Episode 28 Housing, Advocacy, and Anthropology with Christin Reeder Young

Anthropologist on the Street
Anthropologist on the Street
Episode 28 Housing, Advocacy, and Anthropology with Christin Reeder Young
Applied Anthropologist Christin Reeder Young

Applied Anthropologist Christin Reeder Young

Christin Reeder Young has a Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology, focusing on medical and urban anthropology, and works as a Senior Research and Evaluation Manager for Habitat for Humanity. Her work focuses on two main topics, the impact of affordable homeownership for lower-income, first-time homebuyers and the impact of critical home repairs and accessibility modification for older homeowning adults in Memphis, TN. As an anthropologist, however, her view of these issues extends beyond the individual or family to the consequences that extend into neighborhoods, the city, and the health systems that provide services to homebuyers.

Ms. Young’s ability to perform qualitative ethnographic fieldwork allows her to assess the homes of elderly clients and to provide recommendations for critical repairs and accessibility modifications that allow them to stay longer in their homes place rather than moving prematurely to a nursing home. Additionally, her larger view on culture and social institutions makes her exceptionally qualified to influence policy change, as aging trajectories show a boom in elderly populations. Through conferences, trainings, and through visits to Congress, Ms. Young shares her data, recommending concrete ways American human services can evolve to assist people in aging in place healthily and independently in their homes and communities.

*NEW* Transcript available below!

To download or stream the episode, use the audio player above, or find AOTS through the following sites:

Information on Ms. Christin Reeder Young:

Ms. Young’s LinkedIn page: www.linkedin.com/in/chris-reeder-young171  

Articles, posters, and other relevant information:

Blog story Ms. Young wrote for Focus Magazine for older LGBTQ+ adults who are aging in place: https://focuslgbt.com/blog/happy-home-for-life/  

Ms. Young’s poster “Aging in Place Voices: Exploring the Influences of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis’ Critical Repair and Accessibility Program on Older Adults”: CSAS 2019CRY

Ms. Young’s PowerPoint presentation “Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis’ Aging in Place Program”: ASA Presentation 2021

Encounters with Aging” (1995) by Margaret Locke

Defining Aging in Place: The Intersectionality of Space, Person, and Time” (2020) by Wendy Rogers et al.

Anthropology of Contemporary Human Problems (2012) by John Bodley

 Initiatives and programs mentioned:

CAPABLE: https://nursing.jhu.edu/faculty_research/research/projects/capable/  

Green and Healthy Homes Initiative: https://www.greenandhealthyhomes.org/  

Memphis Habitat Aging In Place (AIP) program: 


Aging in Place Program: https://www.memphishabitat.com/aging-in-place  

Homebuying Program: https://www.memphishabitat.com/online-homebuying-program  

Green and Healthy Homes Initiative: https://www.greenandhealthyhomes.org/   

More info about the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act: https://www.hud.gov/AFFH 

Organizations and institutions referenced in our conversation: 


Photo by Sabine Vanerp on Pixabay

Habitat for Humanity Memphis: https://www.memphishabitat.com/  

Memphis Habitat Health and Housing Summit: https://www.memphishabitat.com/tn-hh-summit-resources 

University of Memphis Anthropology Department: https://www.memphis.edu/anthropology/  

Website for University of Memphis’s Applied Anthropology program: https://www.memphis.edu/anthropology/graduate/index.php  


Carie: Welcome back to Anthropologist on the Street podcast! With the help of a couple of fearless assistants, I am excited to announce that we now have transcripts available for new episodes. You can find them on the episode pages at www.anthropologistonthestreet.com. Just click on an episode, such as Anthropology in Action with Dr. Dana Powell or Politics of Greek Cooking with Dr. David Sutton and you can find the transcript at the bottom of the page. We will be working to provide transcripts for past episodes as well, and if you have an episode you would like to see transcribed sooner rather than later, send me an email at anthropologistonthestreet@gmail.com or drop a message to anthropologist on the street through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

In this episode, Christin Reeder Young joins us to talk about her work with Habitat for Humanity. Ms. Young has a Masters in Applied Anthropology, focusing on medical and urban anthropology, and works as a Senior Research and Evaluation Manager. Her ability to perform qualitative ethnographic fieldwork allows her to assess the homes of elderly clients and to provide recommendations for critical repairs and accessibility modifications that allow them to stay longer in their homes place rather than moving prematurely to a nursing home. Additionally, her larger view on culture and social institutions makes her exceptionally qualified to influence policy change as aging trajectories show a boom in elderly populations. Through conferences, trainings, and through visits to Congress, Ms. Young shares her data, recommending concrete ways American human services can evolve to assist people in aging in place healthily and independently in their homes and communities.

Carie: Welcome, and thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. Tell me a little bit about your background in anthropology. What was your focus in graduate school?  

