Kansas City Tenants Union: Organizing at the Speed of Trust
[This interview is excerpted from a much longer podcast featuring three members of the Kansas City Tenants Union. You can find the podcast here.]
Luke: describe KC tenants for us.
Mak: KC Tenants is an organization led by a multi-generational, multi-racial, anti-racist base of poor and working-class tenants in Kansas City. We organize to ensure that everyone in Kansas City has a safe, accessible, and truly affordable home. We believe people closest to the problem are those closest to the solution. Who better to fight for policy changes that protect tenants against eviction displacements and housing violence than tenants who have been evicted, displaced, and oppressed by housing violence. We do this by teaching ourselves our rights, telling our stories, and laying out a collective path towards our liberation.
Magda: I’m the hotline coordinator for KC tenants. And I think that one of my favorite things about KC tenants, certainly one of its biggest strengths is that we have the power to really build tenant power on multiple fronts. Our biggest areas of work right now are our hotline, our tenant union network, and our North Star campaign for a People’s Housing Trust Fund. Our hotline was created early in the COVID-19 pandemic to connect tenants to existing resources like Legal Aid and rental assistance. But as time went on, we also started to use it as a really incredible base building tool, which is the most powerful resource we have. So, the people who contact our hotline are deeply impacted by housing violence. Asking these folks if they want to build power with KC tenants really puts into practice that belief that Mak mentioned about people closest to the problem being closest to the solution.
Our tenant union network currently supports three tenant unions in the city. So that’s Gabriel Towers Tenant Union, McGee-Shiffman, Tenant Union, and the KC Homeless Union with plans to support the creation of many more unions. I’m sure that a lot of listeners of this podcast already know about the power that unions can wield. Lastly, our peoples Housing Trust Fund is a vision/ policy proposal that would make housing in KC truly and permanently affordable by divesting from our oppressors, namely gentrifiers and the police, and investing in our communities by funding social housing, rehabilitation to make homes more sustainable and accessible, protecting tenants rights, and more.
Luke: How do these areas of work– policy, building power, and the hotline, work together? I ask because many organizations tend to do some but not the others, for example, focusing on mutual aid and not bothering about policy or doing policy work but not much grass-roots organizing.
Jetzel: So here is one example of how they connect. Tenant Power, which is a team that I lead with fellow comrade, his name is Charles. A lot of people on that team are deeply impacted tenants, we follow their leadership. we plan a canvas, every month; we pick our locations through the hotline. It’s where we’re getting the most tenants. Maybe tenants are calling from a specific complex, and that’s where we want to go and talk to more tenants to feel that place out, see if there’s potential to do a tenant union. Because, that’s really one of our main goals is to have a tenant union network all over Kansas City, and even the state, because people power is so important. And if we have tenant units all over Missouri, we have a chance to make real change through government policy.
Once a tenant contacts the hotline, the basic flow of conversation is, we ask them about their story, we hear their issues. And this is actually something that’s super important, I think, for a lot of tenants, because there are not many spaces where you’re asked to dig into what you’re experiencing. This is the first time a lot of people have told their stories, because there’s a lot of stigma around it, too. There are these outside forces– capitalism, racial capitalism—that make you feel like a failure or like it’s your fault for getting behind on rent and being evicted.
Luke:. I was living in Kansas City when KC Tenants had just started, and I watched very closely the campaign to get the tenants Bill of Rights in that special office set up in City Hall. My first reaction, honestly, was that, “Oh, this is just like any other sort of organizing project in Kansas City. They’re going to do policy stuff. They’re going to get city council to pass it. Then city council will do nothing with it”.
Mak: We knew setting up for the KC Tenants Bill of Rights, that we would have to come up as a group of people, as a group of tenants to fight and ensure that this isn’t just some policy that’s written off, you know, with a few million dollars thrown at it and that’s it. We knew we would have to organize to make sure that the right people are working in the office to enforce the policy, and to make sure that they’re advocating for tenants’ rights. There has to be enough funding in the budgets to make sure that the things that need to get done are done. And we also had to make sure that the city takes it seriously.
Magda: I’m reminded of the Angela Davis quote that like freedom is a constant struggle, every victory just opens up a new terrain of struggle. Because, we definitely saw that during the budget process for that special office that was created through KC Tenants organizing–the Office of the Tenant Advocate. They originally, I believe, had around $300,000, in its budget for its first year, which was far less than what KC Tenants was demanding. Then in its second year, they tried to cut the budget down to only $100,000, which is pretty ridiculous, and felt like a slap in the face. So, there was some really incredible organizing within KC Tenants spearheaded by our comrade, Jenay Manley, who we should name and celebrate, to organize folks to show up to the participatory budget hearings and give testimony about what tenants’ rights mean to them, how it impacts their lives, and why we need full funding for the office. By the end of that budget season, we had won nearly $1 million. I mean, we know that that $1 million isn’t the end, but it was still an incredible victory.
