FORWARD: Issue #5: Housing
Social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson spotlights the racist history of housing predation on Chicago’s South Side through her project, Inequity for Sale. Photo courtesy the artist and the National Public Housing Museum.
What’s the role of artists in creating housing solutions?
An interview with Dr. Lisa Yun Lee and Tiff Beatty of the National Public Housing Museum
We sought out Lisa and Tiff for this interview because their work at the National Public Housing Museum is anchored at the intersection of art and housing. The two of them have provocative ideas about the root cause of housing issues; the importance of home, community, and belonging; and how art can inspire radical change. These excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
Inequity for Sale places five-foot-high, black-and-yellow concrete and metal land markers in front of land sale contract homes in Chicago. The project’s use of powerful language and graphics shifts our gaze beyond the symptoms, exposes root causes, and demands solutions that center the people most impacted. Photo courtesy Tonika Lewis Johnson and the National Public Housing Museum.
MALLORY RUKHSANA NEZAM: You wrote that we need to “think beyond housing as a commodity and recognize it as a public good.” How is housing a public good in the work that you do, in the work that you steward and witness?
DR. LISA YUN LEE: It is important for people to recognize that the history of housing and the history of public housing is not just about housing. It’s about public education, public safety, public health—all things that we might consider to be in the public sphere and part of a common wealth or public good in society. That also goes hand in hand with the idea of housing as a human right for all people, not just a privilege for certain people. Profiteering and the public interest are not the same thing. The fact is that it’s more profitable to build million-dollar condos than to build good safe housing for working-class people.
The government’s role in housing has been undermined because it’s divested itself from developing, building, or even managing many and most kinds of housing programs in the United States and has completely outsourced it to the private sector. We need to reinvest in public housing and make sure that the federal government has a role. That’s something that the public needs to wrestle with and challenge, and have a new civic conversation around: what is the role of government in guaranteeing these things that we hold dear in a democracy, and how do we guarantee that they stay public goods for all people?
We need to reinvest in public housing and make sure that the federal government has a role.
—Dr. Lisa Yun Lee
Tiff Beatty: The only thing I would add to that is maybe pushing it a bit beyond housing and thinking about this idea of home. Our mission is to preserve, promote, and propel this idea that everyone has a right to a place to call home. Depending on your sphere, some folks will connect that to ideas of belonging and how social justice is partially about citizenship and about who belongs and who are communities for, who is the future that we’re building communities for. These ideas of home and belonging, and this idea of community, is something that, as a public, we could advocate for. There’s the role of the government and there’s also the role of the people, which is about advocacy in the civic space but also in our cultural and social spaces.
There’s the role of the government and there’s also the role of the people, which is about advocacy in the civic space but also in our cultural and social spaces.
LYL: It’s not about land ownership, right? This is going to be controversial. But we need to think beyond ways of reimagining how we generate wealth, health, and safety, beyond home ownership. Now, historically families have generated and passed down wealth through home ownership, and we live in a society in which home ownership is considered key to a good life. But a lot of people haven’t had fair access to this, particularly African Americans, because of housing discrimination. And sometimes home is the most valuable investment people make. But it’s not clear that if we want housing to be a human right, housing as a commodity makes any sense for anyone, Black, white, or otherwise.
If we want housing to be a human right, housing as a commodity [doesn't] make sense.
—Dr. Lisa Yun Lee
If we really think about home, then we’re talking about people who have been displaced in Palestine; we’re talking about Indigenous rights; we’re talking about public housing residents who have been displaced. Thanks, Tiff, for reminding me that that’s beyond the bricks-and-mortar of just housing per se.
MRN: How have you witnessed artists helping us address these root causes of housing issues? Some of the issues that you’ve brought up, how are you seeing those addressed by artists?
TB: The artist I’ve worked most closely with over the last two years has been Tonika Lewis Johnson, who points out that the solution exists in knowing and amplifying the root cause of inequity, which is racism. She’s really taking that on, this idea of racism and how you can’t look at housing in the United States without looking at racism and discrimination and those practices that were literally built into the law, and some that were not, but were also used through legal documents.