Chris: Yeah, well I am so thankful that you invited me to speak and I’m super excited to chat with you. So I am currently in Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve been here for 16 years, and the whole reason I came to Memphis was for graduate school in anthropology. I went through the University of Memphis applied program in 2006, 2007, and at the time we had the opportunity to choose tracks, so we could choose urban anthropology or medical anthropology, well I chose both. I had previously majored in clinical psychology and women’s studies and then I did a short internship working with primates, and wanted to follow in the steps of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall and I loved working with the primates but during that time, what the primatology mentors that I had showed me anthropology and once I learned about anthropology, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but I knew I just wanted in on that. So I joined the U of M department. And I was really lucky because they translated traditional applied anthropology into engaged scholarship, so when students and professors were working on community based projects in and around Memphis, great practitioner emphasis was placed on a culture of reciprocity with communities, and that we were serving in offering our research skill sets that may not otherwise be present and so I think, over time, in the anthropological time and space that is shifting to a reciprocal and equitable relationship between universities and communities, you know, it’s been very important, so our department was really committed to encouraging that we weren’t in the community to extract other people’s cultural and social experiences for the purpose of white paper musings, right, we were there to offer collaborative scholarship, communities were always the experts in their own realms and we were just there to help kind of work on some human issues and human challenges, not inject university authority into this time, those organizations and times. So I was super thankful to be able to work with a bunch of professors who were super into engaged scholarship and reciprocity, and there was always this reciprocal vibe that had a huge impact on me and so when I worked for the University of Memphis doing community organizing and tech research and then I joined the Habitat team, it was always about reciprocity and, you know, how I can be a better conduit between pretty wildly different groups of people who are working toward a common solution and that’s always been something that influenced me out of the department. 

Carie: Wow, so you packed so many different, interesting things into that summary, and so just to parse this out because I love that notion of you being a conduit between different groups, and you’re coming from this program which you said is an applied anthropology program. And applied anthropology itself can mean a lot of different things, but how do you think about it in your own mind, how would you define applied anthropology? 

Chris: So, I would say that there’s a billion different ways you could use applied anthropology, right, because there’s a billion different human experiences, and to me it’s about using qualitative research, anthropological skills, in real life situations, and oftentimes those situations are heavy, complex human experiences. Anthropology, you know, focuses on empathizing with, and elevating voices that are usually the voices that have been structurally silenced or diluted. So, a huge part of applied anthropology to me, and what was taught to me through my department, is that the anthropologist honor and acknowledge the power systems around the humanitarian issues that we’re working on, and how to be the most ethical conduit that we can be, and that we want to be close to the issue but we don’t want to be the most important issue. And, you know, like I said, I’m in Memphis and I have friends who are part of my anthropology cohort who work for St Jude Children’s Hospital with public health issues and, you know, medical anthropology, and then I have friends who work at FedEx and they work in design and business anthropology, and then I have friends who work for the city and university and nonprofits and schools, and so they use their applied anthropology to understand things like health and food, environmental and indigenous property rights, immigration, a huge portion of their time, for my medical anthropologist friends this year, been dedicated to covid and epidemiological exchange, and then I have a lot of folks who, you know, spent time in other countries looking at medicinal plants, birth and reproductive rights, and then of course I am within kind of the shelter and housing and health realm. So all of these cool folks are kind of co-creating these ethnographies with qualitative tools. And we’re systematically looking at stories on humanitarian issues and how to improve conditions and outcomes, you know, so ultimately, the anthropology tools that we’re using hold these energies of all the people we’re sharing with, so that we can be informed helpers and informed conduits and maybe, maybe influence policy and programming in healthy and equitable ways. But it’s so cool because so many of us started out as students together, and then we all kind of dispersed into different realms, and just to see what we’re doing in the city is really incredible.  

Carie: You know, I’ve talked to so many different anthropologists on the podcast, many of whom are medical, but most frequently I’m talking to medical anthropologists who work in academia, so doing research that is really important and still relates to real life, but what you’re describing, this applied element, is very much outside of the university in terms of where you’re working and the kind of direct work that you’re doing. But I wanted to go back to what you were saying about collaborative scholarship too, because that is definitely a huge thing anthropology right now and I’ve also heard, you know, engaged scholarship, which – those terms seem to somewhat overlap, but when you’re talking about collaborative scholarship, you’re talking about the method by which you’re gathering this qualitative data, right? How would you – can you give me an example of how you could do collaborative scholarship with applied anthropology? 

Chris: So, I can give you an example of when I was a baby grad student, and in that space, our department was connected to an anthropology alum who had created a housing agency and this housing agency was led by an anthropologist and alum who made their commitment to provide affordable mortgages, critical home repair, to working community organizing to make sure that the community development products that they were providing to communities and homeowners was applicable, was relevant, And so they gave us these survey tools as grad students and we marched out there and we got a chance to have a giant cook out with the community members and homeowners who have gone through this housing agencies program,  and I was working along urban planning students, I was working alongside a couple of public health students, and then when I looked up to see who our mentors were, it was anthropologists, anthropology alum who had maybe focused on more planning, we had urban planners, and it was just incredible because, you know, we have these Venn diagram of overlapping skill sets, but there were opportunities for the conduit to kind of deviate into other realms, and so it was just a huge impact for me as a student, and then, looking back, I see how much that shaped me, so that I could lily-pad to other jobs and other experiences where there are no lone wolves, and we always work within a collaboration or an interdisciplinary, you know experience. And that isn’t just for the sake of the folks we’re serving and we’re working with, but so that I think our knowledge bases can continue to be informed and that we don’t work in silos, and so being able to implement some qualitative surveys with these community members and then have advice and mentorship coming from an urban planner and coming from an anthropologist, was really helpful and I feel like it really shaped the way that I create collaborative strategies even now, you know, it’s like 15 years later, as an anthropologist of Habitat. So that had a huge impact on me in the way that I see solution-based research. 