Luke: how has COVID influenced the way that you all organize? Because I was blown away by the level of activity that happened around evictions in Kansas City during the pandemic
Jetzel: I always saw it as kind of a blessing and a curse. We transitioned our meetings into zoom, and for some people that isn’t accessible. That was the bad part. But it also brought a lot more people into our base, more tenants wanted to be involved because they didn’t have to drive anymore. When I started getting really involved was during zero eviction, January, which was still masks, you know, height of pandemic. And yeah, it was tough, but evictions were still happening. And we needed to do something about it. Of course, we took our safety precautions, –social distancing, and things like that, and made sure that nobody who didn’t want to be in a crowd or anyone who wasn’t comfortable with being there was there. It brought a lot of power because people were getting evicted during the pandemic, and they had lost their jobs, they had to choose between their rent and getting meals for their kids. So that’s unfair, and it really brought a lot of anger, but that anger is turned into action.
That’s what we always believe. We take all of this anger that we have, and really do something about it. And I think that zero eviction, January is like a perfect example of that. We did blockades at courthouses. We had people standing outside and it was freezing cold. Tenants who were literally getting evicted, gave testimony and that was so powerful. And then we had another kind of avenue, which is where judges were doing online evictions. A really dedicated team of comrades in our base, would go and disrupt the online evictions. That’s where the most evictions that we shut down came from.
Mak: Many of the most impacted tenants are older, many of them do not have the time to even sit down and attend a Zoom meeting. And many of them actually do not have access to technology and resources to attend a Zoom meeting. So we are trying to use things such as text messaging, creating a newsletter service, and other things to try to keep people in the loop. That’s actually still a huge barrier.
When it comes to getting people to actually come out to our actions, it really focuses on phone calls, text messages, and the relationships that we have. Because of KC Tenants, we build at the speed of trust. That means a lot of our organizing is built on relationships. So hopefully, many of our organizers or peers are interpersonally connected with tenants who cannot attend these meetings and are able to chat, catch up with them, and share what’s going on to make sure that those people are still in the loop.
Luke: So Mak mentioned something about kind of “building at the speed of trust”. And, you know, direct actions take a lot of trust. Sometimes organizers initiate a direct action. And it may even be kind of a mild one, maybe it’s blocking the street or something like that. Without having built up that trust at first. How do you guys go about building trust for direct actions?
Jetzel the first thing that we do when we invite a member into our base is have a one on one, a really intentional conversation between two people, usually an organizer, and a new member, where you get to know the member on a really deep level, their personal experiences with housing and you can identify their self interest and stake in organizing tenants. And then you offer members into leadership roles, such as action leads for our direct actions.
Magda: I think the relational aspect is completely crucial. KC tenants honestly, is really the most caring sort of public community I’ve ever been a part of. There really is a culture within the organization that people care about each other, people show up for each other, people know liberation is not something that’s individual, but it’s something that’s collective. And we do, take pains to make sure that our relationships with each other are healthy and beneficial
At the beginning of every meeting, it’s one of our community agreements, we say that leaning into tension is good. tension is how we grow. tensions are basically feelings that don’t sit right, questions or concerns you might have. So we want folks to speak up on those. And that, of course, comes up a lot when we’re doing direct actions where people could possibly be arrested.
One of the conversations I remember most that kind of demonstrates this is when we had a group of people chain themselves to the door of the courthouse, and one of our comrades, named Howard, who’s amazing, brought up the idea that we really should not be glamorizing being arrested at all, we should not be glamorizing, paying into the carceral system or interacting with that. That is not our end goal. It could be a tactic, but it’s something we do want to avoid. I thought that that was super grounding
Luke: I think it’s a good time for us to start zooming out a bit. We’re talking about organizing tenants
But you guys are socialists, and you’re organizing tenants. Why should socialists organize tenants? Why is it a place that you guys think is ripe for building a mass movement of working people in opposition to the oppressive system that we live under right now?
Mak: Oppression and exploitation of poor and working-class people doesn’t just end when you clock off at the end of the day, or stay to when you go to work or come from work, right? It continues in all aspects of our lives, including where we live. Many people who are tenants have to pay to a capitalist who usually owns land. And there’s a private power dynamic there that usually ends up shorting the tenant and dehumanizing them. Also, there are many people who are tenants who don’t work. So there’s a huge group of poor and working-class people, I guess you could say, in this instance of poor or low-income people who don’t work and can still and should still have their voices belong to a greater collective power to fight back.
