Many people, from staff and board members to conference attendees and members, work with the Coalition to help us achieve our mission. “Advocates in the Spotlight” celebrates different types of advocates, from people in the field to those behind-the-scenes working in our office every day. We continue this series by interviewing Sakara Remmu of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, an NLIHC state coalition partner. With a long history of advocacy work and independent reporting and blogging, Sakara Remmu now leads the Voter Engagement Plan for the Housing Alliance as their Outreach and Mobilization Manager.
You have worked on a wide range of social issues such as race and youth gun and gang violence. How has your advocacy work shaped your life, or vice versa? And as an advocate, why is housing an important issue for you?
Professionally I have worked at many different levels of advocacy. Personally, I have focused on issues impacting communities of color in the greater Seattle area, to shed light primarily on education and public safety disparities, particularly youth, gun and gang violence.
I love working for and with nonprofits, and I enjoy all that comes with working for a state-wide advocacy organization. When the opportunity to join the Housing Alliance came up, I didn’t hesitate. I’ve had my own experiences with homelessness and housing insecurity, and have seen the impact of policy decisions and budget cuts in my communities. Washington state is recovering from the economic crisis at a rate slower than that of the majority of the country, and working families are being squeezed from every direction. Stable, healthy housing in a safe community should be a given for everyone. Being able to put my passion, expertise and energy behind such a critical issue, and for such a highly respected organization- that’s a dream job. Having said all of that, I think for me, ultimately, it isn’t necessarily advocacy work that has shaped my life, but my life that has shaped my advocacy work.
Blogs have emerged as a powerful platform for advocates to voice their opinions and to educate and empower others, and your popular blog Sable Verity did just that. What tips do you have for successful advocacy both for blogging and with other social media platforms?
Blogging is a surprisingly controversial aspect of community journalism. Just the term “blogging” makes some people sigh and roll their eyes. There are a lot of questions about ethics and journalistic integrity; is what is written opinion, or is it fact? If you want to be a respected voice, you have to know the issue- not just what your opinion of it is. You need to know how to message the issue in a way that is impactful. I started the blog during the 2008 presidential campaign. I was frustrated about the superficial examination of the impact of race in the election, and in the country. I wanted to lend a more pointed perspective. So I was writing about the same things others were, but I was saying things that weren’t otherwise being said. After the election I started taking on more community-based issues. Blogging morphed into a locally syndicated column in print, and then social commentary and featured stories for a local radio station. I only had those opportunities because I made sure I knew the issues I was talking and writing about. And I had great mentors. So, know the issue, learn from others, and study your [social media] platform. And also, know your limits. I put an incredible amount of time into writing and radio, and am very proud of what I was able to accomplish, but prior to joining the Housing Alliance a few months ago, I chose to stop that work. It was a hard decision but I don’t regret it.
You lead the voter engagement project at the Housing Alliance. Why is Voterization especially important for housing advocates?
As an organization, we work tirelessly for policy that supports affordable housing and an end to homelessness. But as I said earlier, Washington is slow to recover from the economic downturn. $10.5 billion has been cut from the budget. Those aren’t just arbitrary line items in a budget. Those dollars represent the quality of our communities, and whether or not people have enough to eat, whether working parents can afford to take their kids to the doctor, and whether those kids are getting a comprehensive education. Those dollars also represent cuts to the homelessness and affordable housing services. Bottom line, with our state’s current tax structure, there aren’t enough dollars to go around. Some lawmakers pay less attention to communities that do not have active voters, and historically, that includes people living in affordable housing, or who are experiencing homelessness. We have to turn that tide. Empowering and engaging people who otherwise aren’t encouraged to participate in voting, strengthens our collective voice.
With so many projects, your advocacy work must keep you very busy so thank you for taking the time to talk with us! One last question: would you share with us what a day in the life of Sakara is like?
Oh boy. Tough question. My morning routine is…routine. I enjoy going to work every day, but I am not a morning person. I’m guilty of hitting the snooze button a couple times, but even then I wake up early because I like to have some time to catch up on the news, and it’s almost the only time the house is silent. After that, the focus is on getting kids up and out the door with everything they need.
I manage the Housing Alliance’s Outreach and Mobilization team, which means I’m responsible for my own work load, and also for guiding, managing and supporting the work of others. Meeting with members, connecting with community partners, developing program materials or meeting with funders- it’s a never-ending process and every day is a deadline. Working for the Housing Alliance is like the extreme sport of advocacy and epitomizes the term “multitasking.”
Whenever possible, I leave work at work at the end of the day. That can be a mental challenge because there’s always “just one more” thing I could do. I’m sure everyone can relate to that! But part of what is important to me, and something the Housing Alliance values as well, is work-life balance. So every day I practice not thinking about work, and hanging out with family. Easier said than done, but so rewarding!
This interview has been condensed and edited.