In particular, in her Inequity for Sale project, she is exposing the history of racism through the built environment and through an artistic intervention of installing these land markers, which are signs that are impossible to miss—they’re yellow, they’re big, and they have bold language that draws attention and visualizes this history that is mostly invisible. A lot of people don’t know about land sale contracts. They may have seen redlining maps, but it’s more complicated and harder to distill the intricacies and the complexity of discrimination through a contract.
She’s done a lot of really great work with researchers like Amber Hendley, who’s a coauthor of the “Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago” report and who shared the address dataset with Tonika. Tonika drove around and realized that a lot of the homes that were used as a part of that study—which concluded that $3.4 to $4.3 billion was legally plundered from the Black community through this practice—were visibly vacant, abandoned, or vacant lots. It was obvious to her that there needed to be visual intervention.
You can’t look at housing in the United States without looking at racism and discrimination and those practices that were literally built into the law.
When the Market Isn't An Option, Vol. 1: Land Sale Contracts is the first in a zine series, created by the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) in collaboration with Roosevelt University Policy Research Collaborative. This volume, Land Sale Contracts (LSC), focuses on the legal theft of Black wealth through land sale contracts during the 1960s. In addition to reflecting on this history, the zine raises up Tonika Lewis Johnson’s Inequity for Sale project, which uses land markers to call attention to houses in Englewood that were sold on LSCs. Image courtesy NPHM.
As a visual artist, she started by taking photos and then she graduated, through our work together, to piloting this project. She’s now close to her goal of 10 land markers in Englewood that are documenting this history, and drawing attention for people to come to Englewood to learn about this history in that community and to not only understand what it looks like today but how we got here. That’s one project that I would lift up.
We just revived a conversation with an artist in New Orleans, Shana Griffin, who was in Chicago over the weekend. She’s also doing very important work, tying in this theme of displacement from chattel slavery up until this movement that we have now of regentrification, drawing correlations across time and place of how these factors all play a role together. She’s very clear that it’s not just artists that we need, but it’s interdisciplinary artists, or artists working in interdisciplinary ways—collaborating with researchers and historians and folks that have a lot to bring to the table, or doing that work themselves. It’s about [doing] an analysis and also creating more entry points and more useful language for understanding these issues.
MRN: Thanks for sharing about those reflections around root causes and how artists are working to uncover those, or visible-ize the less-visible-ized. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how artists are, in response to those root causes, imagining solutions or new ways of envisioning housing in the future.
LYL: We love this idea that “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” (Toni Cade Bambara). I think that’s important, because even in all this critical research about housing that Tiff mentioned, there’s the facts and forensic truths and analysis, but the reality is you need to get people to listen and to be inspired to these facts and historical truths, for us to create a cultural movement to create change.
The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.
—Toni Cade Bambara
For us, as a museum, we have a theory of change, which is that artists play a critical, essential role in galvanizing the public into caring about these issues and these truths we know to be at the root cause of things. That’s very, very critical. It’s not just about artists coming up with solutions, but it’s also making sure that people find this truth irresistible.
MRN: There’s the root causes and then, what are we doing about that? What are the new ways of envisioning housing that you’re noticing and seeing, where artists are coming to the table? As you’ve said, one of the ways is making the revolution irresistible.
TB: The artists that we’re working with are listening and learning from the researchers, the people who are pushing the community organizers, or they’re working right alongside them. It’s not this thing that artists are just proposing a solution that they personally have in their visionary mind. Some of it is that, but a lot of it is catalyzing the collective imaginations of communities and of people with lived experiences who are impacted by these policies that have been oppressive and have displaced folks. It’s about inspiring folks, compelling folks to get involved, to get angry, to get whatever motivates folks, but then it’s also creating these spaces and opportunities.
The landmark installations in Englewood are powerful because people are talking about it to their friends or their family, and they are talking to the aldermen about it. And it does have a call to action, which is reparations are due. That also is connected to a national and local conversation about reparations; it’s not something that’s happening in a bubble. Artists are important to making the conversation irresistible and exciting and something that people have an access point into that feels accessible in a way that maybe some research reports and policies, conversations, don’t. They’re creating more entry points for people to get involved, but also making it more exciting and joyful to deal with tough issues.
