In a state as large as Texas, housing advocacy work can often wind up locally isolated. Outside of statewide work like the Texas Legislature, organizing energy can be difficult to sustain across cities and regions. Texas Housers is positioned uniquely as one of the few organizations that can work to connect movements, but what we’re able to do in practice often faces limitations. One program that aims, in part, to serve as this connective tissue is the Houser Academy.
This fall, we are starting our third year of the Academy, and my second year as facilitator. The concept had been an aspiration for the founders of Texas Housers since the organization’s inception, but only in recent years has it come to fruition as a recurring integral piece of Housers’ work.
The Academy was inspired by the history of “movement halfway houses” – a collection of institutions that vary greatly in size, scope, and structure, but share vital roles in social movements in US history. Operating behind the scenes, these were centers of leadership training for many of the public faces of social justice organizing. The most famous of these is the Highlander Folk School, located in the hills of Tennessee. Initially focused on labor advocacy in the 1930s, the Highlander Folk School eventually played an important part in the Civil Rights movement. Most famously, Rosa Parks attended trainings at the school prior to initiating the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the school also counts among its attendees Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and several leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Texas Housers believes there is space for such institutions in the fight for housing justice – these might not look exactly like the Highlander Folk School, and it’s a long road to reach to their historic success, but the need is there, especially in Texas. The capacity and scope of our organization lends itself to such a role: behind-the-scenes, educational, and connective. The Houser Academy is our version of this.
The Academy offers an opportunity for work that produces both short- and long-term results. Each new year of the program has a different focus and different goals; we find participants based on that theme and we tailor our curriculum and activities around it. Long-term, we hope that each successive year will build to something bigger: the creation of an ever-growing network of well-trained housing advocates and organizers.
The basis of the Academy is our online course catalog, which we’ve spent the summer updating and making available to the public. Currently, we have over 60 courses, and about a third of those we’ve translated into Spanish. These courses cover a wide range of housing topics – policy basics to tenants’ rights to organizing tips, among many others. For our Academy participants – who we call “Fellows” – we create a custom curriculum and make new courses based on their advocacy interests. Fellows take a few courses each month and discuss them with each other at our regular meetings, which is where Fellows have the chance to relate the courses to their experience and collaborate with one another – sharing ideas, talking through problems, and finding common ground. Though we’ve been limited so far by COVID caution, our few in-person meetings have been vital for that connection between Fellows.
Last year was my first in the role of Educator here at Texas Housers. My background is about as related as can be – I focused on housing research in graduate school, worked as a city planner and high school teacher, and have experience with union and political organizing – but I still knew a program and position as unique as this would have a learning curve.
That year of the Academy coincided well with the 2023 Texas Legislative session, so our focus for the year was advocacy at the state level, and especially advocacy for improved tenant protections. We sought out Fellows who had been working locally but expressed interest in pushing for statewide changes, and oriented our curriculum and meetings around that. We wound up with a group of about 15 Fellows, distributed around Texas in both major metro areas and smaller cities like Abilene and Canyon, and spent the first few months encouraging the group to decide together their path forward. Eventually, the Fellows established a group – Texas Tenants for Change – through which they held educational livestreams, circulated a petition, and contacted state legislators. The 10-month program culminated in a day at the Capitol, with the fellows going from office to office stressing the need for tenant protections in state laws.
Strictly gauging by the political victories, the results last year were modest. This past legislative session was, as ever in Texas, controlled by Republicans, so we understood it was an uphill battle fighting for transformative tenants’ rights legislation. Instead of the wide-ranging list of protections the Fellows sought, the wins came more in the details of smaller bills. Still, though, the influence of the Fellows in effecting these changes shouldn’t be discounted.
My focus each year, however, is less on the success of a given campaign and more on the process of developing these leaders and building this network. Texas is one of the most tenant-unfriendly states in the country (you could argue the single most hostile to tenants) and that isn’t going to change overnight. Last year’s Fellows learned the ins-and-outs of tenant-related laws in the US and how much of a deficit in this our state has relative to others. Most Fellows did some activity over the course of the program they’d never done before. Their experience working within the political process in these ways was significantly different from their prior organizing work. They saw firsthand the value in building relationships with state-level officials, but also the difference in approach when compared to the relationships they’d built prior in their communities and cities. We now have reliable connections in parts of Texas we didn’t before, and advocates in those areas now feel less isolated. These are all important aspects in our goal of developing leaders.
There’s a lot we can do better to support our Fellows that I learned from that first year. Some Fellows expressed disappointment at the lack of major wins. Others were frustrated with differing priorities within the group. A few felt that labor on the campaign was unequally distributed. Some of this is a natural result of any group of people working together on a volunteer basis, but my goal with the Academy is to minimize those negatives or work through them when we can.
In our third year, absent the time constraints of the legislative session, our Academy focus will be an inverse of last year’s: rather than bringing together a group of dispersed organizers to work on a single statewide campaign, we’re looking for people working on or looking to start local campaigns for tenant power that we can support through participation in the Academy. These Fellows won’t work on one issue together, but rather will work on local issues of their choosing that are connected enough to each other that the collaboration in our meetings will benefit every campaign. Long-term, we still want to build statewide power, but this year we’re taking an especially long-term approach to this. By supporting local advocates now, we’re betting on their development into dependable leaders well-integrated into our statewide network. We’re hoping that we’re laying the groundwork now for statewide change later. In the short term, we’ll be measuring progress on these campaigns and evaluating how we contributed to this progress – but, still, always with a focus on process, knowing how rare outright wins are in the Texas organizing landscape.
This is closer to the focus of our first Academy, but it will be my first Academy of this type. One of the advantages of a program like this is its adaptability – no year will ever look the same as the ones before, and that’s key to its potential to make a real impact. I’m optimistic about the changes this year, and while our cohort is not fully decided yet, I’m excited to work with the advocates we’ve found. I’m happy to have worked with the Fellows last year, but shared the frustration of our Fellows at times with the statewide structure lacking immediate results. I’m looking forward to the variety and immediacy of the projects this year on a personal level as clear evidence of the impact I’m having in my role. Balancing between short- and long-term goals will always be a tension in this work, but I know we are striking a good balance.