Background: This discussion took place on November 14, 2012 between Andrew Wilkes, Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski, and Ariel Gleicher via conference call, as part of a joint review of a Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) interfaith pilot conducted by the World Faiths Development Dialogue and HFHI. The interview is a component of the larger evaluation and series of interviews that form a baseline. Tom Jones, ambassador-at-large and senior leadership team member of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) spearheaded the initiative following a 2008 workshop on faith and shelter at Georgetown University. In this interview, Andrew Wilkes discusses his role as the faith and community relations associate for the Habitat for Humanity of New York City (Habitat NYC). He emphasizes the success of his affiliate’s efforts to integrate interfaith approaches through volunteering, advocacy, and financial support. He points to the diverse demographic and metropolitan mindset in New York City as one of the reasons that their faith and family partners have been comfortable working with volunteers of different faith traditions. He also highlights the importance of building relationships of trust and collaboration between faith groups in the city to establish an embedded thread of interfaith work throughout Habitat work. The Interfaith Toolkit Pilot Project has been helpful for him, helping to deepen and accentuate his current interfaith work, as well as put it in a firmer framework to integrate throughout New York City affiliate programming.
How did you become involved with HFHI and with interfaith work?
Shortly after I finished my studies at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010, I did a fellowship in public affairs with the Coro Foundation. Over the course of a year, I conducted six-week placements at a labor union, political campaign, corporation, municipal agency, and a non-profit. When I heard about the Habitat job, I saw a chance to bring together issues of faith, economic development, and public affairs. My official job is the faith and community relations associate. I am primarily responsible for mobilizing our 140 faith partners across the city to serve, donate, and advocate for affordable housing.
What does your work involve, both day-to-day and the strategic framework that shapes it?
Our volunteering schedule has faith partners working with us from about 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on the weekends and they take part in our ongoing construction sites. In addition, three times per year, for two months out of the year, we shift our work schedule. Traditionally our build sites are on a Wednesday through Saturday schedule, but we move them to Thursday through Sunday for the interfaith builds. The motivation here is to involve our Jewish and Adventist faith partners in our building and volunteer work. That is the first of three planks.
The second major plank is advocacy. This invites our partners to take part not only in the charity parts of our program, but also in the justice and political aspect of our mission. This element requires that we recognize the fact that we cannot build our way out of the housing crisis. We also need to speak up and speak out as an interfaith community in order to make sure that folks who need decent, affordable housing are able to get it. Our housing advocacy covenant frames this aspect of our affiliate’s work.
My supervisor, Matt Dunbar, advocacy and community relations manager, oversees the issue identification, research, and feedback process that culminates in each year’s formalized advocacy covenant. Every year in January at our “Building on a Dream” event we launch our public policy agenda for the year. The “Building on a Dream” event is part of our special events program, which I will address in more detail later. The advocacy covenant outlines our public policy agenda at the city, state, and federal level. We converse broadly work with our board, staff members, faith partners, and community partners to ensure that we engage all of our stakeholders in establishing the priorities of the covenant. We want to be sure that we are representing the needs of as many partners as possible.
The third plank is engaging our faith partners to take part in our mission through financial support. This looks different for each faith partner. For instance, they might have a formalized grant process which requires a proposal that documents the various programs and activities that we have and how those programs accomplish certain outcomes, such as preserving funding for foreclosure prevention or building/rehabbing 100 homes in Brooklyn by 2013. They aim to connect each of our different programs and activities to ensure their intended impact in specific areas. For other partners it is passing the plate around during a worship service. We ask our congregation partners to support us in the ways that they see fit and that align with their practices of giving.
In addition, we also have special events at our affiliate. Every year we set aside a weekend to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Building on the Dream.” At this point we are just getting started planning our fourteenth annual MLK Jr. event. It will take place in January and is a great opportunity to bring together faith partners from around the five boroughs of the city. Volunteers are able to participate in a program that usually involves a morning build where we have a clergy person or faith leader who discusses King’s legacy and connects it to issues around the city. Then we have an afternoon build as well. We typically bring together 40 folks on Saturday and 40 on Sunday. We work to do painting or minor renovations to community centers or we work on a construction project. At this time, most of our construction consists of acquisition rehab projects. As alluded to earlier, we launch our housing covenant each year at the Building on the Dream event.
