Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Amy Schaftlein, Grants and Communications Manager at United Housing, Inc.

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

Tell me a little bit about the organization you work for. How did you end up working there?

I work for United Housing, Inc. (UHI), a not-for-profit housing agency that provides services to families that are under-served by the traditional homeownership industry. UHI was founded in 1994, as an affiliate of the United Way of the Mid-South. In January 2000, UHI formally incorporated as an independent organization working to revitalize declining neighborhoods by supporting homeownership and preserving housing affordable to low-to-moderate income families.

United Housing’s mission is to support the revitalization of Memphis neighborhoods through the provision of homebuyer education, foreclosure prevention, affordable lending products and construction services. UHI goes beyond the traditional sense of homeownership. Our Homebuyer Education program teaches homebuyers about not only how important credit and budgeting are in the buying process, but also the ins and outs of the lending process. Our post-purchase counseling takes it to another level by focusing on how to maintain a home on a budget, and makes sure the new homeowner understands all aspects and responsibilities of owning a home. This ensures long-term responsible homeownership and creates stable neighborhoods and communities. 

The steady decline in home values, population, housing quality and rise in unemployment have had a devastating effect on Memphis neighborhoods since 2008. With the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grant awards in 2009 and 2011, along with other local sources of funding, United Housing is able to target transitioning neighborhoods and stabilize property values in Northeast and Southeast Memphis through acquisition and renovation of vacant, foreclosed homes.

I started working at UHI in 2010 after I graduated from the University of Memphis. My professor and mentor, Dr. Stan Hyland, approached UHI’s Executive Director, Tim Bolding, to discuss internship programs in a housing related field, and mentioned my interests in housing policy and neighborhood identity. Previously I was involved with the City of Memphis and the Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA) Problem Properties Collaborative effort to collect data on the home vacancy and blight levels in Memphis. I then worked on a streetscape project with the University District’s Community Development Corporation (UNCDC), so I was involved in housing and neighborhood issues since I began graduate school in 2008. I interviewed with Tim and after a summer internship, I was hired permanently in the fall of 2010.

What is your role at United Housing? Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

I am the Grants and Communications Manager – I research and write the grant proposals for UHI, as well as report to funders on the progress of our programs throughout the year. I am also responsible for managing the public relations and marketing efforts to build awareness of UHI’s programs and to attract new partnerships and donors. I work on the coordination and planning of our annual events, and coordinate the distribution and creation of our Annual Report and our Strategic Planning sessions. I work with the staff to tell success stories – collecting stories about homebuyers going through our program – on how we helped them, how they like their new homes, and how to get the word out to others who may need help. I help the Executive Director with managing the Board of Directors meetings, volunteer recruitment, and developing internal policies as needed.

I also assist in the development of the Home Matters movement, a movement that was created to raise awareness, on a national scale, of the importance of “home” in America. It looks at housing as more than just a roof over our heads, as something that is an anchor in an individual’s life, that helps people become more civically engaged, have a stronger sense of community, and provide a more stable environment for their families. I attend monthly progress meetings and am working on incorporating the Home Matters brand into UHI’s own marketing materials.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What was one of your favorite projects? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

I attended the University of Memphis Applied Anthropology graduate program from 2008-2010.  I specialized in Urban Anthropology and more specifically neighborhood identity and housing policy research.  

My favorite project was bridging the diverse neighborhood representation that made up the University District community through symbols and neighborhood events. Memphis has a large faith-based presence, and the local church created a banquet honoring neighborhood leaders that used symbols and language that highlighted the qualities and characteristics of what makes good neighborhood leaders. Each honoree received an angel symbolizing the spirits in human forms that act as intermediaries between heaven and earth. Neighborhood leaders often find themselves resisting or promoting an outside force that is trying to change or affect their communities for better or worse. That banquet empowered local leaders and recognized their efforts with the hope that their work and passion would reverberate across the diverse neighborhoods that make up the University District.

For me, anthropology has played a very important role in community development because it involves all types of organizations, from grassroots nonprofit organizations and local businesses to government agencies, activists and academics who contribute to the social, political and economic well-being of a community. Anthropology focuses on human beings and their cultures, rituals and ways of life, and my training has served me well when navigating national and local policy research and community organizing projects. It opens your eyes to the diverse perspectives that may emerge on one particular issue.

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?

Right now, I am working on a community impact assessment project in the Raleigh neighborhood, where we have acquired more than 12 homes and renovated them for re-occupation. I am working with our Anthropology Department intern, NeighborWorks consultant, and neighborhood residents to survey the property conditions and understand the residents’ experiences living in the neighborhood in order to assess UHI’s impact here. Some of the skills I have used include structured and unstructured survey design, facilitating focus groups, proposal writing, and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data to use in my grant writing and strategic planning efforts.

My anthropology background lends itself well to the creation of a participatory research project like this one. To be successful, I have to understand the sensitivities of neighborhood boundaries, perceptions of safety, and the often divisive topic of homeownership versus renting among residents. Navigating these experiences and recruiting residents to work together on a project like this requires cultural competency. Training in anthropology allows you to take a step back and look at an issue in many different ways, considering many differing perspectives before creating, designing and implementing an evaluation project like this one. Cultural competency can also be useful if you are co-creating a neighborhood plan with a group of residents or if you are trying to navigate internal issues with co-workers.

Do you define yourself as an anthropologist at your workplace, or use another title?

I have talked about anthropology with our Executive Director, since he was also trained in the discipline. Other than that, I do not talk about anthropology a lot at my office. I call myself an anthropologist in certain situations, like while working on a project with an interdisciplinary team (e.g., the evaluation project in Raleigh that  I mentioned above). But for the most part I go with my official title, Grants and Communications Manager.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

Get involved as much as possible with local business, nonprofit, or government organizations (whichever sector you’re most interested in). Get to know the “players” in that field, ask for advice, get experience with a project, or volunteer at an event. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Not only will you get to meet some great people and learn about the great work that is going on around you, but you will learn about the operations of how a program or project works from the funding source to the measurable outcomes, and how they are tracking success. 

I was fortunate enough to receive an internship with a local community development corporation that gave me experience in proposal writing and reporting program outcomes to funders, both of which are very necessary skills to have and know about in my current job. Also, you will get to see the local politics in action, and take note of different organizational cultures and how these cultures are shaped by external and internal funding/political environments. Keep your eyes and ears open and you will learn a lot. It’s not all in the books.

Editor’s note: Are you an anthropologist who practices outside of academia? If so, I am currently looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series. If you are interested in doing an interview, please get in touch!

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