of The Social Service Runaround simulation is to prompt policy change at the county level, for EA and human resources, drawing blatant attention to the ineffectiveness of these services when it comes to meeting the needs of the people they are intended to serve. The YPAR team hopes that this game reaches both policymakers and community centers in their neighborhoods, specifically in the zip codes of 55411 and 55412. Makeda, a YPAR team member, emphasized: “We want people to come out with a better understanding of how to navigate the system, and the issues within the system that make it difficult to navigate. Also, [we want them to] just [learn] empathy.”