[Artists are] creating more entry points for people to get involved, but also making it more exciting and joyful to deal with tough issues.
MRN: How have you witnessed artists and culture bearers working directly with people on the ground who have experienced housing discrimination, or are experiencing it currently, to surface stories? How are stories impacting housing work?
TB: For the Inequity for Sale project—we were a part of that work to launch it—one of the first things that we did was a community engagement campaign, where we distributed materials about the project, about the history, and some information about the “Plunder of Black Wealth” report, and where this all came from. Along with that, I invited current residents of Englewood, where the signs were installed, to be a part of the storytelling project, to contribute and tell their own personal histories and relationships to housing. There were a few folks who reached out and were interested in being a part of that. We did life history interviews where we talked to people about where they grew up, and notions of home, as well as asked them how they felt about learning about this history of land sale contracts—if it was new to them or if they were familiar with it, what they knew about it. So, really engaging folks and their stories and a level of knowledge and knowledge production.
That became a critical part of the storytelling, as well as people just telling us about what’s happening today, having an outlet for someone to listen to some of these stories. Obviously, we didn’t promise that we were going to solve all the issues. But to be able to know that someone cares, that someone’s thinking about these things and doing this work, and that their stories are a critical part of that, is really fulfilling to all folks involved.
What we were able to do with that was incorporate it in a three-episode podcast, which also had a fourth episode as a live event; three episodes are currently and continue to be a part of the way that we engage folks on virtual platforms and do the storytelling work. That is called Legally Stolen. It’s critical to not only have community voices but, also, we talked to scholars and experts, people like Beryl Satter and Richard Rothstein (who have written books about redlining and land sale contracts and this history), paired with these resident voices and bringing all of this together to draw connections and tell a more inclusive story.
Legally Stolen is a three-episode podcast produced by the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) and Artist as Instigator Tonika Lewis Johnson as part of her project, Inequity for Sale, a virtual and physical exploration of homes sold on land sale contracts in the 1950s and '60s. Image courtesy NPHM.
LYL: A lot of our work in the museum is about challenging mainstream narratives about public housing, which ultimately are so oppressive because it is, in a deeply racialized history of our country, usually just one perspective of public housing represented. And if you’re wanting to introduce multi-vocal stories and challenge this one mainstream narrative, bringing in artists who have a unique lens of how to see and understand the world is critical. Not only do artists have a different lens to this history, but they also ask different questions, like, why was there an investment in people only having one mainstream narrative? Who was invested in people not knowing all these public housing stories? Those are the kinds of artists that we often work with.
In a deeply racialized history of our country, usually just one perspective of public housing [is] represented. And if you’re wanting to introduce multi-vocal stories and challenge this one mainstream narrative, bringing in artists who have a unique lens of how to see and understand the world is critical.
—Dr. Lisa Yun Lee
That dismantling and unraveling and asking those questions gets to the root causes, where you start to understand that, oh, the first zoning in America was in San Francisco and was meant to exclude Asian Americans from downtown San Francisco; or in New York, where it was meant to stop Jewish people from living and working across the city, right? To get to those stories, you need to unleash people’s imaginations and the creativity of how you come at it, as opposed to just saying, okay, we need to create a new zoning policy. You have to challenge the whole root of the history of zoning in America. That is something that people in the Zoning Department of the city of Chicago are not equipped to do and are unwilling to do in a way that artists are.
MRN: So, the artists come with a different set of tools. They’re asking different questions; they’re framing the challenge in a different way. Are there any other ways that artists are working differently from traditional housing people in the housing space, that we haven’t talked about? We talked about making the revolution irresistible—artists are doing that. Deeper listening, getting to root causes, asking more fundamental questions. I’m wondering if there are other ways.
