SOTRU Examines the Project “Housing is a Human Right”
By Zak Rosen
Our upcoming episode of SOTRU is set in the complicated, and ever-evolving borough of Brooklyn, New York. In the show, we explore housing, development, and the inevitable impact it has on community. In my research, I connected with Michael Premo. He and his creative partner, Rachel Falcone are “oral history artists.” They met while working as facilitators with Story Corps, and have since created an illuminating, expansive, and “ongoing, multi-platform, documentary portrait of the struggle for home,” called Housing is a Human Right.
In Michael’s words, “The project creates a space for people to record stories, in their own words, of home, community and efforts to maintain or obtain housing. Composed of stories in sound and photographs, in the tradition of oral history, along with testimonies and memories – woven and remixed – this collection of viscerally honest, first-person narratives aims to illuminate the complex fabric of community and the people’s right to a place to call home.”
“Stories are shared through a variety of traditional and new media outlets, and public exhibitions. The project launched in the fall of ’09 with an installation of audio stories, photos, and remixed testimony (a rhythmic mash-up of aspirations, anecdotes, and music produced in collaboration with DJ Oja) that played out loud amidst the hum of washers and dryers in a laundromat in Brooklyn.”
The project is currently being featured as part of an exhibition called “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks” at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, running through May 2010. Next month, the dynamic duo will be sharing work from the project at PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival.
What follows is a brief interview with Michael Premo.
As a media maker, why did you gravitate towards this subject?
While traveling the country with a national oral history project, recording hundreds of stories for national archives and public radio, my collaborator Rachel Falcone and I became deeply interested in what home means to different people; what the common denominators and differences are. That experience along with living in a city where you’re always surrounded by crowds of people we had a very immediate sense of the countless number of people who rarely have the opportunity to share their story or have their stories heard (and in a more substantive way then we had found in reality TV or the blogosphere). So, we were drawn to the idea of exploring what home means through the experiences of people who are struggling to hold onto their homes or obtain a home, in whatever way they define home to be.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from this project?
The most surprising thing we’re learning is the extent to which “human rights” and the term “housing is a human right” is something that is not readily accepted or thought to be applicable in our society. There was even a review in the Washington Times of a book by a pundit who suggests the economic “meltdown was the result of a liberal left agenda pushing the notion of housing as a fundamental human right.”
For the most part human rights are an intellectual abstraction. Not until those rights are deprived or denied does the notion of human rights surface as something real or emotionally tangible. Too often “human rights” are relegated to an “Other,” meaning something only relevant to some “other” people in some “other” place, far from here, cowering under the weight of an evil empire or fleeing a ruthless dictator. Human rights are not something many Americans associate with things like housing, land, food, or even health care.
It also surprised us, at first, that when hearing or seeing just the title of our project, some folks immediately assumed we were just a homeless advocacy project. Some people even got defensive or hostile, exclaiming, “Why should we give housing away!” or “O God, these communists never give up. How will that be enforced?!” But Housing is a Human Right is about much more then the so-called homeless situation or advocating for specific social or legislative policies. Housing is a Human Right is about people, it’s about basic human values, it’s about what home means to us as a community of people united by fundamental needs and desires, yet distinguished by circumstance.
We are documenting an issue through personal first-person stories of those most affected to offer balance to a popular or predominant narrative that overshadows these voices. In the vein of muckraking like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle we aim to illuminate inequities and, as Amy Goodman put it, “[Give] a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten by the powerful.”
Tell us about Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, and why you chose it as the home base for the project? And with that said, why should people living outside of Brooklyn care about these stories?
Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is where my heart is. Like most places the neighborhood has shifted considerably over the years. At one point, not so long ago it was a racially mixed (Clinton Hill more so), working-class enclave home to an eclectic community of black artists and hard-working families. Like communities across the country the neighborhood has been rocked by the seismic shift of gentrification. We chose to launch the project at a laundromat in Fort Greene because we saw it as a prime space with which to engage both residents who may relate to circumstances in the stories as well as those who have no idea what their neighbors are experiencing but hopefully relate to the desire for home echoed throughout the work.
We are building a collection of first-person narratives that represents the diverse spectrum of not only the housing crisis, but also the challenges in daily life that affect our homes. Stories include a small business owner on the verge of buying her first home, whose business is displaced to make way for luxury condos; a women in Tampa without health insurance who faces foreclosure while battling cervical cancer; a man taking care of an HIV+ partner while trying to save their apartment building from speculators; and a man who became homeless after losing his job, just to name a few. Though these stories are rooted in place, we think that there are larger themes that will resonate with people regardless of where they are.
We’re even traveling to South Africa this summer for an international perspective, to document land struggle in a country that has legislated the human right to housing, health care, and basic necessities, but, like Jim Crow Era America, those rights have yet to be actualized in practice and ensured through legal precedents and mechanisms.
How have you found oral history collection and to be an effective way to build community?
From the time of our first ancestors storytelling has been an essential part of community. The simple act of verbally sharing and listening is important to the process of empowering communities and honoring experiences. Oral history, and especially audio-based oral history, has proven itself as a wonderful way to pause from the chaos of busy lives, stop, listen, and reflect on what a community member has to say. We’ve only been around for a few months but already there are people who have enjoyed coming out to hear these stories, again and again. There’s something beautiful that happens when there is a group of people listening together in a room, with only still photographs as visual cues. Its a community gathered together, and not in the dark like a film might be.
We are collecting divergent experiences, voices and perspectives together under a common theme. Through that process people can be reminded of the ways they are connected to something larger than their immediate circumstance, both participants in the project and folks who experience the stories through events or broadcasts. A person’s story about anything that’s important to them – their voice – is a window into their history, their community, their culture as well as their dreams, even without them explicitly mentioning any of those things. Oral histories can be an effective way to build community because they bring voices, and all that they represent, together in one place, to be experienced as a community, by ‘the’ community and amplified, echoed and preserved for posterity.