Community organizer Hazel Watson on the power of relationship-building as a pathway to stronger communities

Hazel Watson is a community organizer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

By Hannah Ross

Hazel Watson has over seven years of experience networking and advocating on important issues within the Sacramento community from housing and homelessness to climate justice. She is one of five community organizers with Sacramento Area Congregations Together (SacACT), who work to facilitate communication between community members and elected officials.

SacACT, an affiliate of Faith in Action and a member of PICO California, organizes for equity in public policy from a faith-driven perspective, with a particular interest in communities of color. SacACT serves 60,000 families in Sacramento County through its member congregations, schools, and neighborhood groups.

We recently spoke with Watson about SactACT’s aims, the importance of relationship-building for strong communities and the need for creativity in funding affordable housing. 

Tell me about SacACT and how it relates to Sacramento’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

Sacramento Area Congregations Together was formed over 30 years ago [when] some congregations came together and decided that they wanted to have a space where they could reflect and speak out about what was happening in Sacramento through a moral lens.

I’m a community organizer. It’s my job to listen to people, gather them together, help them listen to each other, and come up with the things they want to work on in the community, and the voice that they want to be to the community and to the elected officials, and to hold people accountable to a faith-based moral look at things like education and housing and immigration.

I don’t tell people what to organize around. They tell me what they’re concerned about. In talking to people in congregations … the main issue people are concerned about is the housing crisis. The unhoused folks in Sacramento are the visible reflection of the housing crisis. And I think that a lot of people want to see people who are unhoused treated with dignity and given a place to go, given a safe place to live, given services to transition out of homelessness and into housing. 

As I’ve been doing this work in the past year, a lot of people are transitioning their thinking. …There’s still a lot of people who are very dedicated to on-the-ground services and treatment and dignity of the folks who are unhoused. But there’s also this shift into problem-solving this question of affordable housing, and what affordable housing really means … . How do we not just do it a little bit at a time, but how do we scale it up and get aggressive about it? Because the housing crisis is such now that we just can’t trickle in a few apartments here and a few apartments there, we actually need to consider how we’re going to do this. 

What do you see as some of the major factors driving the lack of affordable housing in Sacramento?

It goes deep into how we, as a society, deny that our history plays an effect on how we are here today. … Like redlining, which was then continued more off the books, [that impacted] the way people got loans and the way people were given credit, or given access to different places to live. In terms of things that we don’t think of as connected to the housing crisis, [like] funding for schools being based on property values, which means that people who live in high-property value areas get better educations, which means they have more opportunities, which means they have higher incomes. … It builds onto it. This is based on a lot of institutionalized racism. I think we can overlook that when we’re talking about the housing crisis. 

Because of things like redlining and institutional discrimination against people, [the free market] hasn’t really been a free market. … If we regulate things like housing, rents and landlords … [People say] there’ll be less housing available, because people won’t want to be landlords. That’s actually not proven. … People don’t stop being landlords because of rent control. … It’s about understanding what’s really happening and it’s about understanding how to work against those things and how to educate people [on these issues].

What do you see as the most promising solutions to addressing the issue of housing affordability?

We really need to think outside of the box.

We need to be more creative about our funding for affordable housing. That needs to be a top priority. In the Bay Area, and San Francisco, a partner organization of ours [Faith in Action Bay Area] worked on a vacancy tax. What they found was that there were lots of properties in San Francisco that were not being rented out to people as homes, because they were being saved up for Airbnb, and other things like that. They lobbied and worked on getting a vacancy tax passed. Now they’re using that vacancy tax to raise a lot of money to build affordable housing.

We need to think in terms of things like universal basic income. Are there people who need to have a monthly stipend of money that they can use to better their situations? This has been done all over California … and it’s shown to be very successful. If you give people a set amount every month, they use it to improve their lives: they pay off their debts, they go back to school, they buy things they need. Sometimes just giving people that opportunity to get themselves into a better situation can then improve their stability, which then allows them to be more housing secure, which then allows everybody to grow. 

We need to stop thinking in terms of individuals, and we need to think in terms of community. … If we can think about creating stable housing opportunities for people where they can live in that neighborhood, grow in that neighborhood, then the whole neighborhood is going to be a safer, better neighborhood. … If we could think about how communities benefit from people being stable in their housing and stable in their communities, that would be better than how can we make the most dollars out of this particular venture. 

How does SacACT incorporate some of these solutions into its actions and advocacy?

One of the things I’m always telling the people I work with is: I want those in power to make decisions in relationship. If you have the power to make a decision that’s going to affect somebody else’s life, I want you to do it in relationship with that person. I want elected officials who are in relationships with all sorts of people, so they have a diverse background of relationships to draw upon when they’re making decisions and thinking things through. If you are only in relationship with business owners, you are only going to make decisions based on those business owners, right? But what would it mean to be an elected official, where you’re in relationship with folks who are unhoused, where you’re in relationship with single moms, who, maybe English is their second language, and they’re trying to raise their kids in Sacramento? 

We believe that relationships are the core of how we work, so we do a lot of relationship-building with the people we work with, in the congregations that we work in, with [our volunteer] leaders, but we also build relationships with elected officials. 

I’ve seen some folks have some transformative experiences, because of who they’ve gotten to know and have this [relationship] open their perspective on the issues that they’ve been working on. 

You can go into an elected official or county staff person’s office, and you can talk to them about numbers, and you can talk to them about research, but I think that people remember stories better. … Bringing in a personal testimony of somebody can be more transformative than just the facts and figures. … There’s a real sense of empowerment, to be able to use something that happened to you in your life that maybe wasn’t positive at the time, [and for it] to have a positive effect on your world and your community. Having the courage to do that comes through being in relationship. 

This conversation has been edited for length, flow and clarity.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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