LYL: I’m thinking about artists who engage our whole human sensorium, our whole selves as sentient beings, as thinking, feeling, and experiencing things. That’s important to get people to understand the history of housing and how it’s linked to the present, and also if we want people to imagine a different collective future. The law is not equipped to do that, policy is not equipped to do that, history and historians aren’t equipped to do that. But that’s what art-makers and creators do. To engage all our senses in understanding, grappling with, and dealing with this history in order to come up with solutions. That’s what it means to be human beings. Some of the other disciplines are so disciplined that they don’t allow for that kind of thinking and feeling.
[Art-makers and creators] engage all our senses in understanding, grappling with, and dealing with this history in order to come up with solutions.
—Dr. Lisa Yun Lee
Inequity for Sale reminds the public and stakeholders how a radical collective imagination is needed now to create housing justice in the future. Photo courtesy Tonika Lewis Johnson and the National Public Housing Museum.
We need to untangle all of our preconceptions of what housing and home might mean. For example, the Federal 1937 Housing Act had a very limited notion of what a family was: a heteronormative cis-gendered version of what a family is that needs housing. And that needs to be challenged. That is the kind of work that artists have been doing to really unleash our imaginations about even who needs housing, and how might we live together in ways other than a single-family home, for example? That is some of the exciting work happening in the housing world, when people start to think, why do we need to own homes for wealth? And why is single-family zoning the only way to do it? And can we live cooperatively? Can we think of other forms of housing? How do we bring sustainability and climate justice into this conversation? Those are some of the things that artists are doing.
MRN: Wonderful. Thank you both. Is there anything more that’s on your mind?
LYL: I always get challenged when we’re talking about the role of artists, because there’s a part where I believe that in a world where there’s so much unmaking and destruction, we must value the people who self-identify as creators and makers. There’s such an important role for people to play. I also deeply believe in the Joseph Beuys notion that everyone is an artist, right? And that there are forms of social sculpture which everyone as a human being living in society needs to engage in, which is being a creative person, reimagining and rebuilding, and as social sculpturists, re-creating society. So there is a way that I want to also expand, loosen, challenge the notion of who gets to be an artist and what is an artist in society, as well. That’s the tension when one tries to ask and answer, what’s the role of artists in creating solutions in housing?, because it’s really a call to all of us to be an artist and to be a creator in the world that we coexist in.
MRN: Drop the mic, baby! [Laughter]
Dr. Lisa Yun Lee
Dr. Lisa Yun Lee is a cultural activist and the executive director of the National Public Housing Museum. She is also an associate professor in Art History and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a teaching faculty member with the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, and a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project. Lisa served as a co-chair of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Arts and Culture transition team and is a member of the Chicago Monuments Project for the evaluation of monuments, memorials, and historical reckoning. She is writing a book for Teachers College Press about Jane Addams and serves on the boards of the Field Foundation, 3Arts, and the Illinois State Museum.
Prior to joining the National Public Housing Museum staff as program director, Tiff Beatty worked with the Chicago Humanities Festival as the director of programming. In 2019, she was named a Chicago United for Equity Fellow and received the Field Foundation's 2019 Field Leader Award. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Tiff is also a spoken word artist, emcee, and educator; the founder of Art Is Bonfire, a seasonal poetry event; and a cofounder of House of the Lorde, a Black women- and femme-centered art space.
with Paul Singh, Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, Tiff Beatty, Mark Valdez, and Jenn Lamb A FORWARD series panel conversation about how artists are helping to address the housing crisis. Panelists include Dr. Lisa Yun Lee and Tiff Beatty of the National Public Housing Museum and featured interviewees for FORWARD 5; artist Mark Valdez, who is also the co-creator of The Most Beautiful Home... Maybe; and Jennifer Lamb of Southwest Minnesota Housing Services, who helped create the play and podcast, A Prairie Homeless Companion.
Amidst a national housing crisis, artists continue to push for bold solutions that aim at alleviating the root causes of housing instability and inequity. Learn how artists are partnering with housing organizations and others to make changes to help bring about housing justice. Watch the conversation, which was held via Zoom on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.
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FORWARD: Issue #5
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