Another annual special event that involves faith relations is the “Building on Faith Program.” This is an interfaith build which deliberately brings together our faith partners from various religious traditions. We are very intentional about creating a build opportunity for them to take part in the charity and justice aspects of our work. That build will take place in late April 2013
What is the size of your Habitat affiliate?
We have about 31 staff. We also have ten Americorps volunteers who work with us in a variety of different capacities. Within our advocacy department, Jessica Medina is our Americorps who works on youth and community relations. We also have a few Americorps within our Family Partners Department that are responsible for connecting prospective family partners with home ownership opportunities through our program—provided that those families complete the sweat equity require meets, meet certain income guidelines, and so on. The remaining Americorps—seven of them—function in a supervisory capacity on our construction sites and Brush with Kindness projects.
What indicators would you use to measure your chapter’s capacity?
We started in 1984, and since that time we have built or rehabbed about 260 homes throughout New York City. Our affiliate garnered over 120 clergy signatures to strengthen and renew rent regulation laws in New York City in concert with housing partners through the city and state. Additionally, our affiliate mobilized 40 faith partners to sign a paper house petition calling for continued funding for statewide affordable housing programs and the Foreclosure Prevention Services program. Both advocacy campaigns were successful due to our work with coalition partners who also did amazing work: the rent laws were renewed and modestly strengthened; funding continued the housing programs; and the attorney general of New York state unveiled a three-year foreclosure prevention plan with $60 million of funding.
What is the physical jurisdiction of your chapter?
Our affiliate covers the whole of New York City, including all five boroughs. We cover the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, and so on. There is also a Westchester affiliate that is just north of the Bronx. Finally, there is a Habitat affiliate in Sussex County and the Long Island area. We work with the two foregoing affiliates, but we are separate entities.
How would you describe the religious dimensions of your work? How do people tend to talk about the topic in your office and in your professional relationships?
We are in a very exciting phase in the trajectory of our faith relations’ work. We re-purposed our Faith-Rooted Advocacy Council, which is a group that my predecessor and now supervisor established. The council arose from our School for Faith in Action—an advocacy training designed for our faith partners—as a vehicle for keeping our religious partners aware of and engaged in housing advocacy throughout the year. We transitioned from a Faith-Rooted Advocacy Council to a Faith-Rooted Advisory Council in order to involve our faith partners more deeply financial support, volunteering, special event planning, as well as advocacy.
Our faith partners are diverse. Within Christianity, we work with evangelical communities, non-denominational faith partners, Catholic faith partners, and mainline faith partners like Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Moreover, a substantial number of our faith partners are non-Christian: Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu organizations also participate in our volunteering and advocacy initiatives. We strive to honor our cultural contexts in New York City. Participating in the rich institutional and religious life in the city equips us with a lexicon and outreach skills in order to build homes and conduct faith and community relations work at a high level.
What did you do to get started on integrating interfaith into Habitat’s work? Are you working with interfaith groups in your region?
Again, Matt, my predecessor, laid a solid foundation for interfaith work. He brought a particularly dynamic perspective to the role because his educational background and work experience consisted of mobilizing interfaith communities to participate in service and justice. His tenure at the Interfaith Center of New York enabled him to transition his network and broad religious knowledge into his role as faith and community relations associate at Habitat NYC. This relationship expanded Habitat NYC’s presence throughout the city in ways that make faith partners of different religious traditions feel more comfortable.
I’ve been at Habitat NYC for about a year and a half and am doing my best to continue the interfaith tradition that Matt started. In particular since I started we have a lot of Islamic faith partners who take part in our work. Many of these groups are Islamic professional associations such as the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals and MUPPIES, which stands for Muslim urban professionals. A list of our recently added or renewed interfaith partners includes: the New York City Ismaili community, the Jewish Muslim Volunteering Alliance, Congregation Beth Elohim, Vishnu Mandir Hindu Temple, Hillel chapters at Baruch and Hunter College, and umbrella organizations such as the Queens Federation of Churches and Queens Congregations United for Action.
