In celebration of Women’s History Month, Shelterforce and Community Change is once again presenting Women of Color on the Front Lines, a video series that amplifies the voices of women who are transforming their communities.
This year we’re highlighting the work of Kea Mathis, a community organizer with Detroit People’s Platform. Mathis organizes alongside tenants—mostly Black, women-led households—to create and support affordable, quality housing. “Detroit is a majority Black city, but the rules, the policies are white, conservative. It is very hard . . . as a woman here and then as a Black woman here, to be the one to try to ask the question first or stand up first,” she says.
Mathis has also engaged with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development around landlord accountability, and she’s worked toward ending the criminalization of people who are unhoused.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the video:
Kea Mathis: You know, when you are low income, everything rises around you, except your income.
The cost of childcare rises, the cost of rent rises, the cost of food rises, everything rises.
But it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a quality, affordable house.
And that’s what we fight for.
My name is Kea Mathis. I do live in Detroit, Michigan.
I’m one of the organizers at Detroit People’s Platform. Detroit People’s Platform was created to organize around racial justice, to try to bring racial equity for low-income Black Detroiters in the city of Detroit.
My role is around housing. We knew that as a majority renter city, we definitely have to focus on renting. When we fill out applications, you know have to get an application fee immediately before you see the house or the apartment.
The management company would ask you questions … trying to make sure: Do you earn least two or three times more than what the rent is?
It was always these questions that were on the borderline of discrimination, you know, but one of the ones where it was like, you can’t really prove it because since it was so common, it almost made you believe that it was the norm.
The norm was peculiar here.
Community members need to know what their rights are as an individual. They also need to be able to use their collective power.
Community members at a meeting, in unison: Organize for housing security for every tenant living in the towers. We care about our collective health, access to resources, and racial justice.
Mathis: When we start organizing, we have to first address the fact that things are being done to us, unjust things are being done to us.
You know, in organizing, we do confront power a lot. So we have to get people used to that.
Tenant leader Ray Whitfield: We’re trying to do this for everybody, improve some of the things that really need help. And we’re trying to get back to where we used to be.
Mathis: Everyone deserves an affordable, safe, and quality home in the neighborhood of their choosing.
We support them on that, but we do step back to allow the community members that we’ve educated, that we’ve encouraged to speak and use their own voice, to use their power.
Community members: Unity.
Whitfield: If they see we’re all together on this they can’t ignore us.
Mathis: We have a saying in organizing that it’s not an individual problem if it’s happening all over.
We had begun to talk to HUD in conversations around affordability. And therefore it was very important for us to make sure that we are influencing those conversations at the state level and at the national level.
Detroit is a majority Black city, but the rules, the policies, are white conservative.
So as a Black woman, it is oftentimes only us who are challenging that. It is very hard, you know, as a woman here, and then as a Black woman here, to be the one to try to ask the question first or stand up first.
It is … those values that we live in to as an organization that keeps me going. It’s my colleagues here. You know, we do work as a really good team. It’s like we feed off of each other. It’s like when one starts, this flame starts and then it just feed through the whole team and then we hyped about something and then we’re ready to charge.
I’m no one-woman show at all. It is our community voices. It is their desires and their needs, you know, it’s that community leadership.
We’re fighting to make things better for the longevity.