NASHVILLE, TN – At the February 28th Black Nashville Assembly, the first thing Jacqui Sims asked people to do is think about power and what it means in their lives and in their community.

“Self sufficiency,” wrote Ashford Hughes. “Power is a tool. You can use it for good or evil,” wrote Eric Capehart. “Power is people united together for a common goal and purpose,” wrote Liz Mcgriff. “Liberation on the other side of effort!” wrote Arnold Hayes.

About 100 people attended the virtual event and sorted themselves by what part of town they lived in. Then they went to breakout rooms where sessions on housing, education, public safety, health care, housing, and faith-based institutions took place.

People returned to the main room to hear poets, watch dancers, and listen to a stand up comic. Organizers used ZOOM in ways that underscored their goal: organizing black people to exert political power through participatory democracy. The idea of acting together was a constant theme in the discussions.

Sims moderated the affordable housing session and set the tone.

“I’ve watched from administration to administration to administration. We’ve all watched the can get kicked down the road,” Sims said.

“If you think the federal government, state government, local government, along with the private sector have had any role in creating housing inequities put a yes, or no, or a question mark in the chat box if you’re not sure,” Sims directed.  Everyone typed in  “yes”.

Dr. Rhonda Williams moved from Cleveland into East Nashville. She is black and accepted there. She can afford to live in that neighborhood because she teaches at Vanderbilt.

Clemmie Greenlee and her teenage children do not fit in there anymore although the family has lived there for generations. Greenlee grew up there and later moved back into the same house with her teenage children after her mother died. But they didn’t feel comfortable in the gentrified neighborhood. They ended up selling their family home and moving to West Nashville. No roots there but at least the neighbors don’t call the cops on them.

“When we see this kind of activity taking place, what is the city saying to us? What message is the city sending to all those persons who are struggling, who are in a housing crisis presently?” Sims asked.

“Regular working people can no longer purchase homes in Nashville,” she said.

Williams said that the solution can be found by generating collective power to build affordable housing but being careful to not lose the folks who really need it the most.

“How do we talk about what’s affordable, for whom?” Williams asked.

“The danger is that the conversation about affordable housing could just use the word, then all the people we’ve been talking about over history from urban renewal to redlining, from predatory lending to subprime lending, to all the things we’re talking about now, are still going to be left out of the affordable housing debate,” she said.

Williams said there has to be some clear definitions made and commitment to those who need housing the most are actually accessing the housing that they need.

Councilwoman Zulfat Suara is on Metro’s Affordable Housing Committee. She ticked off several city programs like the Land Trust and the Barnes Fund, which finances affordable housing. “But it’s not enough,” Zulfat said and kept saying that throughout the discussion.

She said that government isn’t likely to find fair housing solutions for everyone so people should look towards non-profits, foundations, and private development funds to finance affordable housing.

“We have to start putting our own money together and forget about federal and state money,” Greenlee said.

She said collective solutions are the right strategy. Greenlee said that Black churches could help by buying land where projects could be built with pooled capital.