I’ll just add that we really do believe that people are radicalized by their own experiences, when I think there’s a real emotional aspect to the idea of organizing around your home. Your home should be a place of rest and a place of joy. It’s where you’re, you know, raising your kids. It’s where you’re cooking your meals. It’s supposed to be a break from work, but in the market system it’s just another place of exploitation. I think that that really, yeah, it really, it’s a deep connection to people to this idea that we should have more power over the conditions of our homes.
I think something that really makes us different from other organizations is that we are we really are multi-generational, multi-racial, and do practice anti racist ideologies. Something that we all agree on, in KC Tenants, is that we don’t make presumptions about people. We invite everyone into our base, because we are all different people, but we’re all bonded by this housing issue, and bonded by the belief that everyone should have housing, as a human right. We are really actually a diverse group. That adds to how we look at things as we have different perspectives from people, different experiences. At KC Tenants, we pride ourselves on that we are a collective, but we also listen to each other.
Magda: We include training and political education in every meeting. So we do talk about the broad strokes of like, racial redlining in the city. And also on the personal level, we hear people tell their stories about housing, and these stories often relate to issues of race and class and gendered violence. It’s intersectional, because the truth and reality is intersectional.
it’s a beautiful culture that, you know, is created when people come together with the goal of creating a real multi-racial, multi-generational, anti-racist group of people. I remember two comrades talking about how they had started thinking about their own gender transitioning while in KC tenant spaces. That is a really good indication that we’re doing something right, people feel accepted and free to be who they are.
Luke: I think there’s openness that you guys have cultivated within KC tenants that is something that every organizer should aspire to. And maybe we can dig into that a little bit more concretely, you know, what kind of practices have you guys developed to make it an inclusive atmosphere, to make it a feminist space to make it an anti-racist space?
Mak: we create a space for people to step up and share tensions when they are uncomfortable or have a problem with something that we do. It’s not all doom and gloom, right, like there have to be moments where we’re happy with each other; we make sure that we have space to share appreciations like to celebrate each other in the power that we’ve built together. So that’s at the end of our meetings. But at the beginning of our meetings, we always have an intro where we do community agreements, make sure everybody’s on the same page. And we also do some kind of like relational check in. We ask deep questions or sometimes personal questions, so that we can kind of learn about each other and where we’re coming from.
Luke: But, I kind of have to ask, what are your pro tips? Suppose someone listening to this podcast wants to organize their building? What should they be doing? What are the first steps? What should their headspace be?
Mak: My pro tip is, when someone takes on the role of trying to be a leader and trying to organize with a group of people, the first thing is you have to think is that it is “with” people. You’re not doing it to people, you’re not doing it for people, you’re not doing it to help people, you’re doing it with people, you’re doing it with your neighbors, and you’re doing it with a community. And one of the biggest challenges that I had, you know, going into organizing, and I think it’s finally something I’m really starting to, like figure out and make my own, is to ask, “What is being an organizer?” Does that mean that you don’t have the answers to everything? And that’s going to be okay, right? Because like part of that process of building collective power is that people will find that solution and solve those problems together. That’s the genius and the magic of it all in these spaces. It’s not one person coming in and saying, “Hey, I know this and this is what we should do.” Instead, someone is saying “This is something that needs to be addressed.” We know many of us feel all these different things about this. So let’s get that out and figure out what works best for everyone.
Magda: We really do believe that organizing happens at the speed of trust. Trust takes a while to form. Our newest tenant Union, the McGee Schiffman Tenant Union, has been in development for like six months before they just became public this past weekend. That’s six months of meetings, that six months of getting to know each other, that’s six months of strategizing, researching into the landlord and the property management, and that groundwork is super important. The other thing I would say, too, is find a legal ally, find a friendly lawyer who can look over your things and say, “this is actually achievable under what’s going on right now”. Or like, “this is unfortunately not” or like, “hey, have you thought about this? This could be something really cool to add that could be achievable.” I think if you’re like a super purist, it could be like, “I don’t want to operate within that framework”. But we do really love the legal allies we have in KC, they have helped us with so much.
Luke: I think this is a great way to end the podcast, you got to be patient. Organizing goes at the speed of trust. The perfect phrase for what I think like good organizing is, in my opinion, probably in yours, too. Before we go, how can people support you? Are there social media or websites they can check out to get some inspiration?
Mak: You can follow KC Tenants through social media on Twitter and Instagram, it’s the same handle on both of those accounts. It’s @KCTenants. So super easy to find it. If you want to actually donate to us, that would be great. Much of our funding is from individual donors like you listening right now. If you want to donate, you can go to www.kctenants.org/donate. If you want to buy some hot fire KC tenants merch, our first merch line is coming to an end and we still have some really cool stock left. So if that’s something that you’re interested in wearing some really bright, vibrant, powerful yellow, you can go to KCtenants.org/merch.
Solidarity thanks the KC Tenants organizers for their participation and for sharing so many important insights.