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How a Virtual Convening Brought Connection and Humanity in the Midst of Crisis

The Network for Energy, Water and Health in Affordable Buildings (NEWHAB) recognizes the humanity in all of us and demands reformation within ourselves, our communities, and our systems of governance. As a network we adopted an Equity Manifesto in 2018 that includes the following declaration:

NEWHAB is an anti-racist network committed to take risks to dismantle these unjust systems in measurable ways and we want to do so in a way that is led and informed by underserved communities.

It is going to take a lot more than pretty words on a page to eradicate racism from our midst. We need to support one another. We need to dedicate ourselves to education and rigorous reflection. We need to invite the uncomfortable, ask tough questions, and hold all levels of leadership accountable.

                                            ~ Faith Graham, NEWHAB Managing Director

We all have the right to a secure and healthy home and a clean and safe environment, but those seemingly basic rights are out of reach for millions of Americans. The Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) program unites people from diverse sectors and backgrounds—including housing, energy efficiency, environmental, health, and community leaders—to collectively make multifamily homes healthy and affordable through energy and water efficiency. Since the program started, EEFA partners have secured $769  million in new funding for efficiency upgrades in affordable multifamily housing, which creates healthier, more comfortable, and cost-effective homes for limited-wealth families.

The Network for Energy, Water and Health in Affordable Buildings (NEWHAB) is the national social impact and learning network for EEFA, open to all individuals working collectively toward making affordable multifamily homes energy and water efficient. NEWHAB stands out in the energy and climate field—especially at this time of national crisis—as a safe space for diverse practitioners to learn from one another, share resources, and build a collective vision.

Energy Foundation supports and is a thought partner to the NEWHAB network and works with NEWHAB leadership, members, and community leaders from our in-state partner grantees to develop and deliver strategic innovations that are responsive to emergent needs and opportunities being lifted up by the field.

NEWHAB organizes an annual convening where advocates exchange ideas, collaborate on strategies, and celebrate. (This short video captures the dynamic, humanity, and connection experienced by those who have attended in the past.) Due to the pandemic, this year’s three-day convening in May was virtual. As we all know, COVID-19 is exacerbating and shining a spotlight on existing issues of economic and racial inequality, which personally and profoundly affects affordable-housing, environmental justice, and frontline advocates and the communities they serve. These advocates make up NEWHAB’s membership across the nation and the annual convening is one important way that they connect with each other.

The NEWHAB virtual convening amplified four core objectives:

  • Build critical connections and alignment across sectors
  • Grow our imaginations and potential for transformative collaborative action
  • Develop our collective systemic analysis and systems thinking skills
  • Create an irresistible, bold collective vision for 2030

Remarkably, thanks to the spirit and intention that NEWHAB members bring to such gatherings, our convening retained the feeling of connection and humanity. As we set our convening agreements at the outset, the words of two members really resonated: “Listen with a heart that really wants to connect,” and “Struggle can be an invitation. The more grounded we get, the more connected we are able to be.”

To get to our “irresistible future,” we started with where we have been, to reveal how history impacts us and our current systems. On the first day of the convening, we focused on the past and responding to the following core question: “How did we create a housing system that creates housing insecurity?” 

Invited speaker and long-time NEWHAB ally Colette Pichon Battle, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy—an organization that had its inception after Hurricane Katrina and works to dismantle structural racism exacerbated by climate change—encouraged us to have the courage to look back. She said:

“For me, housing is about place, and location, and land. In order to really understand place, location, and land and how it relates to the housing we see right now, we have to be honest about four main concepts: race, place, privilege, and power. This country was founded on curiosity, innovation, mutual aid,  principal struggle, resistance to oppression, the advancement of human dignity, and the quest for democracy.” What we have become is very different…”We can choose to continue to oppress, murder, kidnap, abuse, assault or we can continue to push forward with our curiosity, our innovation, our mutual aid, our principal struggled this is a choice, this is a moment, it is not a fun moment but it is a real moment. It is going to take advocates to actively choose which one of these paths of our history we are going to continue in the future…Do we fix the system that is broken, or do we take this thing down while it’s on its knees and create something much, much better?”

On the second day, we talked about the present and, “How is the housing system and its interconnected sectors responding to COVID-19?” Vijay Gupta, Founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, reminded us: “What if we were defined, for a moment, not by our problems, but by our possibilities?” Dominique Hazzard with DC Mutual Aid Network Coordinating Team educated us on mutual aid. She framed it as people taking responsibility for caring for one another and creating new social systems that work, saying,  “…Mutual aid is solidarity, not charity.” As one NEWHAB member  said during discussion, “There is a radical acceptance that what should be isn’t the same as what is, and you can simultaneously pursue what should be while you take action on what is.”

The final day of the convening focused on the future and where we will be in 2030. Storyteller and filmmaker (“My Louisiana Love”) Monique Verdin reframed the rising of water “as not the enemy, but as the surface upon which we might live and grow in the future.” We asked the question, “2030: What does a United States with a housing guarantee look like?” Tony Romano, Director of Field Organizing with Right to the City and the organization’s Homes for All campaign, talked us through our decades-long housing crisis and how in April of this year, 31 percent of Americans could not pay their rent on time.

Thanks to the wonderful community we have in NEWHAB and the amazing presenters who helped educate us and lend their expertise, the virtual convening helped nourish our souls during these dark times.