Programatically, we integrate interfaith work into our affiliate by ordering kosher or halal-appropriate meals at special events, shifting our calendar to include our Jewish and Adventist partners within our volunteering work, securing faith leaders to conduct home blessings for family partners based on their religious tradition, and deliberately weaving interfaith participation into our Faith-Rooted Advisory Council.
Why did you decide to take part in the Interfaith Toolkit Project, and what are you hoping for as a result?
We hope our faith partners, both existing and prospective, become more engaged in the home building activities that we do, mobilizing volunteers to come out to build sites. We also want to connect them to the justice aspect of our work. The justice element entails advocacy through petitions and taking part in annual trips to Albany to lobby for housing policies. We want that work to be welcoming from an interfaith perspective.
We decided to take part in the Interfaith Toolkit Project as a way to share our experiences and learn from those of the other five affiliates who are involved. We see this as a great way to help be the vanguard of change within the Habitat world. In fact, Habitat NYC was the first affiliate to have an advocacy department, which was established in 2005. We want to do anything we can to help the evolution of the broader Habitat family retain its Christian mooring while embracing interfaith relations.
In your territory what is roughly the demographic breakdown of the faith groups?
We have 140 faith partners across the city. About 25 percent are non-Christian, including those of Jewish, Islamic, or Hindu faiths.
Can you describe your relationship with the different Jewish communities, as an illustration?
Overall we have a good relationship with the Jewish community in terms of our faith partners. We work with 13 Jewish faith partners, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They are mostly engaged in the volunteering and special events aspects of our work, although a few also participate in our advocacy work. One of the reasons that we have the Faith Advisory Council is to continue to invite the partners of the affiliate to take part in that work.
In addition, a part of my job is to do community and faith relations. In this capacity we often worked with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). We work with Youthbridge NY, a part of JCRC, on volunteering. Additionally, I have attended a number of their events this past fall and gave a presentation on volunteer management. We share correspondence on programming and special events work between organizations. This relationship is one example of how we honor our context and work to partner with organizations that have similar visions of faith relations. This enables us to build collaborative relationships with community members.
Have you experienced intergroup tensions? To what extent does your interfaith work address them?
The intergroup tensions that exist are a major factor in how we characterize and approach our work. For instance, we have been doing a “100 Homes in Brooklyn Campaign” for the past few years. Central Brooklyn possesses a vibrant and historically rich tradition of African-American Christian communities, but there are also significant Islamic communities in parts of the area. Given the demographics of that location, we predominantly mobilize African-American faith communities to volunteer. In terms of a family partner perspective, there is more interfaith diversity among our program participants. We have a number of people coming out from around the city who take part in our volunteering, including Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and so on. One of the things that people appreciate about Habitat is the chance to have a shared experience across economic, racial, and interfaith lines in a way that creates a sense of solidarity about making progress in New York City’s housing crisis. We have not experienced too many challenges in the effort to bring people together to build and advocate alongside one another. I think that is in part due to the cosmopolitan mentality of NYC. People expect to grow up shoulder-to-shoulder with individuals who have a different set of experiences and different backgrounds. We have relied on a "common ground" motif to bring folks together, and this has been quite successful for us.
Do you have any advice based on your experience or recommendations of best practice on how to reach out to individuals to recruit for the interfaith work?
We recommend participating in existing groups of ministerial alliances or interfaith events within an affiliate or organization’s service area. For instance, I attended the Interfaith Center’s Rabbi Marshall Meyer Interfaith Retreat for Social Justice in Northern Manhattan. The event presented an opportunity to connect with Islamic and Hindu individuals. Through our attendance, we were able to build on our existing relationship with the Interfaith Center while expanding our outreach to broader interfaith communities. While I was there, the Muslim Consulting Network, one of our partners, spoke glowingly about some of the work that Habitat is doing in terms of volunteering. When you are engaged in a context like that, you develop a reputation for being a part of interfaith events. That reputation, in turn, establishes a a climate of trust. As a result, faith communities view the Habitat New York City affiliate as a team player within housing and interfaith environments.
Another example of what building that trust looks like is also connected to the Muslim Consulting Network. Their executive director is transitioning out at the moment and is planning a farewell party that will bring together a lot of nonprofits and faith communities of diverse communities across the city. That is not an opportunity for me to directly promote Habitat programs, but it gets to the relational component. Building these relationships is important in helping people to be receptive to invitations to take part in our work.