Carie: Yeah, that’s great. So, it’s not just about working with the people whose problems you are trying to address and treating them as equals and I loved, before as you were saying, that they are the experts in their own lives, right, so it’s like not just that collaboration between anthropologists and field informants but also this across discipline, and so you’re working at this intersection of all of these different fields and you said you focused on medical and urban anthropology? 

Chris: Yes, yes. 

Carie: How does that come together in your current work? 

Chris: So, I would say, you know, the intersection of health and housing has always been a consideration for anthropologist, I think about Boasian practitioners, and how they were sketching, you know, where in a landscape houses were and where certain buildings were or certain huts or certain parts of, you know this community. So, I know that housing has always been an anthropological topic, but I think housing as a social determinant of health is becoming more obvious to larger groups, like health care systems, hospital systems, because they typically just focus on the patient, right, or the people coming into their emergency departments, or their doctors’ offices, or, you know, the type of insurance claims they’re paying for. But housing has a huge impact on health outcomes and the way that people interact in their communities. So when I was going through the department as a grad student, I was super focused on blight and vacancy, and the impact of housing conditions not just on the community and the local city systems, but on humans, and so that just made sense to me, to be able to look at urban settings and look at city settings and then look at sort of the health outcomes associated with that, and so that was always really fascinating to me. I was hired almost 12 years ago at the Memphis Affiliate, and they brought me on because they were looking for a person to measure the impacts of their homeownership programs, and then later their aging in place program for seniors. If you didn’t know, Habitat does not give away houses, we do affordable mortgages for first time home buyers who may not otherwise be able to qualify for a conventional loan, and so that also provides pre-purchase support, like homebuyer education, and then referral services to families who are transitioning to becoming a homeowner. And then in the last five years, we’ve been doing free critical home repairs and accessibility modifications to older adults, who are typically aging and they don’t have the money or the physical capacity to modify their homes so that they can age with their homes, like with grab bars and stuff like that. So I saw this opportunity to work for Habitat as like the intersection that I was most interested in, and it had such a significant impact on so many different systems and so many human complexities, that I was so enthusiastic, and previously I thought I only want to work for the university, I only want to be an academic, I only want to do these things, and I just realized that being a practitioner was probably one of the greatest gifts that, you know, the department ever gave me, so I shifted into that role and I’ve been doing that work ever since. 

Carie: Wow, and so when you said the Memphis affiliate, do you mean that as a division of Habitat for humanity? 

Chris: Yeah, so we are in 70 countries across the globe, and we are in pretty much every city in the United States and Canada, and we have a Memphis Affiliate that’s been around since 1983, and we have transitioned, you know, over time to expand how we help the city. It’s important for housing agencies to respond to the changing housing tides, right, a couple years ago we started focusing on aging in place, and helping senior citizens stay in their home, because with just a couple of repairs or modifications a senior citizen could save time and have more enjoyable quality time in their home, as opposed to having to go to assisted living or moving in with an adult child or even the scary notion of going to a nursing home, so we’ve shifted to accommodate the housing market in Memphis as best as possible.  

Carie: And so when you’re talking about being in applied anthropology among all of these elements, all of these different questions, and you said in particular that Habitat hired you to look at how, you said, their policies are affecting the populations, kind of, in real life? So how does being an anthropologist, with our particular skill set, with ethnographic or qualitative fieldwork, how does that help you bridge those questions and provide the data between a policy or a law and what’s happening on the ground? 

