Q&A with Lea Whitehurst-Gibson, Virginia Community Voice
As our region continues to see increasing momentum around housing issues and housing solutions, the Community Foundation sat down with two of the leaders championing these efforts through the Richmond Regional Housing Framework: Jovan Burton, Director of Implementation for the Partnership for Housing Affordability, and Lea Whitehurst-Gibson, Executive Director of Virginia Community Voice. Read on to learn more from Lea Whitehurst-Gibson (and click here to read part one with Jovan Burton).
What is your role with the Richmond Regional Housing Framework?
Lea Whitehurst-Gibson: My role is to do community engagement for the framework and make sure that people who are most affected by the issues are centered in that conversation, and that the things that are affecting them the most don’t get drowned out. Housing tends to get drowned out in larger conversations, even though at the end of the day, everyone needs housing. It’s not just a privilege for people to have a roof over their head, it’s a right.
A lot of times, the narrative that comes with why people can’t get housing is, “Well, they probably just made some decisions that weren’t great, or their financial planning isn’t good.” But getting down to the root cause of the issue, it’s a justice issue. It’s about the system that has been set up with redlining, blockbusting, and all the other things that have happened throughout our history that have kept people of color from being able to engage in the right of housing – not because of bad decisions, but because of racism. Our work is tied to historically marginalized communities and making sure we’re not just hearing what people have to say, but we’re actually doing something about it.
What have you learned through the process of creating this framework that might surprise people?
LWG: I think all of the intersectionality of housing can be surprising to people. When I was working on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, we saw that one trust fund in Minnesota focused on the intersection between education and housing, and they had the superintendent come in to say, “Listen, if people don’t have stable housing, we cannot educate their kids. It’s impossible to do. The transience of housing instability is what keeps kids from actually having everything they need around education.” It’s true here, too. Housing is foundational to everything, and I think that’s surprising sometimes for people to see.
What are the next steps for the housing framework?
LWG: From the community engagement perspective, we know that there are people from the community that don’t know what happened when we launched the framework, so our job now is to go out and let them know. A huge goal for us is getting to a place where the community members we’re engaging feel like they can talk about a particular issue. To do that, we’re figuring what issue is most important to them and how the framework fits into that, or how the framework can be adjusted to include the things that they say.
One of our big priorities is working to engage the Latinx community and make sure that their voice is heard. Our community engagement specialist, Florencia [Fuensalida], is bilingual and really has a heart to see the Latinx community engaged in this process. A lot of times we can talk about issues as very black and white in this city, but there are so many other spaces where we haven’t really gone deep, and I think one of those places is with the Latinx community. We want to make sure that the things that they need are also implemented in the framework, so that’s our first real big push.
How did you get involved in this work, and why are you passionate about it?
LWG: Almost a decade ago, I was working with an organization called Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC), which was congregation-based community organizing centered around community voice and people who don’t get heard. I didn’t know I wanted to be involved with justice work until I stepped into that space. The connection between policy and systemic change, seeing that coupled with engaging people in communities whose voices aren’t heard on a regular basis to be the catalyst for that systemic change – with those two things together, I was just like, “Oh! This is my thing.”
I started Virginia Community Voice almost six months ago, so it’s still a very new organization, but my passion for this work started a long time ago. My first interaction with social justice work was with anti-human-trafficking work and changing laws around those issues. I saw that I could help one person with an issue, or we could change the root causes of those issues.
What do you like to do outside of work?
LWG: Aside from launching a brand-new organization and doing wonderful projects like this, my husband and I are foster parents, and we have three young children that we’re fostering right now, all under six years old. So, that is a lot! I feel like hobbies outside of that don’t exist, but before, I loved cooking and entertaining. I live in Jackson Ward, and I love my neighborhood and having connection to my neighbors, and I love that my house is 150 years old, and in general I love being part of a community that has that much history.
If you’d like to know more about the ways you can get involved with the Richmond Regional Housing Framework, please contact Community Engagement Specialist Florencia Fuensalida at firstname.lastname@example.org.