The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it. Our teams partner with diverse educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to make sure the voices of those most impacted are always heard.
In our next edition of Stay Close to the Work, we meet Michelle Kai, a manager on CZI’s housing affordability team. As a daughter to a small local landlord and someone who’s witnessed, first-hand, the power of communities who come together to support its members, Michelle brings an important perspective to her work and team. Explore how Michelle’s roots align with her work at CZI and how she hopes to see it grow and evolve in the future.
I feel incredibly privileged to be in a position where I get to work alongside our amazing partners on ways we hope will secure thriving futures for everyone.
Tell us about what you do at CZI.
Much of what I do involves aiming to pilot and scale strategies with and for Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and other communities impacted by systemic racial and economic inequities to achieve more equitable housing outcomes. This can look like a number of things: managing research that builds evidence for innovative concepts, recommending grants and investments for organizations bringing ideas to their communities for the first time, or connecting partners working on similar things but maybe from different vantage points so they can compare notes. It varies a lot which keeps it interesting!
How did you come to be part of the CZI team? Tell us about your journey.
I spent a lot of time as a child daydreaming about what is needed for a “perfect” community. I wondered why some had so much access while others didn’t — before I even knew the word equity. I went on to study urban planning, and worked across different sectors to better understand it all. At the end of the day, my main conclusion is that it takes working together in community and across sectors to make a lasting impact.
A major theme I’ve realized in my housing affordability work is that there are many known solutions but we’re often forced to make a tradeoff between community benefit and scale. But I believe we can do both. What drew me to CZI is the organization’s appetite to make bold investments in ideas and leaders that strive for that too.
Tell us more about how your work at CZI relates to who you are and your values.
I was raised to lean on your community when you need it and give back more than you take. This has come up in different ways throughout my life. My parents came to the U.S. with very little as refugees from Vietnam. When it came time to raise a family, they relied on their network of friends and family to pool together a down payment for a home.
Over the years, as others needed a hand, my parents were the first to drop everything and help however they could — whether it was running carpools to school when parents had to pick up extra shifts or insisting that people stay with us and take our beds if they needed a soft place to land. In a similar vein, my loved ones, my mentors — those who I was able to lean on when times got tough and helped shape who I am — have paved the way for me to be in this spot now. I feel incredibly privileged to be in a position where I get to work alongside our amazing partners on ways we hope will secure thriving futures for everyone.
Balancing the demands of work and life can be challenging. What are some of your favorite ways to prioritize self-care?
Going outside and staying active is big for me. Having our dog Peanut definitely helps because my husband and I start and end every day taking her on a walk and most weekends we’ll all go to the beach or venture out on a hike.
Also, I love food and trying new recipes. I have a bi-weekly Google calendar reminder titled “SOUP!” for when I bring out my giant stock pot to make soup for the week. The other day I made a brothy beet, carrot, and potato soup that was pretty tasty.
I really appreciate how much CZI emphasizes taking care of our well-being. I think that shows up in the joy and energy we bring to the work because we have time to be with our loved ones and do things that recharge us.
What do you enjoy most about your team?
How’s that saying go: “You know you’re in the right place when everyone else is smarter than you?”
Everyone is so bright here. I mean, come on! At the same time, they’re incredibly humble and keep an open mind about how we can learn from the community and improve how we do the work. We all recognize it’s rare and a little mind-boggling that we are the ones that get to do what we do, so every day we’re trying to not let the opportunity go to waste.
Everyone on the team has a different background and expertise, and this definitely makes the work stronger. It’s a dream to know I can pick someone’s brain about something they may have encountered in their previous work or personal experience, and we’re constantly finding opportunities where we can collaborate.
What’s a community project you really enjoyed and why?
I wake up every day excited to work on the Local Rental Owners Collaborative (LROC), which is a partnership we’re supporting in South Los Angeles, California. LROC aims to preserve community ownership of existing rental housing and prevent displacement by introducing innovative tools and resources to small independent owners. The partnership allows owners to improve the units while keeping rents affordable. This effort is one where the best value we added to the work went beyond the dollars. Rather, it was by bringing together the local partners, including Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Enterprise Community Partners, and Avail, who are leading the work alongside the owners to design and iterate the program along the way.
In the last year, we have been able to support more than 280 residents with direct rental assistance in some of the hardest hit communities in Los Angeles County during COVID, and tend to priorities that the tenants and owners designed for together. It hits home for me. I think of people, like my mom, who rely on renting out the basement or an extra room in the house for income, but, at the same time, have established close bonds with tenants and want to do right by them. Rental owners like my mom are continuously making the space as nice as possible and establishing rent that works within their tenants’ finances. When trying to tackle issues as challenging as housing affordability, you can sometimes get “lost in the sauce.” But projects like this, where the impact is so tangible, are definitely encouraging.
Also read: 7 Ways To Address California’s Housing Affordability Crisis
How do you hope to see the community team grow over the next five years?
Our partnerships are at the heart of what makes any of our work possible. So, five years from now, I’d love for us to have further strengthened relationships in the communities we serve. I also think we have some tools in our belts that we haven’t yet tapped, and expect to offer more of them in service to our partners.
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Want to help us build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone? Explore CZI career opportunities now. And for more Stay Close to the Work content, visit the series page.