January 6, 2021

Community Organizer Fellowship Profile: United Tenants of Albany

An Interview with Adrian Hill at the United Tenants of Albany

In 2019, Enterprise launched the Community Organizer Fellowship, providing funding to three community-based organizations across New York State to further their community organizing priorities. The fellowship seeks to empower these organizations to address pressing issues including displacement, youth organizing, and the supply of affordable housing. In this multi-part blog series, we will provide space for each organization's community organizer fellow to reflect on their work.

This week we are featuring United Tenants of Albany (UTA), an organization that works to protect the rights of tenants throughout the Capital District to ensure safe, decent, and permanently affordable housing, with a special emphasis on those people at the highest risk of displacement. UTA’s fellow, Adrian Hill, is working to create the capacity for a Division of Policy & Advocacy at UTA, dedicated to local housing policy reform and the development of community-informed interventions. The fellow is participating in the development of locally-informed policies that safeguard tenants' rights to healthy and affordable housing.

Briefly describe your professional and personal background and how that led to your current role at United Tenants of Albany as a community organizer?

AH: I met the Executive Director of United Tenants at a community event where she was presenting on available services through the organization. I was intrigued by what I heard and applied to a different position. Two weeks later, I had been hired, which energized me. I felt like I had been given another opportunity to continue work in a community that would make a difference in someone’s life. Utilizing the skills, experience, and methodologies acquired over a 25-year work history in the Human Service field, I was offered the position of Community organizer after being employed for three months.

What is the general state of community organizing in the Capital District?

AH: The state of community organizing in the city of Albany presently has great momentum and we are currently building an agenda for local policy reform around the city’s Code Enforcement Department, Good Cause Eviction, a more concise Covid-19 relief plan that will help stabilize people who are in jeopardy of losing their housing, eviction prevention strategies both in the legal strata and through advocacy, and other initiatives that will build our base.

Community organizing at UTA was a major part of the organization’s history from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the organization was formed directly through community organizing work in 1973. However, throughout the 1990's and 2000's, UTA lacked capacity to meet the need for community building work until its partnership with Enterprise.

What have been your biggest challenges as an organizer at UTA?

AH: One challenge was integrating myself into the community as an Organizer, which I did by interfacing with other advocates and organizers from Poor People’s Campaign, Citizens Action, and Housing Justice for All. Another challenge was to start building capacity for the agency’s Community Engagement Team. To do this, I spoke to local tenant leaders, community residents, and others interested in building this coalition and assisting in the development of campaigns around housing. Within a month I had identified 25 people who I considered to be my base. They went to lobby days, outreach events and were very visible at local housing rallies.

Coping with this new set of circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic from an organizer’s standpoint has also been an adjustment for me as I was forced to examine how to stay connected to community. I was given the opportunity to serve as the co-chair of a committee developing a Covid-19 Response Plan

The committee included community leaders, service providers, and other stakeholders tasked with disseminating information about emergency services, food drops, helping people filing unemployment claims, directing folks to online mental health initiatives, and giving community members an outlet to talk about how they were feeling. I was able to incorporate members of the United Tenants Community Engagement Team as volunteers, allowing them to be a part of the process as we mobilized community members and to use our social structure to address the problems associated with isolation and achieve the objectives set forth in the response plan.

What is needed to further the progress you've already made, especially considering the obstacles posed by Covid-19 and and where do you see community organizing going looking into the future for the Capital District and yourself?

AH: Given the progress that has been made despite Covid-19, we are very optimistic about the possibilities of building a strong base of power to collectively deal with the housing and economic issues facing our community.

Our action steps are to:

  1. Identify community leaders.
  2. Engage them, educate and train them in the art of “power building.”
  3. Share the vision for community engagement that we are building, as a result of Covid-19 and its effects on the housing industry, our economy and the community as a whole. This vision is based on the idea that the powerless will remain powerless, exploited, discriminated against, marginalized, and otherwise taken advantage of as long as we remain isolated and divided.
  4. Develop a community consensus plan around a set of goals, and strategies to achieve them - specific, short- and long-term goals.
  5. Examine the available resources for putting together virtual campaigns and online initiatives that can continue if there is another shutdown.
  6. Implement the plan and evaluate the results, and as progress is measured, redefine our methods when needed.

I believe that if we continue to build a community-organizing model that is rooted in democratic values, that will bring social and economic justice to the residents of the city of Albany, while empowering them to unite as one voice.

What big takeaways/lessons have you learned from the first year?

AH: As an organizer, I began to view some of the “same old” social, economic, and housing problems faced by the residents of this community through a different lens. As a service provider I was often given everything that I needed to bring about change in people’s lives, as an organizer I have had to create a foundation for my work and build on it.

I began to see how the power brokers of the real estate industry, developers and landlords were being allowed to feed off the poor, working class, and marginalized people in our Black and Brown neighborhoods. I also saw a lack of engagement initiatives and support for the people in this community who needed it the most. This helped me to identify issues impacting the community, set goals and objectives, identify individuals and core groups to align myself with and it also gave me the opportunity to become very vocal about what I saw.

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