When Residents Are Engaged, Communities Win
Tischelle George, Deputy Director, Resident Engagement, New York City Housing Authority
People have a natural desire to build community. Whether it’s by sharing the proverbial cup of sugar or through more organized block associations, our neighborhoods provide opportunities to develop connections with one another and get engaged in the decisions that impact everyone’s quality of life. This is particularly true for the 400,000 New Yorkers who live in the hundreds of public housing developments operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
Established in the 1930s, NYCHA is now confronting the challenges of managing aging housing stock after decades of financial disinvestment. One critical component of any strategy to overcome the obstacles and preserve this valuable resource of affordable housing for future generations is partnering with residents. “[It’s] no secret that there are challenges that we face in public housing, and we’re not only looking to ourselves, but we are also looking at residents for solutions,” said Sideya Sherman, NYCHA’s Executive Vice President for Community Engagement and Partnerships.
To encourage community participation, NYCHA has spent decades developing ways for residents to get involved and strengthen their leadership skills. The following are a few examples.
NYCHA offers leadership opportunities targeted to specific age groups. Youth between the ages of 14 to 21 can join a local NYCHA Youth Leadership Council and work on civic engagement projects that help improve their communities through education, community clean-up days, and better relations between youth and law enforcement. NYCHA senior citizens, many of whom have aged in place and are pillars of their communities, can become Senior Champions, residents who work with NYCHA and members of the community to activate social, health, safety, and educational projects for their fellow seniors. Senior Champions also serve as liaisons/ambassadors to ensure that neighbors are informed of current NYCHA affairs, issues, and initiatives.
One of NYCHA’s most venerable resident leadership organizations is the resident association. These democratic organizations are designed to help improve the quality of life for NYCHA residents. They receive tenant participation funding from the federal government to support self-sufficiency activities such as skill-building workshops. They also work with NYCHA management and with community organizations, giving residents a voice in the operation of their developments and an opportunity to advocate for community resources. Each resident association’s executive board is elected by members. Most resident associations host monthly meetings and organize annual “Family Day” celebrations in the summer for friends and neighbors, complete with food, music, games, and informational tables with community resources.
Residents who are resident association executive board members or who aspire to become leaders in their NYCHA community can access college-level training through the Resident Leadership Academy (RLA) as part of a collaboration between NYCHA and the City University of New York (CUNY). Through CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, NYCHA residents can earn college credits “while taking classes on non-profit leadership development and community organizing and the history of public housing so that they can really affect change in their communities,” said Ms. Sherman.
The opportunity to learn among peers in a tuition-free college setting is a dream come true for Tracey Pinkard, an RLA participant. “I get to sharpen my skills in my role as a leader in the community and gain access to higher education, which is something that can be a little pricey for people who are interested in returning to school,” said Ms. Pinkard.
The first RLA course, Public Housing 101, lays the foundation and “gives an opportunity to really understand the history of why public housing in New York City was even considered,” Ms. Pinkard noted. She also values how her peers in the RLA, who are all NYCHA residents, are adding to her knowledge about how NYCHA communities throughout the city compare to one another. “One of the great things about that class is that people come in with an array of experience, and you learn from people who are retired but still believe that education is an important part of their life, and from younger people,” Ms. Pinkard said.
Thoughtful engagement and strategic collaboration between NYCHA and community stakeholders is precisely what’s needed now to protect and improve NYCHA for the next generation of New Yorkers. For NYCHA, resident feedback is integral to the success of any initiative. When residents are engaged, communities win.
Tischelle George is a Deputy Director in the Resident Engagement Department of the New York City Housing Authority with experience in community engagement, education advocacy and rent as a credit-building tool.