Sitting in Joy Johnson’s office below a floating shelf full of snacks — bags of cheddar Goldfish crackers, sleeves of bright orange cheese and peanut butter crackers, granola bars and mini Kit-Kat bars — Shelby Marie Edwards looks right at home. And in a way, she is.
Edwards’ mother, Holly, was the nurse at the Westhaven Clinic — where Johnson’s office is located — for many years, bringing a very young Edwards and her twin sister (and later, their younger twin sisters), to the clinic often.
Johnson and Holly were dear friends and worked together as organizers for more than 20 years until Holly died in January 2017. Holly likely would not only be proud of Johnson for how she’s continued her work in the community — and, of course, this lifetime achievement award from the National Low Income Housing Coalition — but she’d approve of the snacks on the shelf.
Last summer, Edwards became PHAR’s first executive director, something neither she nor Johnson saw coming, but looking back, they both see how it happened. Now they have the opportunity to look forward, together, to the future of PHAR.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. It is the second part of a sit-down with Johnson. Read part one here.
Charlottesville Tomorrow: Ms. Joy, at the Crescent Halls renovations groundbreaking a couple weeks ago, you told a story about visiting Chicago and calling up Shelby Edwards …
Joy Johnson: I did. We were touring, and it was freezing! They invited us to go to Chicago in the cold! In January! Oh my God, it was freezing! When I got off the plane, I was like, “… Shelby likes this?”
Shelby Edwards: I do.
Johnson: It was freezing. Me and Audrey kept saying, we cannot come to Chicago and not visit Shelby. So I told Shelby we were in Chicago, and asked her where she was, and she texted me, and I said [to our group], “Hey, we gotta find this place!” They were taking us all around, and I was like, “Look! It’s getting late! We’ve got to go see Shelby!” And so we call her and said, “Shelby! We’re here!” And she said, “Where, where, where?” And now, we ain’t going up in the house, we ain’t doing that. So we had to call her downstairs, and she came outside and we huddled up and took pictures.
You’ve watched Shelby grow up.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah. Her mom [Holly Edwards] and I worked for 20 years together. I just ran across a card Shelby made for her mom. When we packed up Holly’s stuff and [her husband] Ken came and got it, I saw that card and I was like, “No, I’m gonna hold on to this.” The other day, I said, “Shelby, I got something for you,” and I gave it to her.
When this PHAR position opened up, Shelby, was it a no-brainer that you should apply?
Edwards: Last summer, I felt a shift in where my priorities were, so, I knew something had to change, but didn’t know what that change would be. I ended up applying for a couple of different jobs, mostly out of town. I applied somewhere, I don’t remember where, and then, someone had seen my application and asked, “Do you want to apply for the PHAR executive director job?” Umm … I mean … maybe? I called Joy for a pep talk, because I needed to know that the next place I’d go, I’d be able to do good work. I asked her what she thought. Even though they [the PHAR board] had already had a whole conversation about me. They didn’t know I was interested; I didn’t even know the job was open.
Johnson: It was just one of those things. We had so many … man, we went through some applications, and none of them panned out. We really needed an executive director. We were so close to crossing the line of a board. Our executive board was sort of serving as the ED, so, it was five people, and our staff was growing, and it had become challenging. Our attorney kept saying, “Y’all got to do something, because it’s a real thin line.” We did not want anybody to sue PHAR, didn’t want to lose anything. Sometimes when I’d walk out of that office, I’d have blood coming out of my mouth because I was biting my tongue so hard.
After Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, people started just kicking money our way, and we said, “OK, we’re just going to sit this money over here so that we can get to a place where we can hire an ED for at least three to five years.” That’s what we did, and when it was time, we wanted to search for the right person. They don’t have to come with all the qualities, but they have to have the heart of the community. They have to love the community. They have to love the people. They have to be willing to change things.
Talking about next steps, someone said, “Well, would you all consider this person?” And I said, “Yeah, send it to us.”
But before they could send it to us, Shelby contacted me, and I’m like, “Maybe it’s meant to be.” I’m never going to tell anybody not to apply for it, and Shelby applied, and she was better than the ones we spent all that time interviewing. We were like, “You know what, we’re just gonna have to go with this. It’s going to be a learning curve for all of us.”
But she had this other offer in New York … and when she accepted [ours], everybody was like, “YEAHHHH!!!”
What has it been like for you, Shelby?