Another strong faith partnership is with the New York City Ismaili Community. This branch of Shi’a Islam is popularly associated with Eboo Patel from the Interfaith Youth Corps. Recently they hosted an evening at the Asia Society that highlighted some of the music and culture from their tradition. I attended that event to demonstrate my support and appreciation of their community’s cultural practices. Attending that event has augmented our partnership, and they are very active volunteers who also take part in our advocacy work. Despite his tight schedule, he wants to be a part of our interfaith steering committee, or as we call it, the Faith Rooted Advisory Council.
Does this new interfaith work integrate into what you were doing anyway? Or is this a bit distinct?
At each home dedication that takes place at the end of the construction project, we convene home blessings based on the religious traditions of our family partners. These blessings are one of the most organic ways that we expand within the faith communities that partner with us. One faith community in particular, the Vishnu Mandir Hindu Temple, which is in the Bronx, helped us to partner with one of our families there. At their home blessing they wanted a Hindu priest to bless their home, so a pandit from the temple took part in the event. This instance exemplifies our attempt to that each home blessing honors the religious tradition of the family (if they have one). In our experience, this has been a critical aspect of weaving interfaith relations into our work.
How do you envision your interfaith work will look five years from now?
Over the long term, we have three hopes for interfaith relations at our affiliate. With each hope, we are looking for broader and deeper involvement from faith communities.
Our affiliate creates a four-year strategic plan and drives annual organizational and departmental goals from that plan. One of our goals this year is to connect our Faith Group Advisory Council more closely to the financial giving aspect of what we are doing. Our faith partners already support the work that we do, but we plan to extend an opportunity for broader faith communities to support us. Using the Abrahamic symbol of reaping and sowing, we present the following idea: sowing within the mission of Habitat helps families across the city reap a harvest of affordable home ownership opportunities and an interfaith community advocate alongside them for quality housing options. Based on this framework, we have been rolling out a new platform to get our faith community involved in ways that are appropriate for each of them.
Intermediately, another goal is to see a broader participation within our advocacy work. As I mentioned earlier, we do an annual advocacy day in Albany, New York State’s capital city. That specific event involves lobbying at the statehouse, but we also have different advocacy initiatives throughout the year. In total, typically 40 to 50 of our 140 faith partners are significantly engaged in our advocacy work. Ideally, 80 to 90 of faith partners would advocate with us for affordable housing on a city and state level. We recognize that they cannot all be involved on the same level financially, but we would love to have them signing letters or petitions or sending one of our paper houses to the State House in Albany. A paper house is a unique twist on a standard petition modeled after one of our construction projects. Each paper house contains a text version of our housing covenant. By signing a “paper house petition,” faith partners communicate support of the housing covenant priorities.
Additionally, we have a “Brush with Kindness” program we would like to revise for the initiative to incorporate our faith partners in the selection of sites for painting and minor rehabilitation. Most of our activities for this program are done in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority. They have community centers that are typically part of a larger complex for public housing. We have done about 60 minor rehabilitation and painting efforts on these community centers throughout the city. We are in the early stages of establishing a way that “Brush with Kindness” events can be conducted in partnership with other organizations that are providing housing solutions. For instance, if a homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter was in need of minor rehabilitation efforts, they could provide the materials and we would mobilize our volunteers to do the work. The hope is that faith partners, many of whom operate shelters, can assist us in identifying community organizations that provide housing solutions.
What is the focus of your chapter’s advocacy work?
Each year we focus our chapter’s advocacy work by constraining our policy work to a given year’s housing covenant priorities. For reference, I will share the example of our 2012 housing covenant, where we highlighted several priorities. One was to reserve funding for statewide affordable housing programs in New York state. That included funding for ownership construction, rental-housing construction, and emergency and supportive housing preservation. Another priority that year was to restore funding for the Foreclosure Prevention Services Program.
As you probably know, in the wake of the housing crisis, communities in which we build in NYC were devastated. Property values were dramatically depressed and tax revenue decreased, which in turn made it difficult for the government to spend money on programs that helped our families access housing. We see the advocacy as a way to support and speak out for programs that directly affect Habitat, but also for programs that make an impact in the broader ecosystem of housing. Even though Habitat does not provide foreclosure services directly, we partnered with legal organizations and housing counseling groups that provide those services.