Chris: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I think that shelter, and the definition of shelter, is so complex depending on your geography and depending on the population that you’re working with or serving. But really, shelter is very simple, everyone needs a place to live. But housing is so varied based on the person, you know, where you are. So, since Habitat is global, you can kind of imagine how different a home looks for a Guatemalan family versus a family here in Memphis, we have to think in terms of ecology, policy, land rights, land law, things like civil unrest, war, you know, housing policy, things like that, so there are other anthropologists who are working at Habitat across, you know, the continuum of Habitat, but each person kind of has to focus in on the policies and the local culture and all the things that are going on, zoning laws, stuff like that, so I think it’s really particular, depending on, you know, where you are. And we all know, whether you’re a gerontologist or an epidemiologist or a social scientists, like, where you live is a social determinant of health, like your home, your community, your zip code, and then all the policies that impact your geography will impact your health, and your trajectory, and then it’ll also impact the generations associated with your household, so it’s not just a snapshot in time experience, it’s something longitudinal and so I think, for an anthropologist, it’s important to talk to the housing agencies and be that conduit and talk about how the person who is moving into their home, it’s not this kind of ethereal concept where what housing size culturally fits everyone, that we have to drill down to the experience and the languages used in the home and the types of accessibility modifications we need to consider. So I use a lot of qualitative research methods to inform and evaluate our program to make sure that we’re serving folks the best way we can and I’m using research methods to solve some pretty complex human hiccups that a one-size-fits-all housing model could cause, and it could be very obvious, but very simple to solve shelter challenges. A person who has a family member who comes to visit them frequently in their new home, but is in a wheelchair, could benefit from having a wider front door so that the house is more visitable, and so having conversations with our families prior to moving into a home allows us to make that modification so that we can be better serving families, and then using those qualitative methods to do so. When I first came to Habitat, the construction team called me an academia nut for a long time. Because I wasn’t a fundraiser who raised money to build a house, I wasn’t a volunteer who helped to build the house, I wasn’t a donor who gave money to build the house, but I was the person who could create some reciprocal communication pathways among all these different types of human who are doing really cool work, right, so leave it to the anthropologist to put the human back in Habitat for Humanity, you know, and I’m close to the center of construction teams, fundraisers, social workers, medical professionals, healthcare systems, economists, foundations, volunteers, folks who give us money, but at the center of that, the true center, are the families who are sharing their stories, their values, and their dreams and their expectations, and then most importantly, how they define their journey through homeownership and shelter. So I’m able to help translate some of that, in ways that keep our work aligned with the cultures we’re serving, and there’s tons of different cultures out there, right, in Memphis alone, but the cultures that we’re serving here and the families we’re serving here may be very different to a city, you know, on the coast who happen to have a lot of immigrant families coming in, and so I think there’s a place for anthropology and qualitative research methods and applied experiences for every Habitat, whether there is a real, you know, anthropologist there – or not, like, everybody can be an anthropologist if we just, you know, listen, so I think that there are these really cool opportunities for creating some narratives that really shape shelter and then how do we serve all these different families who are seeking homeownership 

Carie: Wow, so you are really doing that data gathering with the populations who are seeking housing or who have housing that is inadequate, it sounds like, as well as then translating that into forms that are understandable by all these agencies, and perhaps even physicians and other people. I mean that sounds like a huge task.  

Chris: It is and, you know, I work with a team of people who come from different sectors and all work to make a difference, and then some of us have even experienced homelessness ourselves, we have experienced discrimination through housing, we have all had some type of experience, and so I think, you know, Habitat in particular, the culture there is – there’s a great deal of empathy, and so sometimes there’s these really complex human shelter questions. It’s a lot of data, it’s a lot of narratives that are kind of up in the air, and we’re having these conversations, but I think at the core of so much of this work is that we’re trying to find solutions and finding the solutions requires empathy, so, you know, sometimes I think that if you have a truly empathetic group or culture or work space, just giving them the research tools to kind of be their conduit, to their families, and then to the folks that they’re also serving out in the community, can be really helpful. I feel like, just the way anthropology kind of influences folks to, again, consider the families who are going into the homes, rather than just a top-down model. 

Carie: Yeah, and I think that’s so critical, because when you’re creating policy or law there are a million different factors going into it, including budget, and what’s best for the taxpayers, and, you know, what are different lobbying groups requesting, but when you’re an anthropologist and you are focused on the marginalized population that is going to be faced first with all of these policies, that empathy that you’re describing gives you a really unique view. And as much as you’re describing individuating things, there’s also, it sounds like, a kind of collective experience that you’re gathering from communities, particularly, you’re focusing on the aging communities. I mean there must be a lot that you’re finding that is in common among all of these people that you’re speaking with. Like, what are some examples of the findings there? 

