This is a guest blog post from VAHPP Community Organizer Ivie Bien-Aime ('17), of Tenants and Neighbors in New York, NY.
I joined the AmeriCorps VISTA program to make a difference, give back to my community, and reignite the passion I had lost after years of feeling stuck in an unhappy workplace. There I was, 49 years old, a college graduate with good job skills, ten years into a career field I loved yet frustrated with the environment. So what did I do? I quit!
Quitting my job was not a very good decision in today's job market. Still, I forged ahead and immediately put myself back on the job market. It didn't take long for me to realized that a part of me didn't feel grounded enough to commit to another "job." I wanted more than just another job -- I needed a mission!
Helping others has always been integral to my career choices. I came across a posting for a tenant organizing position as an AmeriCorps VISTA, serving with Tenants and Neighbors (T&N). T&N is nonprofit grassroots organization that helps tenants build and effectively wield their power to preserve at-risk affordable housing and strengthen tenants' right in New York. T&N works at both the individual building and the system level. When T&N learns that a building is at risk of being converted to market-rate housing, they help the tenants in the building form a tenant association, and provide them with the organizing support, leadership development, training, technical assistance, and advocacy they need in order to work to keep their building affordable. T&N educates the tenants about the systems that are facilitating the loss of affordable housing, and helps them develop campaigns to effect change at the policy and legislative level.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer, I have pledged a one year commitment to work on the VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP). My position and this project is sponsored through Equal Justice Works and its unique partnership with the National Alliance for HUD Tenants. The goal of the project is to build the capacity of tenant associations in eligible Project-based Section 8 Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) assisted properties to increase tenants' knowledge of their rights, responsibilities, and options for preserving their homes and improving their communities. The project's goals are so aligned to my passion and personal beliefs regarding the crisis of housing insecurity in the United States – I believe that all families should have the right to affordable, safe, and secure homes and neighborhoods. Therefore, I take my role as a VISTA Member seriously, including the oath and pledge of national service, as well as adhering to the activities prohibited by AmeriCorps.
My own background and experience of living in poverty as a single mother, and nearly a lifetime as an undocumented immigrant, fuels my compassion for all those who live paycheck to paycheck. I know so well the enormous challenge of living affordably in New York. Fortunately, I have gained some success and was able to navigate through structures that seem to oppose progress with a lot of help from community advocates and grassroots organizations such as Tenants & Neighbors. Today, it seems that being willing and able to work or having a job does not guarantee the security of having a home or living in a safe community. The homelessness and housing affordability crisis is the face of poverty. Every day thousands of New York families, including infants and the elderly, face eviction because they simply can’t afford their rent. Gentrification and tenant displacement has wreaked havoc on communities of color. Homelessness in New York City is at an all time high, with over 45,000 children in the shelter system. Homelessness is a national crisis, and I want to be a voice for the voiceless. As a naturalized citizen, woman of color, proud American, and a Community Organizer with a background working with families and children, my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA is very special. It provides me the mission to be of service, and I am glad to be able to make this one-year commitment to work on this national project to help preserve affordable housing for eligible families.