Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors
The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good, invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage. These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.
Ending Poverty Through Environmentally Conscious Living
By Nikki Hoskins
When my parents divorced, my family was forced to choose between living in a housing project that was located on top of a toxic waste dump (which my dad had grown up in) or to be homeless. Homelessness was the lesser of two evils. We ended up couch surfing until my mother’s friend offered us a room in her small apartment. My siblings and I all lived in one room. We each had a twin size mattress and one plastic container bin to hold all of our possessions, stationed diagonally on the floor. We lived like this throughout high school and college while my mother waited for a Section 8 voucher. For years, I laid awake asking God for a home. We didn’t need a big house, just a place of our own.
There are many families like mine who are either waiting for affordable housing, being forced to live in environmentally toxic places, or spending over half of their income in order to pay the rent. This is a serious problem not only for those in need of affordable housing but also for Christians who believe that the earth belongs to God and that God has prepared it for the most vulnerable. John 14 states that in God’s vision, there is shelter and a dwelling place for the least of these who are always present among us.
In light of this, I believe that my purpose is to help Christians and churches be responsible for God’s vision on earth. My mission is especially focused on African American families, who historically have been (and continue to be) subjected to unjust housing practices such as residential segregation, blockbusting, redlining, and restrictive covenants. My mission is also to support poor black women who are disproportionately affected by eviction at alarming rates. The question that I keep coming back to is: How can we create a system of affordable housing that is environmentally conscious and a form of just equity-building for African Americans?
With that in mind, I am building eco-justice tiny houses and tiny house communities for low-income families. I have begun this work by partnering with affordable housing advocates in New Jersey. They provide the municipal support and expertise in affordable housing policies. I am also partnering with the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Churches (GNJUMC). They have over 250 churches in New Jersey and many plots of land just waiting to be reimagined. Imagine a church: vacant, overgrown with vegetation, lifeless. Now, imagine a church, and off to the side of it there’s a plot of grassy land with 20 tiny houses and a large food garden. This is what churches ought to be doing!
Using volunteer labor from the people in our congregations, most of whom already have building experience from either volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or rebuilding homes that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy (2012), we can build a tiny house with a market value of $50,000 for just $15,000. Our houses will be environmentally conscious: every home will be built using reclaimed materials. Each home will use solar energy and energy efficient appliances. We will also have double-pane windows with high R-values to provide light and warmth from the sun, and spray foam insulation to keep the heat from escaping. Toilets will range from low-flow, compost, or water-conserving units, and all sinks and showers will have on-demand hot water. And, each community will come with a space for a food garden and an indoor space for communal gatherings.
Low-income families who live in our communities will lease to own their homes for just $30,000, and own them in under 7 years. They will receive wrap around services like financial, spiritual, and nutritional coaching from professionals in our congregations. The goal is for families to build their equity so that poverty is no longer a possibility.
This project is quickly growing and innovating, but it first came to me while participating in the DO GOOD X accelerator program. DO GOOD X was innovated by the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) in order to catalyze a diverse community of Christian social entrepreneurs to launch impact ventures that solve our world’s greatest problems. I, along with a cohort of 12 fellows, participated in their 8-week program in order to launch our ideas. The program comprised of a combination of cluster-based learning, an online curriculum, and one-on-one coaching in order to help us think through key questions: What is the problem we are trying to solve? Why are we the people to solve it? What is the good that we want to do in the world? What is the ethical footprint of our ideas? How do our business models align with our values and the good we are trying to do in the world? How do we measure our impact?
I started the program with one project in mind and later pivoted to building tiny house communities after thinking through these questions, mining my own story, and then clarifying my purpose. DO GOOD X has provided me with mentors and coaches, and has matched me with the resources need to carry out my vision. But, the most valuable aspect of the program is the community I have built with my cohort.
We have journeyed together through the pivots, challenges, and progress, and we have become one another’s main resource. It was with this group of people that I first shared my struggle with affordable housing and came to understand that if the church is to carry out God’s vision on earth, we must reimagine what it means to live environmentally conscious lives and we must create ways for the most vulnerable to be less vulnerable.
Nikki Hoskins is a PhD student in Christian social ethics at Drew University, Divinity School. Her dissertation research focuses on black women’s eco-religious and housing activism in Chicago.