This month, we feature Rania Dalloul, who graduated last year from Parsons with an MA in Theories of Urban Practice. When I asked her for an update on her work, she sent such an insightful note that I am including it as it comes from her, rather than in third person. Her account is especially relevant for students who will graduate soon and make their way into the jostling, complicated, non-linear world.
Before I moved to New York to pursue the MA in Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons, I was living in Lebanon, working with Palestinian refugees, conducting housing and archival research, and teaching at a free school for fashion design. All along, I maintained a fascination with how people negotiate the so-called post-colonial world in their everyday lives. These experiences and interests coalesced into a masters thesis on the construction of housing, homes, and identities in a post-colonial Kuwaiti oil town, rendered as a graphic novel.
After graduating, I expected either to return to Lebanon to pick up my practice there, or to remain in the U.S. to continue the research that grew out of my thesis. Instead, I ended up back where I started, so to speak. I did not return to Lebanon -- yet -- but instead found myself working again in a housing nonprofit, although this time from a very different point of view. After all, I was now a 'master' of something, and though that feels a little incredulous, it reminds me that I occupy a privileged space while still having a lot to learn.
I work for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has been fighting for people's right to housing and self-determination since the early 1970s. Largely responsible for the homesteading movement in New York City, UHAB was founded on the ideal that labour (sweat equity) is a valuable form of capital that ought to secure one's right to ownership of their home. In exchange for technical and financial support to form limited-equity housing cooperatives, people worked with UHAB to rehabilitate their buildings. UHAB has since helped create around 1,300 affordable co-ops, housing people in more then 30,000 units across the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. My job at UHAB is to help tell this story, to create an effective platform for communication to the public, and to continue to build effective networks among stakeholders.
UHAB is a challenging place to work. For starters, it is a struggling nonprofit fighting a constant battle for funding while trying to maintain fair compensation for hardworking staff. In addition, the fight for affordable housing is an uphill battle that takes many forms, from emergency shelter to moderate income housing, and from illegal rentals to the cycle of continuously disappointing city policies aimed at enticing developers into behaving like human beings. UHAB plays many roles: it conducts research, helps tenants form associations, educates renters on their rights, and develops low- and moderate-income housing co-ops, all in the face of rampant gentrification in one of America's least affordable cities. Working in housing is exhausting to say the least.
The greatest thing I've found at my job is a new community to which I feel a sense of belonging -- a group of people who have been squatters, architects, activists, lawyers, writers, carpenters, artists. They range in age from 80 to 24. Their levels of commitment and hard work would put even a grad student to shame. The culture we share at the office, across all our ages and ethnicities and countries of origin, is one of collaboration, communication, and a little bit of madness, which always helps keep things interesting.
I've been with UHAB for over a year now and I don't know how long it will last, but I feel like I've found my place. Through their generosity I am securing a work visa to remain in the U.S. as an immigrant, which in these times is something to be truly thankful (and fearful) for. I hope to return to school soon and continue to pursue that question of the 'cultural mundane' in the postcolonial era, and why it begs to be asked, but until then I'll be in my office, and on the picket lines, learning from my peers as I go.