Chris: Yeah, so we hosted this huge health and housing summit in January or February, it was all virtual, folks could join one or more of the panels, we had over 40 experts in the realm of health and housing, and so at the center of that, I was able to find people who I thought we would need to listen to in order to fully develop an aging in place resource and space where we could all learn from each other and then also build our own knowledge base at the Memphis affiliate. And in doing so, I think the first step for me was, how in the world do we identify and define aging in place, everyone grows old if we’re lucky, but I remember doing, you know, a project in grad school and I think it was Margaret Lock was researching menopausal experiences among Japanese women and how different menopause was interpreted and how it manifested in culture verses, you know, the concept of menopause that I was taught in the American south, so I remember thinking, well everybody gets old, right, but not everyone ages culturally the same, and so I think that’s an important point to translate and to communicate to housing agencies, because everyone’s house is going to probably need a grab bar, probably need a ramp at some point, but the way that individuals interact with their home is very specific. And I found this really cool article by Dr. Wendy Rogers, et al., and it was called innovation in aging and it was about the intersectionality of space and the person and then, sort of, time and it was a very cool base line article about what is aging in place. And so aging in place, like, in general, at our affiliate, is focused on the ability to age independently and healthily, in a dwelling or a home, and most of our older clients in Memphis are pretty homogenous, and they’re impacted by similar policies and larger systems, but there are, again, distinct differences in how they view aging in place and their needs and their home. In general, I think they all want to avoid nursing homes, they want to avoid assisted living, they want to avoid living with their adult children, but their homes are distinct and different, and so we need to identify different interventions to keep them healthy, and so that was a cool place for anthropology to be, was that we had some generalizations, that we can provide the same construction interventions, but where they go in the home, and then the conversations we have with those aging adults, needs to be very individualized and very tender. So I think that ethnography helps anthropologist articulate how and why aging Americans have powerful connections to their home, and why most of the time they seek to age in place in their community as well as their home, it’s not just their home that they have relationships with, it’s the community, that they themselves are an asset to the community, and they see so many assets in their community proximity to, you know, a grocery store, proximity to a community center that they go to every day, their faith-based organization that they are connected to, maybe they even have grandkids and adult children living on the same street, so it’s about aging in place in your dwelling, aging in place in your community. I think that in general, modern perceptions of aging humans in the U.S. is kind of an afterthought, people think that after men and women hit a certain age, that their value goes down, and I think that’s such a dangerous cultural dynamic that we have in the United States, and I think that needs to change because aging Americans are valid and they’re important, and I think that we have a lot of work to do there. I think about how perceptions of aging in older Americans can impact policy, and how dangerous that is too. And they want to stay in their communities so they can exchange with local anchors, and they are culturally relevant, they have incredible historical – these really cool historical think tanks, that I can go and I can talk to an individual, and I can ask about street boundaries and assets and when this school got started and maybe the musicians that grew up in this neighborhood, and that’s such a culturally beautiful aspect of the work that I do, but you know, seniors on the street, are also a functional consideration, that I sometimes have to shift my conversations when I talk to members of Congress or, you know, people in local political systems where I say, you know, this older adult is a taxpayer, they occupy a home that may otherwise be vacant, they are eyes on the street.  

And so, there’s kind of this functional theorist side of me and then there’s like this cultural side of me that wants to celebrate the stories, but in both realms, whether it’s functional or kind of cultural, I’m collecting that data that’s going to make a difference for how we serve them, and at the end it’s going to have an individual impact on that household, that senior citizen, it’s going to have an impact on their family and it’s going to have a tertiary impact on the community. And so I didn’t expect to see how that trickled out and how that vibrated out when I first started this work, but so many of our seniors are sort of the pulse of so much within our communities.  

Carie: Yeah, I love that that your anthropological fieldwork allows you to see that. Like what you’re describing, it seems like a very single issue, this idea of aging in place, you know, how can we help people do that, but when you really get down to it, everything that you’re describing is phenomenal, it’s not just a functional issue, it’s not just an individual-driven issue, it’s seeing this human being as part of these macro systems that are largely invisible to other people. So, like, that balance of functional and humanistic is so fascinating, like, it’s so important, and I do think that the fact that we’re talking about aging in place, it’s such a uniquely American issue in some ways, which also, again, is this kind of broad perspective on culture and society, right, our economics, our kinship patterns, all of these really big systems, make aging family members a unique problem rather than just another part of the kinship system. I remember back when I was, way back when, in graduate school, working with Kathy Lutz, who writes a lot about the anthropology of social problems, and her description of anthropology as offering solutions to social problems, but also anthropology reveals how some problems are really unique to that particular culture. So, the fact that other communities around the world don’t treat their elderly the same way or don’t perceive aging the same way is very revealing. I mean it could be comforting or it could be horrifying that we have this issue. So it’s interesting how many layers are balanced here.  

