In this series, we’ll be highlighting the contributions our fabulous staff makes to our organization. After all, any organization is only as powerful as its people–and ours are powerful indeed. While many of our staff members work in an outreach capacity and engage directly with our clients and supporters, some of our staff remain behind the scenes. I’m Aviv Rau, a summer intern working in the Education & Outreach Department. To kick it off, I decided to start by interviewing Meena Haque, GNOFHAC’s Development Manager. In our interview, Meena stressed the importance of coalition-building and collaborating for social justice work, the racial justice lens that guides her work, and her strong commitment to fighting for fair housing. She also shared a glimpse at her typical day in the office and what her job here entails.
If you had to describe your job here in a sentence or less, how would you summarize it?
I am the Development Manager for the Fair Housing Action Center and I work on bringing money into the organization, whether that’s through individual giving, fundraisers, events, sponsorships, grant-writing, or an annual appeal or monthly giving programs.
What brought you to GNOFHAC?
I graduated from Syracuse University, where I studied Political Science and International Relations and minored in Middle Eastern Studies and LGBT Studies. The first job I had right after college was working for UNICEF, which is housed under the United Nations. I was doing community engagement and community outreach with them and raising awareness and funds for issues different children face around the world, whether that’s natural disasters, famine in different parts of Africa, Syrian refugees, or working with Palestinian children. After that, I worked for other nonprofits, including an anti-human trafficking organization and the National Audubon Society where I did environmental and conservation work. What led me to fair housing was realizing that my values and beliefs align more so with civil rights organizations and social justice groups. As much as I love environmental work, I wasn’t doing the environmental work I wanted to do on the racial and environmental justice side. I wanted to go back to something that was racial justice-oriented, and I came across this position and applied. To me, fair housing is about ending the racial wealth gap in New Orleans and in Louisiana. You have to have a very strong commitment to social justice to be passionate about this type of work.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your time here thus far?
There have been a lot, but one valuable lesson I’ve learned is that when you collaborate and join forces with different and like-minded groups, you can create a bigger impact and send a bigger message. It’s just a myth that there’s a limited amount of funds and resources when in actuality there is a lot of money out there. I think my favorite aspect of my job is the ability and privilege to meet different people in different walks of life. I just got back from Denver a few weeks ago where I met with a fair housing cohort. The group itself was about 20 folks and they represented seven or eight different fair housing organizations from all over the country. It was really cool to meet other groups that are doing things similarly and differently, but also to hear everyone’s personal stories of why they’re involved. I learned about this issue from an interfaith perspective–so me being Muslim, how am I using my faith in activism to fight against certain issues? But also there were folks in the cohort who were Jewish and they were talking about what it means to be Jewish doing this work and how they use their faith and their activism to fight for housing issues. It was cool to hear that. My favorite part is the ability and opportunity to meet really different people, whether it be folks who are doing similar work or folks who are receiving our services.
What does your typical day at the office entail?
It depends. I just started with the organization back in late October, so in terms of what fair housing entails, I’ve still been learning the ropes, whether that’s applying for grants or just doing more research on my own. My day is either spent doing fundraising and grant-writing, or reaching out to donors and board members or sponsors. In the future, I’m going to start to meet with the donors and major funders to inspire them to give back more because I think everyone has the capacity to give in a way that’s personally meaningful.
I’m interested in what you mean by “personally meaningful.” Care to elaborate?
It really depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes if I’m talking to donors, I try to gauge their level of knowledge when it comes to housing justice and housing rights. I try to frame it in a way that they can understand. So if they happen to be really passionate about children and education, I’ll make the connection between housing and schools. If the donors are passionate about health reform and healthcare, then I can talk to them about how if people don’t have access to safe homes and they live in dilapidated homes or areas that are compromising their health, then how are they functioning as healthy and contributing members of society? It really depends on who I meet with and who I talk to because having them teach me where they are helps me frame the work that I’m doing a little bit better. I try to always paint a narrative whether it’s talking to individual donors and board members or talking to people who work for national foundations–program officers, for example.
Which local organization/initiative/coalition/activist would you like to should out for the work they’re doing and why?
Gosh, there are so many! I really like Paper Monuments. They are committed to showing New Orleans history from a racial lens; Take ‘Em Down NOLA was behind the movement to take down the Confederate statues in New Orleans. These groups ask important questions from a digital, visual, and oral storytelling lens: what are we doing to showcase the authentic history of New Orleans? Also, the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has a campaigns to fix people’s broken tail lights because that’s one of the routine stops police officers do when they pull over people of color. DSA is going around to different communities and different neighborhoods and volunteering their time to check people’s taillights, so that police officers don’t have an excuse to pull them over.
What is one housing-related issue you’d like to make people more aware of?
I want people to see the issue of housing from a historic lens–that segregation is something that was created and has been perpetuated for decades. Many of the communities we think of as “unsafe” have historically had money divested from them. So when you’re not investing in communities, it’s going to falter, and obviously there’s going to be high crime. So when we divest from these groups, yet then say that they’re not committed to rebuilding their neighborhoods, I think that’s not really looking at this issue from a very fair perspective. I want people to recognize that redlining has been a practice for a really long time. Housing discrimination is not something that’s new. Fair housing means that every person, regardless of who they are and what their background is, deserves to live in a thriving and vibrant community.
Another issue, especially here in New Orleans, is gentrification and short-term rentals (like Airbnb). Those are ruining the fabric of our communities as well. I urge people to do more research and know that by voting we have an opportunity to end these types of heinous things that are happening in our communities.
Throughout the interview, you’ve referenced your strong organizing background and the social justice lens that informs your work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like that background helps you to be able to tell stories and use the angle of the story to connect with individual audience members. Is that right?
Exactly, and that’s also why it’s important for me to keep up with what other departments within our organization are doing. That way, I can keep our supporters informed and updated. For example, if supporters care about housing through a public policy lens, then I can talk to them about what our Policy and Communications team is doing. Or if they care about volunteering, I can talk to them about what Education and Outreach is doing. It’s something that I try to be “in the know” about.