Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Christin Reeder, Family Support and Community Impact Specialist at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis

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.

Christin ReederTell me about the organization you work for. How did you end up working there?

I work for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis (HFHGM). HFHGM is a non-profit housing agency created in 1983 by a group of local Memphians dedicated to addressing poverty housing through volunteerism and applied philanthropy. We are one of 1,700 national Habitat affiliates (in addition to 550 international affiliates), all of which are committed to creating affordable homeownership opportunities through zero-interest mortgages, in-kind donations from corporations and faith-based organizations, hefty volunteer support, and strategic community partnerships. I joined the Habitat team in 2009 after two years of working as a community organizer at the University of Memphis Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA).

When I was hired, HFHGM was looking for an evaluator and in-house researcher to lead the Success Measures Evaluation program via Neighborworks© America. Habitat wanted someone to produce data that would inform the agency’s initiatives and validate the funding received from various corporate, faith-based, and government donors. They were also looking for someone with community organizing skills to galvanize partnerships and identify resources in Memphis that would yield supplemental support for Habitat families as they make the transition from renter to homeowner.

What is your role at Habitat? Describe your typical workday and some common tasks you perform.

I was originally hired as the Family Support and Community Impact Specialist in the Family Services department. I have since moved from Family Services to the Development department. I continue to do research and evaluation, in addition to grant compliance and development, quality assurance compliance, audit compliance, and working with fundraisers to help identify diverse funding streams for our financial sustainability. I don’t have a title for my new role just yet, but that should be coming down the pipeline soon!

My main responsibility is conducting on-going interviews and focus groups with families after they move into their homes. The intent of the research is to measure our programmatic impact and to use the findings to drive change at the individual, familial and community level. If necessary, the research is used to adjust pre-purchase programming and to fuel housing advocacy at the state and federal level. I also work with colleagues on grant compliance requirements, create affirmative marketing strategies, provide community organizing training to families, and maintain and update our quality assurance policies and procedures directed by Habitat for Humanity International (our mothership).

Another aspect of my job involves working with other departments to generate in-house research that is used to re-envision and inform our programs to ensure both homeowner and organizational success in the changing housing climate. My coworkers and I have traveled to D.C. and Nashville to speak with representatives who vote on legislative policies that impact our ability to garner funding, acquire land, support families, or continue our work both unimpeded and in a way that allows us to grow and assist more Memphis residents. I have attended Neighborworks for courses and certification programs for community development education as part of my own continued education. As other employees at non-profits do, I wear many hats and typically join our team for whatever efforts they need me. It’s been a great learning experience as both a team player and an anthropologist, and I’ve enjoyed working with such a diverse team of dedicated people in Memphis and at affiliate conferences in the nation.

Being at Habitat has required that I understand more about the mortgage industry and financing, which has been a huge learning curve for me. My new position is completely dedicated to research and evaluation and the many requirements that we have in reporting compliance to various entities. The newest responsibility is implementing an impact study that measures our 30 year history in four categories: economic, social, community and environmental. I am working with a community development economist, project managers from Memphis Light, Gas and Water (a utility company), commercial real estate gurus, crime analysts, a local marketing firm, two think tanks, an epidemiologist, and several city departments. Interestingly enough, I find anthropologists in all of those settings!

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, or experiences as an anthropology student?

I got my M.A. in Urban and Medical Anthropology in 2007 from the University of Memphis, and my B.A. in Clinical Psychology and Women’s Studies from Huntingdon College. I’ve also worked in primatology, neuroscience and social work, but anthropology always made the most sense to me (plus, working with primates is like working with tiny, drunk humans). To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to use my anthropology degree or how to pinpoint my top interests to explore the right opportunities; all I knew was that I loved anthropology. It was not too long before I discovered the interplay of housing, health and advocacy. It was a place to find decent paying work that I would like. Blight and housing decay may not be everyone’s gig, but I really appreciate the efforts and disciplines that are called upon to address the most basic need of Homo sapiens.

In grad school, I loved everything related to physical anthropology, but my favorite research project involved working with another anthropologist at United Housing on a Success Measures evaluation in College Park in 2006. Looking back, I realize how great of an opportunity it was to gain skills and to be part of our ever-growing knowledge base.

Do you have a favorite anthropologist?

I have two favorite anthropologists: Marvin Harris and Helen Fisher! They theorized on food and love. That’s pretty awesome.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

In some instances I get to practice being the ‘cultural broker’, or a liaison between and within groups of people at Habitat. I communicate feedback from residents to the board, staff, and sometimes to politicians. Relaying that feedback and having it ‘click’ with strangers in a shared applied space is beautiful. And when it doesn’t ‘click’, it certainly makes for an interesting learning relationship and test of my own sense of objectivity.

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?

I was happy to learn that Habitat International had adopted the Kretzmann and McKnight approach to community development, as it was the primary ingredient in my applied anthropology courses. I think that historically, it was very easy for Habitat to be top-down and needs-based in its approach, and even skimp on its own self-evaluation. There is a big focus on pre- and post-purchase educational support that helps families build upon their present strengths, so it’s been nice to plug Asset Based Community Development theory into our everyday practice. That in itself is a huge challenge, and we are constantly working on ways to make that process easier and more effective because it is so easy just to focus on what people need in the moment. The ability to bring together quantitative and qualitative data into usable forms for marketing and grant writing has been a unique skill I’ve managed to blend well with Habitat’s evolving practices. It’s been very rewarding to hand information back to the Habitat team, and then see it get used in a variety of helpful ways in real life settings.

We have also started providing various community development products outside of our traditional model of ‘building new homes from the ground up’. This change is part of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) for which Habitat helps with weatherizing, rehabbing, neighborhood clean-ups, and reclaiming foreclosed properties in the hardest hit areas. The families served are typically seniors or veterans who are physically or financially unable to address the repairs themselves. NRI has allowed families to age in place, rather than move into senior facilities. Habitat has put a huge focus on working outside of the ‘silo’ and creating meaningful, strategic partnerships within our city (and sometimes outside of it). I mentioned earlier about shelter and housing being a basic need, but since we all express needs differently based on what we have and where we are, it has been an excellent growing period for the organization.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? 

I’ll be honest… one of the construction members calls me ‘academia nut’. Ha! It’s been a slow journey for many affiliates across the nation to convince boards and staff members that there is a prominent role for social scientists and eager university students in an organization focused on building houses. For fellow anthropology-minded people, the role is clear, right? Because the non-profit world’s view is affixed to financial sustainability (understandably so), it’s been difficult for some to see beyond having a staff made solely of fundraisers, accountants, underwriters, construction workers, and volunteer coordinators. I think that the ability to use data creatively has helped shape the opinions of the board and staff on this question. The broader paradigm shifts that our organization has made to accommodate a changing housing climate have also been helpful for including a more diverse staff (not just anthropologists, but planners, political advocates and media relations as well). The ability to work with other disciplines and be open to how others do things has been particularly helpful for me in delivering my own tasks and also for growing as a researcher.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers?

Seeking work and opportunities in corporate settings and joining the business anthropology movement is something that I would have liked to have folded into my graduate school experience. It might come off as going to the ‘dark side’, but it’s also a place to make powerful change and earn a competitive salary in an innovative and diverse environment.

1 Comment

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s