Chris: Oh, absolutely, and, you know, during this summit we invited people who were from the Johns Hopkins Capable program – I’ll share about that later – we had policymakers, but then we had sort of a design thinker, and that individual, Sarah, was from the Greater Good firm, and she shared that focusing on the curb cut effect is a way to provide for the entire community. So, think of it as, you are in a community and you see a step up to a sidewalk or to a curb. Now, if we were to take away that step up and just create a smooth ramp, so that a person in a wheelchair could get through, what actually ends up happening is that it provides opportunity for a person with a stroller, a person with a suitcase, a person in a walker, and that it is about focusing on some of the most marginalized considerations actually benefits the entire community, and so it’s odd sometimes that people would, again, have older adults as this afterthought, as opposed to well, what can we do, either through ADA law or through just small accommodations in local infrastructure and policy, what can we do to improve this so that my neighbor three doors down, who is on a walker, can still continue to take his walks around the community? But that curb cut which allows him to gently roll down as opposed to step down, it’s safer for him and he can continue his independence in the neighborhood, and I appreciate him and I respect him and I value him as a neighbor and as a person, and so I would want that for myself, and for members of my families. And so, at Habitat, I actually do a lot of annotated bibliographies, even still, because there’s so much going on with aging in America, and, like I said, gerontologists are weighing in, urban anthropologists, engineers, I mean there’s so many perspectives coming into play here, and by 2038 individuals aged 80 and older are going to be the fastest growing age stratum in America. So, the US is going to have to accommodate for that in housing, in health care, transportation, infrastructure, hospitals, preventative care, public health, I mean, we’re about to really see some major changes in what the United States looks like. I don’t think that a lot of policies are as considerate for older Americans. We lack affordable housing for seniors, and as they age they experience a physical challenge, like they have a likelihood of losing balance, loss of hearing, loss of vision, and so there’s a reduced ability to perform activities of daily living, like dressing oneself, managing day-to-day activities. So one of the things that Habitat, Memphis Habitat in particular, we’re looking at is, how are their homes and housing changing with their needs, and cities are going to have to think, how do we need to change infrastructure to really accommodate, what’s going to happen is more eight-year old getting out and doing things, requiring more from the healthcare systems. So, it’s going to be sort of this collective thing and I think lot of the data that we’re finding through housing research is going to be able to inform, you know, kind of broader, tertiary city issues, and a lot of folks that I speak with, you know, after we provide critical repairs and accessibility modifications say, you know, my house was a scary place, but it’s where I raise my family, I created memories, I want to stay here and it’s going to fall down around me and I’m not going anywhere, because they are so attached to it. So, that’s difficult because either they don’t have any other options because they can’t afford it, but also, that’s where they want to be. And so we want to be able to provide a sense of integrity and pride, and how aging with dignity can come from a few repairs or feeling like they are being listened to. And I feel like that concept, even though it’s an individual household, I feel like that concept could be applied to cities. There’s a lot of healthy aging states. There’s a lot of age friendly states whose policy prioritizes older Americans and I think that when an older American gets out and exchanges with retail and with shopping and healthcare systems and medical facilities and places like that, if it is attuned to their physical needs, I feel like that has a huge impact on how we’re shifting the value conversation around older Americans.  

Carie: Yeah, definitely. So, tell me then about the Capable project and how this folds in.  

Chris: Wow, okay, so Capable is so cool to start with. Capable stands for community aging in place advancing better living for elders. Capable. It’s at John Hopkins School of Nursing and it’s a multidisciplinary, usually pretty low cost, patient-centered model, and that it incorporates a construction piece like Habitat doing repairs, a nurse, and occupational therapist and the whole team focuses on the need of the patient to create a safe environment in their home. It’s holistic, it’s very cool, if there is ever a webinar, or a news release, or a report from anyone in this department at Johns Hopkins, I am always on it. It is so exciting. But one of the ways that I kind of share this model in an applied setting is by telling a story. And that story is that Mr. G, he fell in his home and broke his hip. He was in the hospital for, let’s say, three months in physical therapy and they said: okay, you’re good to go home, see you later, he goes back to his home, but he has no grab bars near his toilet or in his bath tub. He has to reach across hot stove tops to turn off his oven while he’s on a walker. His carpet, you know, is still frayed and worn and has edges coming up and it could have been the original place that he fell and then you know, to top it all off, he has to go upstairs to his bedroom and I’m sure you can already see where the pickle is right. It’s dangerous and it’s unfair and it’s unsafe to send people back into their homes without medical or structural interventions. And I think the hospitals and medical professionals and the cool folks at Johns Hopkins noticed this, and so Dr. Sarah Szanton co-created this program and it’s so powerful, and I like to use inspiration from Dr. Megan Sandel, who has said before that housing is a vaccine for wellness. If you are a young person experiencing significant asthma, because there’s a leak in your home, or the windows are not sealed properly and you’re experiencing issues with poor air quality systems, and, you know, that house is basically your vaccine. In a way, I think we experienced that with Covid, that staying in your home and social distancing, you know, that house was your major protection. So, if that’s the case with housing as a vaccine, with what Dr. Sandel said, Capable is a prescription for repairs to the home, and it’s ultimately focusing on the client’s narratives to define what that house needs. I think that the coolest thing, really, with Capable is that there is a nurse practitioner or nurse from that sector who’s also working with an occupational therapist, because Habitat can build ramps all day long and we can say there you go, you’ve got your ramp. But if we don’t have a person who is coming and having conversation with that client about getting up and down those stairs or that ramp, rather, what is the intervention really doing? So that occupational therapist is helping that individual get through with physical therapy, up and down that ramp, so that it can be functional. Because dropping an intervention into a house like the one-size-fits-all, and thinking that the human is just going to show up for it isn’t always the best practice. So, Capable does so many cool things, they actually endup improving all types of quality of life. They’re healthier, the hospital is saving money because the interventions are also preventing future falls, and that’s saving insurance companies and oftentimes, tax-funded health care systems like Medicare, Medicaid. They do activities of daily living, measurements, and activities of daily living is like a way to measure a disability before an invention, and the ability to show improved ability after the intervention. And so they look at the ability to dress oneself, to use the restroom, to perform, you know, hygienic activities, and then it’s even linked to psychological well-being. So, Capable was able to really capture some more statistical analyses and medical analysis that I feel blends really well with anthropology. We’re doing a small pilot at Habitat, and so we are just absolutely thrilled to be able to bridge and work with sociomedical groups and hospital systems, so that I can have a conversation with a nurse, or I can have a conversation with an occupational therapist and we can all have a conversation with the client, and kind of come at some solutions holistically, and it’s always about – it’s really just qualitative data collection. Really, you know, and it’s ethnography, and so that’s been super cool. And at the very end of it all is, again, this kind of functional perspective that we have to think about when we want to influence policy and the green and healthy homes initiative based more, they are helping us measure cost savings. So, how much savings is the health care system or the hospital system saving because they are supporting these interventions? And so again, there’s this humanistic side and there’s also a kind of this functional side that’s really lending itself, individual experiences in this pilot group, lending itself to kind of a broader, regional, and maybe one day like federal policy change, as we prepare for aging adults.  