Edwards: The learning curve is real! I have so many people that actively want to be my support system. If I even smell like I might be stressed or something, I can call Joy and she’ll pop into a meeting. I’ve been putting in a lot of work, and it’s not easy, but they’ve made it a really good transition. Joy will ask me, “How are you feeling? Do you need help?” I stand on the backs of giants, like mom, like Joy. Oh! I called Don [Gathers, PHAR organizer] before I applied, too. He said, “Are you doing what you can do, or what you’re called to do? Because there’s a difference.” And I was like, “OK, I’m gonna apply.”
Johnson: It’s just like with my grandparents. I’m born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and every summer, I would end up going to the country, and I hated country. I hated country. I am not a country girl. We have a lot of lizards in Jamaica — I was petrified — ground lizards, house lizards, all them lizards. I did not want to go in the fields. But my grandmother used to take me out with her in the field. And under a banana tree, she would spread the banana leaves out, and she would let me sit there and watch. The whole time, I’m watching how she’s doing things. I’m watching her clearing the land, I’m watching her planting the seeds. Little did I know she was preparing me for something else. And I think I can see the same with Shelby and the work that her mom has done. Her mother was a teacher, so one of the twins is following in that footstep. And she was also an organizer [like Shelby]. A nurse. And only God knows what Jean and Bernice [the younger twins] are going to do!
Edwards: Just meant to be, I guess.
Johnson: Yeah! You just never know. Who would have thought that I’d be playing in the dirt? Now, my therapy, any time you see me, if you come through here and you see me working out in the yard all day long, you know I’m stressed out about something and I’m relieving stress. I sit in the dirt and I play in it, and I kneel down … it’s therapy for me. There is a video of Holly — Holly hated cold. She hated the cold. She hated the cold, my God. But [in this video] she’s standing out in the cold, teaching the kids about planting seeds and let it grow. Things happen for a reason. You don’t know when you’re gonna use it, but one day, somewhere, you’re gonna use it. And like I was telling Shelby, J.R. Fleming, [a nationally-known anti-eviction organizer who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green community] who I met in Chicago: He was rapping, he was a thug on the corner, causing all kinds of problems. And the community organizers was like, “How’re we going to get these youth involved?” One said to J.R., “You want to rap? You take this and you rap about this.” Look at him now.
At the Crescent Halls celebration, so many people were asking the same thing. “Where are the young people? How do we get the young people involved?” So, where are the young people?
Johnson: On social media.
How can you get them involved?
Johnson: Shelby has a theater background, and that’s one of the reasons why I want J.R. and her to work together. Because I think that’s how you’re going to get ‘em. Especially the younger ones, right? Our organizing can include theater, where they’re telling their story, or they’re teaching through that.
What I’ve learned is, they [young people] don’t want to listen to me talking. Because it’s boring. If you can remember, when you were growing up, there were certain people you didn’t want to listen to. It’s not that you didn’t like them — it was boring. But someone of their generation can tell the exact same story, and it’s not boring. That’s one thing PHAR hasn’t done well, is to be able to capture the young people, the youth and the young people. But we’re gonna try! There’s going to be a shift when the buildings are completed and it’s their next sight. You’re going to find more interest, because now it’s becoming real. They’ll say, “oh shit, I better get involved so I can educate my mom.” Or “I better get involved so I won’t get displaced,” or “I probably should get involved so I can have me one of them new units.”
It can be hard to get younger people to realize that this is their future.
Johnson: Not just young people though. People in general.
In the city of Charlottesville, look at the crisis of affordable housing. It’s been happening for years! J.R. says this a lot: Me today, you tomorrow. It wasn’t hitting them then. But now it’s hitting people who even have a decent job, who are making $30,000 a year, and they can’t find places to rent. They didn’t think it was going to be them. They thought it was just those people who ain’t working, who’re making $10,000, $15,000, $20,000. No. If you’re making $59,000 [today], you are tomorrow. Because with the average median income [at $93,300 for a family of four in Charlottesville]? And “affordable” at 60% of that? You gotta be making at least $80,000. That’s gonna be a whole lot of people tomorrow. And these developers and apartment management, they take that [60% AMI as “affordable”] very seriously. They’re turning away people with a Section 8 voucher, saying, “you don’t make enough money to be able to rent in my establishment.” The affordable housing crisis is real.
The other thing is that people are struggling. The struggle is real. They’re not going to tell [an apartment manager] every single dime they make, because if they do, they know their rent’s going to be sky-high. So they might be doing a side gig of whatever … they probably could qualify [to rent in that establishment] if they were including all of that. But if you lose one of those incomes, you’re going to have to pack up and move again. From what I hear, that’s why everybody’s moving to Waynesboro, and they’re moving to Staunton. But Staunton’s getting hit, and Waynesboro’s getting hit, because now their rent has gone up higher than what it was five years ago.
