Political possibility is born from cultural ideas and mindsets. As Heather McGee notes in The Sum of Us, “laws are merely expressions of a society’s dominant beliefs. It’s the beliefs that must shift in order for outcomes to change. When policies change in advance of the underlying beliefs, we are often surprised to find the problem still with us.”7
In housing and community development, the stubborn persistence of racial segregation, the yawning wealth gap, and the disproportionate risks faced by specific populations are evidence that, even after decades of policy interventions, racist beliefs continue to shape our systems.8 When communities truly embrace equity, the systems will shift, and the outcomes will change.
That said, we are currently seeing how cultural shifts anchored by local and national social movements calling attention to economic and racial inequity are beginning to reshape housing policies. One of the most recent examples is single-family zoning. Often held as a cornerstone of good neighborhood design, single-family zoning has come under new scrutiny as a policy tool that perpetuates segregation, maintains racial inequality, and drives up housing costs in communities across the country.9
While the work to overturn single-family zoning has largely taken shape in city council halls and at grasstops10 advocacy tables, rising housing costs and expanding wealth gaps have also spawned hundreds of grassroots organizing efforts across the country.11 Today’s grassroots leaders are some of the most powerful housing and community development communication experts in the field. Using targeted messages and powerful messengers, they are reframing the ethos and mythos of the American housing system while building power with people who experience the deepest forms of housing insecurity.
The Moms4Housing movement in Oakland, California, drew a national spotlight on Black mothers fighting against housing insecurity and the harms of rampant speculation in one of the hottest housing markets in the country. Their work led the speculators who owned the property they occupied to sell it to a local land trust. Oakland advocates also secured a commitment from the city to track vacant and foreclosed properties.12
In Kansas City, KC Tenants elevated renters as a powerful constituent base by building power with hundreds of multigenerational, multiracial working-class tenants and tenants with low incomes. The group articulated a comprehensive local housing strategy, which became an organizing tool used to pass a tenant’s bill of rights in 2019 and to lay the groundwork for both short- and long-term policy wins, including funding for the Office of the Tenant Advocate and Housing Trust Fund.
Philadelphia’s Occupy PHA and LA’s Reclaimers highlighted the injustices of public agencies holding vacant properties while thousands of people faced homelessness in the pandemic. These movements successfully worked with local agencies to convert more than 50 properties into permanent homes for formally homeless people, among other wins.
Cultural strategy isn’t just about educating people, sharing data, or tweaking messages. As Art/Work Practice notes in Cultural Strategy: An Introduction and Primer, “Cultural Strategy is indispensable to social movement building because it creates conditions for sustainable cultural change, and it fortifies social justice interventions with hope, possibility, and imagination. For those communities most impacted by oppression, Cultural Strategy centers a politic of repair, redress, reclamation, healing, and building power…Culture work animates alternate futures for us, making them seem possible and within reach.”13
The goal is to shift cultural narratives to cut a new path. But how do we do that? This section focuses on how to articulate your vision and develop a messaging strategy to build power and shift the way business is done.
Creating a healing culture that’s built to last
Often, the first step in passing legislation or changing a regulation is getting people to engage with your messages, messengers, and stories. No matter its outcome, the culture you create around your work will stick around. Your communications and cultural strategies may be your first and most visible opportunity to create an equity-forward strategy anchored to cultural forms of expression that emphasize dignity, healing, and repair.
All people and places have a culture. Dominant cultures are so ubiquitous that they become the air one breaths, both all-encompassing and invisible. The fields of housing, community development, and investment have cultures and cultural practices that dictate where and how we meet, the language we use, who gets the spotlight, and what we are supposed to value. In some instances, leaning on those cultural practices will productively accelerate our efforts, but sometimes those cultural practices can exacerbate harms by reinforcing tokenization, marginalization, or oppression.
For people who’ve struggled against oppressive systems, developing or maintaining their cultures nurtures dignity in the face of disrespect. Cultural practices can be a well of strength, a way to preserve, what Power California calls the “traditions, belief systems, ways of living and knowing, and crucially…ways of reclaiming, healing, and strengthening under conditions of cultural theft, suppression, and erasure.”
A deep understanding of the cultural language of the place where you are working and its people should inform how you communicate your vision across all messages, messengers, and mediums. Failure to develop that understanding can cause harm and confusion, but a strong cultural strategy can widen your audience, build buy-in, strengthen your resolve, and bring joy and levity to your work.