Carie: Wow, it seems like a pretty amazing program, and you said also that there’s a number of different disciplines that come together to work on this, right? Where’s it located within Johns Hopkins, is this a public health initiative?  

Chris: So it’s out of the nursing department, and then, of course- 

Carie: Nursing, okay. 

Chris: Yeah, so it’s been replicated within healthcare systems, they’ve picked it up themselves and then implemented from the healthcare system down, and then in other areas, it’s recognized and acknowledged by housing agencies like us, and we go, wow, who can we partner with to make this happen? Because we’re already doing the critical home repairs, we are repairing roofs so that a senior citizen can stop a massive water leak, or they can stop pests and raccoons and things like that coming into their home, all of which affects their physical well-being and their psychological well-being. We’re already, you know, leveling flooring so that it’s not uneven, we’re providing lighting so that folks can get back into their kitchens and start cooking again. So, we’re already doing this work, we just seek to be able to partner with these medical systems who, you know, for all intents and purposes have the sustainable funding. But then they also have these skill sets, of medical individuals who can also provide statistical research, but they can also provide really cooloccupational therapist support to, kind of, embrace that medical side. And so, we’re kind of coming at social determinants of health from all different perspectives, and, you know, I never realized how much I would be working with statisticians and medical cost savings analysts and attorneys and economists until I realized that, to this humanistic side of my work, we have this massive consideration that we have to think about when we talk about, if we’re going to influence policies, sometimes we have to prove the cost savings. Because we’re presenting to all kinds of audiences and sometimes our audiences are specifically numbers-heavy palates, so my narratives and my qualitative research may not roll with them the best. So, it’s been really cool to work with folks who can look at insurance claims data, and they can look at a reduced number of visits to the emergency department because senior citizens are falling less because they have grab bars and have an occupational therapist who are helping them learn how to use their ramp. It’s a massive, kind of, space where all these different folks can contribute, and in the past we’ve had engineers and architects, we’ve had folks who were artists come in, and we’ve all had conversations about, what can we contribute from our sectors to improve community well being, actions for senior citizens, and our first-time home buyers.  

Carie: Wow, I mean, what an amazing cross-disciplinary effort and such a simple thing, but something that goes overlooked as a, kind of, caretaking of our society. It’s pretty amazing. With the Capable project, is that something that Habitat for Humanity is engaged with? Like, how does it connect to your current job?  

Chris: So, right now, we have a small pilot going and it’s our first rodeo, and we have of course been doing the critical home repairs and the accessibility modifications, but it’s our first time working so closely with the hospital system and working with the nurse and working with an OT. And so, I think that it has improved the way that we approach housing as a group, because I can preach the good word of anthropology and medical anthropology all day long, but until you kind of get in there and we get the adequate training and we see sort of intervention to outcome experiences and we spend time with each individual, holding space for their narratives, and then using tools that hold their energies and their stories, not just respectfully but also systematically, so it can be analyzed, it’s really kind of attuning, you know, how we function in our mission. And so, we’re in a pilot right now, we are collecting activities of daily living, so we can kind of create these activities of function, and then we’ll be able to have all these data that we’ve never had before, and I always say, you know, I’m just an anthropologist, right, so we can do crazy cool things for qualitative data collection and ethnography, but I’m going to need someone who’s smarter than me in a different way to help us with analyses, and I’m going to need someone who’s smarter than me in a different way to look at cost savings. And so it’s been absolutely thrilling to me, it may not be to, like, my coworkers, but it’s thrilling to me to be able to think about how I can collect qualitative data that connects to these typically dry outcomes. But those outcomes are going to mean so much, because if we can see that offering a couple of interventions, and doing some really close-knit ethnographies with one family, if we can extrapolate that and look at how we can impact regions or the United States, and what if every Habitat did that, it would be a significant impact with how older adults age, not just nationally but throughout the globe. So, I kind of have this vision of this picking up and us being able to kind of replicate this. And so, you know, I pay close attention to make sure that for every researcher that I speak with that, that they’re added to another spoke in the wheel, with the client or this program being at the center.  

Carie: Well, and it’s what you were saying, I mean that idea of having to educate people around you as to what anthropology is, that seems like a very common barrier to other forms of applied anthropology, where we really – I mean, people just don’t often know what anthropology is, they have in mind Margaret Mead maybe, or you know, some sort of obscure early 20th century, like, folks going to live in a tribal community and writing about it. Or oftentimes it gets conflated with archeology, you know, or osteology, right, like bioarcheology. So, what would you envision then, anthropology’s role in the future, you know, especially applied anthropology? How would you like to see this grow and develop in the future?  

