Crossing Divides on the Path to Justice Housing

Rebekah TaftBlog

“The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” –Father Boyle

As Jubilee Housing prepares to close on the historic Maycroft Apartments and start creating the city’s latest “justice housing” development there, residents, supporters, and staff gathered to build the bridges we know justice housing can foster.

On June 5, approximately 100 guests assembled in empty Maycroft apartments for dinner and conversations aimed at crossing divides and discovering mutuality among individuals with vastly different life stories. As Board Chair Myra Peabody Gossens explained, Jubilee’s unique contribution is to develop affordable homes in ways that create the interaction required to reduce inequity.

In opening the event, Gossens quoted Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”

Justice housing, she said, is affordable to all, located in thriving neighborhoods, and close to opportunities that support growth. “Yet justice housing is not a given in a broken society where economic disparity is the norm and where a system of privilege for some—at the expense of others—perpetuates social and racial discrimination,” she said.

Gossens called on her audience to ensure that people of all racial and economic backgrounds can thrive in D.C. by preventing the rapid conversion of the city’s available housing stock and land to high-end, high-cost developments.

New Jubilee board member Alex Orfinger echoed Gossens’ themes in his comments to the group. Orfinger spoke of his recognition, uncovered though friendship with one of Jubilee’s residents, that “white privilege has made my path easier.”

He suggested that “change starts in small intimate moments like tonight—with people talking, opening their hearts, and dropping their armor.” He encouraged guests to collaborate with “committed people from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds” to make our city an inclusive, just place where everyone can thrive.

The evening began with everyone assembled in the Maycroft ground-floor space where, when the renovation is complete, Martha’s Table will offer programs to support families preparing their youngest children for lifelong success.

Martha’s Table President and CEO Patty Stonesifer described for guests “the gift” that leading Martha’s Table has been for her. She also conveyed her excitement about bringing to the Maycroft and its surrounding community not only opportunities for children to thrive but also a place that makes available wholesome food essential for stronger children and families.

Before guests adjourned for small-group discussions over dinner, Jubilee Board member and resident Sam Buggs offered a personal perspective on the difference justice housing can make in an individual’s life. Buggs said he committed a crime 44 years ago and learned since that “once you’re labeled a felon, for some people that label sticks with you until the day you die. It precludes you from getting adequate housing or any housing at all, jobs, and many opportunities that most people take for granted.”

A home with supportive services, in a neighborhood full of resources, enabled him to turn his life around, Buggs said. He now is pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Catholic University and hopes to mentor young people.

Buggs’ example led the way for us all to open up about ourselves during dinner. Designated leaders at each table prompted guests to talk about: (1) a place they lived as children that influenced their outlook on life, (2) a childhood experience that made them aware of their social standing, (3) an encounter with someone that made a lasting impression on them, and (4) the one thing they wish they could do to address issues that arose during their dinner conversations.

The resulting comments surprised, amused, affirmed, disturbed, and inspired. In the end, they created community among a group of mostly strangers.

In wrapping up the evening, with everyone back in the future Martha’s Table space, Jubilee Executive Director and President Jim Knight reminded the group that over its 45 years, Jubilee has worked with thousands of residents and “witnessed countless people overcome obstacles of discrimination, economic hardship, and unequal access to opportunity while the system that produces these obstacles continued unabated.”

Knight called for new practices, new ideas, and new patterns of relationship to overcome systemic racial and social inequity. He invited everyone to join Jubilee in supporting justice housing and mutual understanding for the sake of all our city’s residents.

Jubilee thanked Bernstein Management Corporation, Enterprise Community Partners, Forest City, Geppetto Catering, Martha’s Table, Perkins + Will, Skanska, United Bank, and the Washington Business Journal for their support of the evening activities.