Our rationale was simple: if 1,000 houses fall off the market due to foreclosure, and Habitat builds or rehabs 100 homes, the whole area still suffers residentially. We see advocacy as a chance to leverage our reputation to mobilize our volunteers, create change in coalition with others, and provide a deeper direct-service experience. We want our advocacy to connect the work of individuals and institutions to the actual cause of affordable housing.
At this early stage of the project, what has been the role of the interfaith toolkit provided to you?
It has been helpful in providing language for our initiatives about some of the things we are doing, as well as helping to formalize our programs in a more standardized way. It has also helped us to define the work that we are doing in a more specific way.
The pilot calls for the recruitment and the formation of interfaith conversations and councils that can facilitate the type of interfaith engagement that HFHI wants to see in the long-term. As I mentioned earlier, Habitat NYC already had a system in place for interfaith type work when we took on the Toolkit Project. However, the toolkit helped us to think about how we could involve faith communities across religious traditions in every aspect of our work. In part, the toolkit was a stimulus for shifting our advocacy council into a faith-related advisory council. It is also a great way to facilitate reflection on the principles of putting faith into action, advocacy, and establishing a council.
Do the dates and benchmarks in the toolkit offer helpful guidance?
The order has been a bit different for us because we already had a lot of the blocks in place. For us, we emphasize building external relationships with other organizations that can help us better work towards accomplishing and broadening our interfaith focus.
That overall goal has been complicated by a couple of things, notably Hurricane Sandy. Our office was closed for 10 days due to the superstorm and as of early December 2012, we are in a temporary office location with active but limited connective capacity. More specifically, we were planning to do a “School for Faith in Action” event in the fall, our third annual advocacy training for faith partners that teaches the basics of lobbying, issue analysis, advocacy, and work that connects service to the broader idea of systemic change. Our unique approach is “faith-rooted advocacy,” a method of advocacy and organizing that roots social change within the various religious traditions of our faith partners. This approach was synthesized and popularized by Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, the former executive director of [Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice]. This year we made an intentional effort, in large part because of the toolkit, to involve other partners in the execution of that program. We were working with World Vision, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, the Micah Institute, and New York Faith and Justice.
We also diverged from the toolkit calendar by changing our plans for Building on Faith, our annual interfaith build. We planned the event during the fall, along with a Community Development Fair with Concord Baptist Church, a renowned Christian congregation in Brooklyn. The fair connected over 200 people with resources on Habitat NYC’s home ownership program, foreclosure prevention, financial empowerment, and more. However, due to the organizing required for the event, we pushed our interfaith build back to the spring.
Habitat NYC’s challenge is this: how do we take the three tools that are involved in the toolkit and connect them to our work in a way that makes sense for our affiliate? We want to customize the toolkit approach for our context and stage of development and simultaneously align with the broader goals of Habitat for Humanity International.
If you were asked now how should someone evaluate whether you’ve been successful at implementing the toolkit, how would you recommend that they measure, and what are some key benchmarks that they should look for?
One of the landmarks I would look for would be the regularity of participation within the Interfaith Council meetings. We have done a good job establishing regularity for our Faith Advisory Council meetings. At this point attendance and participation are beginning to pick up, but they are not as high as we would like. It is an interesting disparity between the participation in monthly council meetings versus participation in other aspects of our work, such as weekly volunteering. Building that participation and regularity is important because it gives our partners and us the opportunity to build relationships and a shared trust. We are having some success, but it is an area that needs improvement.
Another important benchmark is within the faith in action category of the pilot. The focus of this category is on each affiliate’s specific practices in order to establish an interfaith community where housing is a priority. That is something that we have done through our “Building on Faith” work as well as our “School for Faith in Action.” Our hope is that this year we will make our Martin Luther King Jr. Build Day something that honors the Christian tradition of MLK, but also highlights the interfaith dimensions of his work. We want to have a more consistent interfaith thread across all special events. This integration is a challenge for all of the affiliates but will be a key benchmark moving forward.