It keeps rippling outward.
Johnson: Yeah, it’s moving out. The days of living with big mama are coming back. It’s already back; I know quite a few people who’ve moved back home because they went out there and think, “Oh, I can do it on my own.” But if you don’t have a second income, if you don’t have a second something, it’s hard.
What do you hope for the future of PHAR?
Johnson: What I envision for the future of PHAR is that it grows in different ways. We’re talking about the youth. We’re talking about the staff and the organizers. But also that we find a way to build an endowment so that PHAR can succeed throughout, so that we don’t have to depend on people giving us crumbs. We’ve got to have a dedicated person who can make sure that endowment grows and come up with ways on how to grow it. That’s my long-term goal, is that we can get to a point where we’re doing an endowment and we’re continuing the work. But we wouldn’t have to organize if y’all would do right. So, put us out of business! That everything’s going so fine that we don’t have to organize around anything.
PHAR is the only nonprofit —
Edwards: Talk about it! Yes!
Johnson: We are the only local nonprofit that has always been run by Black women in leadership roles. Low-income Black women, and, has a board of directors of residents. We are the only nonprofit that’s doing that! We’re not this little white organization. We truly represent the community. And now we have a young African American woman running this organization. So when this city says, “Oh, we don’t have any African American women in upper,” well what are we? Are we chopped liver? Holly ran PHAR for a while. She took that job on, and then she decided to run for City Council! That’s why she left PHAR! And they wasn’t even saying Holly’s name? This town is something else.
But, you know, it’s all good because I’m comfortable standing in the back. If you read about Malcolm X, if you read about Dr. King, if you read about all of these Civil Rights workers, who was working in the background to make them look good? It was women. Black women and white women. They were cooking, they were babysitting, they were washing clothes. They were stuffing envelopes. They was doing all this stuff to make the men. I said to someone the other day, getting this [NLIHC] award, I’m just the face of it. There are so many people, so many people that I can’t even remember all their names, who have helped to strengthen PHAR in different places, and who keep it going. It’s not an “I” thing, it’s a “we.” You cannot do this work by yourself. You can’t do it by yourself. Anybody who thinks they can go out there and do it by themselves, go right on ahead, because you’re gonna burn yourself out quick. You have to do things with partnership, or you gotta do things collectively.
Shelby can tell you, there are some people, I don’t even drive in their lane. I just merge on over and let them stay in that lane. Because I know that they are not about the holistic person. That’s the one thing that bugs me a lot. I can’t change it, because it’s the culture, but I don’t have to be a part of that culture. It’s that they say they advocating on behalf of low-income people when really, they’re not advocating [for us]. If you’re not in the community, if you’re not rubbing elbows with us, if you’re not feeling … if you don’t even talk to us? Some people will say, “Hey! How you doing Shelby? You doing OK? Good to see you, Shelby!” They call that talk? That’s not what talking means. That’s not building no relationship. You want to build a relationship with me? “I saw Ms. Joy the other day and she was out there working in that garden. Her knees and stuff are not good; let me see if I can get me some people, and I’ll just show up and I’ll say, ‘Ms. Joy, what can we do to help?’” See, now you’re building a relationship. Not just you see me and say, “Hi! How you doing? Good to see you! I’ll talk to you later!” And then you say you talked to Joy Johnson. You didn’t talk to me. You just said hi and you went on.
You can’t organize and not be in the neighborhood that you are organizing. You can’t be in a play and not go to practice!
Edwards: I agree with everything Joy says. I’m still learning. I also very much recognize that I am not a resident of these [public housing] communities, so I am always in contact with PHAR board members who are. While I am a part of the Charlottesville community, I am not necessarily a part of this community, so I have to keep that open flow of communication. I come from a fundraising background, and it’s important to me, as long as I’m here (and I’ll be here for a while!), to keep us going toward a trajectory of making an endowment. And I hope people who read this — whether you keep this in there or not — will remember that change has to happen within many generations. And if they want to support PHAR in this generation, and the next generation, they can. Charlottesville has a lot of resources, and I think Aug. 12, 2017, was a good time for people to realize that they need to shift where those resources go, and they need to go, ideally, to people who need it most. A lot of times they are poor, a lot of times they are Black. And PHAR serves a lot of those people.
Johnson: You summed it up so, so right. It’s about the generations.