Public housing resident speaks about new youth program — ‘We have to show them that those dreams are possible’
The Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents offers paid internships to residents of public housing and recipients of Section-8 housing vouchers. Over the course of six months, for approximately 10 hours each week, PHAR interns learn about national and local housing policies, community resources, public speaking, and more, with the goal of using their knowledge and voices to influence the decisions made about their homes and communities.
Asia Green was a stay-at-home mom living at the Sixth Street public housing community when she first heard about the Public Housing Association of Residents internship program. Originally from New York, she’d lived in Greene County before moving to Charlottesville about 15 years ago.
She attended a meeting about the resident-led redevelopment of Sixth Street and, intrigued, began encouraging her Sixth Street neighbors to attend meetings and share their visions for the future of their community with the housing authority. A PHAR employee told her about the internship, but she didn’t apply. She’d been out of the work force for a while, save some daycare work, and was nervous about balancing work with home life — she’s been married for 8 years and has two children.
Then Green met PHAR Executive Director Shelby Edwards at a cookout. Edwards told Green about the internship, and since Edwards “seemed like an awesome human being,” Green said she knew she had to fill out that application.
Green became so passionate about working with youth during her internship that she’s now employed as a resident assistant organizer with PHAR.
Green spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow about the youth program she founded during her internship, the community of women leading PHAR, and more.
This interview has been edited lightly for length.
Charlottesville Tomorrow: What was the internship like? What did PHAR have you doing, and learning?
Asia Green: We learned quite a bit. I could tell you the simple stuff that we learned about LIHTC and zoning and all of that stuff. But what I really got from the internship is a different outlook on everything. It’s amazing.
When you become a mom, you tend to put yourself on the back burner. So when I met the women from PHAR, it was like, “it’s okay to be a mom and to have a voice besides the one you’re using for your kids or your husband.” Or, “it’s okay to want stuff, and to put yourself first.” I’ve learned to really grab on to that voice through PHAR. It’s changed my life, which is really crazy! They say that programs like that can, but it actually did.
It sounds like that was unexpected for you.
Yes. I was at a still point in my life. I wasn’t really sure what was going on, or what I was going to do next. PHAR came at the right time for me. I love being a mom. It’s a great identity. But you kind of want something for you, also.
It’s going to sound so silly and sappy, but it has truly changed my life, to where I am nothing but positivity now. I hope more people do the internship.
What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the Charlottesville community right now?
I definitely think it’s the youth, and that is why I’m so passionate about the youth program. I feel that in Charlottesville, we focus a lot on the homeless, and on housing for adults. When you really think about it, when you use the term “residents,” you’re talking about adults. You’re not really thinking of children when you use the term “residents,” even though we have children who are residents. I think that’s a lot of what’s missing in housing: the kids having a voice.
Tell us about the PHAR youth program you spearheaded during your internship.
The youth program is from when you’re born, pretty much, until you’re 18 — at that age, we hope you will be able to take on more roles, helping other children. And even when you become 18, if you need something from us, we are definitely still there.
Right now we’re focusing on a lot of pop-ups, where organizations are coming into the communities and holding small events. We have an art festival that’s coming up, hopefully in September, and a water event. We’re trying to get to the kids by holding fun activities, to where we’re not just in their face saying, “Hey, if you need help, come to us.” It’s kind of like, while they’re painting, they tend to talk. We’re starting small.
Why is it important to engage the youth in public housing in conversations about public housing?
Because they’re labeled. They’re labeled “kids from housing” before they even get a chance to open their mouths. I can say it’s unfair, and you could say life is unfair, but, you know, people make life unfair. Children are here because of choices that we made. Whether the choices were our fault, or not, it really shouldn’t matter.
Children have no say about the fact that they’re here, and then we have all of this programming for adults and seniors. So, kids are here, and that’s pretty much it. It’s important that they know that they have a voice and that their presence is important. If they have to be in housing, we should be giving that to them.
Adults often think that kids don’t catch on to what we’re talking about, but they do. What could, or should, be done to bring children into these conversations?
Children grasp a lot more than we think they do.
Just talk to them. It’s as simple as asking them, “Hey, what do you think?” It’s amazing: We have four-year-olds at the property where I live at, and they can tell you exactly what went on during their day. If there’s a situation, they can tell you who’s in the situation. These kids are not dumb. We just have to give them a chance, let them open their mouths. We’re so busy trying to tell them to be still, to be quiet and behave. How can they grow like that?
And let them guide some of those conversations? This is their future we’re talking about.
Exactly. It’s their future and yet they have no say.
I’m not from here, and I’m not from housing, and decisions that you make put you wherever you’re at. But, when I talk with people who grew up in housing, they already have it to where they know their kids will be in housing. And I think that’s very sad. I’m not saying that housing is terrible — it’s not. My [8-year-old] son lives here and he has an amazing life and is extremely spoiled. My 23-year-old, he grew up and he moved out of housing. It wasn’t even a mindset where, because I’m in housing right now, he automatically had to stay in housing. But a lot of families think that’s the case. So they’re saying, “I want to make housing better for my kids.”
But why do we expect the kids to be in housing all their lives? If they’re telling us that, then they’re telling their kids that, and we have to let them know, “hey, you don’t have to be in housing. You can be in the White House if you want to.” We have to show them that those dreams are possible.
We’ve talked a bit about what isn’t working, or what could be working better. But what is actually working? What’s going well as far as housing is going, that the city should be doing more of?
I’ve been in housing for like, five years now, and there’s a lot going well. I think redevelopment is going amazingly. And PHAR is more out into the communities. PHAR is right there, and I think that is a wonderful thing. That is a positive outlook for housing, that everywhere you go, you see people in red shirts now. They’re giving the residents a voice.
That’s one of the reasons why I love the ladies of PHAR, because you know that if there’s an issue and you see somebody in a red shirt, you can go to them and they can at least tell you where to go to get the problem solved.
PHAR is mostly women, if not entirely at this point, correct?
Right now the staff is all women. They are definitely a powerhouse. I am so happy to be part of them. I’m so lucky.
What will you do in your next role as a PHAR resident assistant organizer?
Youth programming, working with Paola [Covarrubias, a PHAR community organizer]. It’s been so amazing working with her, because I came to PHAR with the youth program as one of my big dreams, that at public housing we’d have one. And they were just so open about the idea. They really supported me through the process, so, it’s going to be exciting doing the youth programming, working alongside Paola.
We are going to be doing big things. You’re going to hear a lot of noise from these kids.