Chirs: That’s a really good question. When I first came to Habitat, I had just left the University of Memphis, doing, basically, research on blight and neighborhood conditions and then how to create grassroots-driven solutions. So, I was kind of with my people, I was with other academics, you know, we had research t-tests, pi-squared test conversations every day, and then I go to Habitat and folks are like, oh is Indiana Jones your dadand do you dig up bones? So, I was like, oh, that’s fun, that’s a fun thing that I’m learning. And goodness helpme, I used the word triangulate in my first staff meeting at Habitat and everyone almost fell out of their chair because they weren’t quite sure I was talking about. But, you know, I had to accommodate and realize that I wasn’t in the university war and I was a practitioner now, and I had to pay attention and be a participant in my own growth so that there was nothing around me that was a wall for, you know, a member of construction coming to me asking me a question, or me going to our family services department to ask a question about loans or finances. So, I really had to drop who I was and had been at the university for so long, so that I could make sure that I was doing the best I could with anthropology. And it’s just been really, quite a natural shift, after I think everybody got on board, is that it’s really about listening to people. And even though we have this prepackaged policy influence, grant-required, you know, program sometimes that looks like one-size-fits-all, we have plenty of times throughout how we serve that we can modify. And we need to think about families with disabilities, we need to think about veterans, we need to think about a person who is aging, we need to think about a person who might be thinking about growing their family once they move in. So, having conversations, I think, has been, you know, the most relatable content, as me as an anthropologist working with, you know, strategists and PR specialists and grant developers and things like that, and those are all folks at my Habitat, so, it’s really about, you know, listening to folks, and I think everybody can get behind that.  

Carie: Well, I think that is a great summation. So, the next time somebody asks me what anthropology is I’m going to say, it’s listening to people, because that’s such a succinct – you know, we listen, and then we translate what they say into public policy or into different languages, different cultural groups’ understandings. So, your description of yourself as a conduit, you know this is such a great project that you’re working with and it’s so illustrative of what anthropology and our field methods can contribute to really really important social issues. So, you’re clearly bridging all of these other forms of expertise and putting together the kind of core humanism that everyone is trying to reach, right? Everybody in these projects is trying to make life easier for the elderly and so the anthropologists seem to be that last link that connects all of these forms of expertise to the population you’re actually trying to help. So, it’s pretty remarkable. It’s a really great project.  

Chris: Yeah, and I’m super lucky to be able to work with so many folks who really do share in the common goal of addressing fair housing and encouraging access to repair programs. And when we cast our net to recruit and do outreach, that we follow census data and secondary data and word-of-mouth and pay attention to asset-based community development model systems. And even if, you know, they want to call me Dr. Jones’ daughter and an academia nut, they are on the same page, just in a different way. And so that’s kind of cool, because, you know, I’ve been there almost 12 years, and I looked at the construction director and I was like, you know you’re an anthropologist, right? Because I said, well, how was your visit to the community, and he was like, well, I went in and I talked to Mrs. So-and-So and Mr. So-and-So,  and we have a plan and we really want to, you know, consider having, like, a community event. And I said, oh, so you were doing community organizing, Mr. Anthropologist. So, it’s taken over a decade, but I finally got him back for calling me academia nut. But, there’s so much stuff that goes into influencing public policy and public knowledge, and I think that the concept of shelter is so deeply cultural and it’s such a paramount feature in human life. And if we’re going to legislate housing policies in ways that honor the cultural dynamics of all humans who exist in the US, then anthropologists and other social scientists should be part of a policy development process, and be applying their research methods in an ethical and effective ways so that we can honor those humans.  

Carie: Yes. Do you hear that legislators and policy-makers, you need more anthropologists! I think we need to say it louder for the people in the back. And it certainly is the responsibility of anthropologists to explain how useful it would be, you know, if you want to successfully accomplish something, maybe you should have some data first on that, not just a handful of good intentions.   

Chris: Absolutely, and when I chose anthropology and I chose the jobs that I did, I did it because I knew that qualitative evaluations, no matter what topic it was, whether medical or housing, or immigration or race or reproductive rights, I knew that evaluations and qualitative data methods were going to offer these cool iterative cycles, where we’re improving how we serve communities and are able to influence policies that are really about equitable trajectories for future generations. What we’re doing now is going to impact folks in the future, and I’m not just evaluating our work but I’m evaluating the current policies, and so we can kind of see where the gaps in humanity is and I can see where the gaps in our work, maybe, and it’s just really importantto, kind of, dig into that space and have that opportunity, because what we’re doing now makes a difference for future.  

Carie: Absolutely. So, is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you would like to share, that you think is important?  

Chris: So, we’ve talked a lot about policy and I think sometimes it’s kind of a buzzkill, it’s kind of dry. But, when you have these very relatable exchanges with members of the community and families who have been discriminated against, you realize that you’re not just a conduit for information, but there’s, at least for me, a level of advocacy and activism, that has always been close and near and dear to my heart. And so, I feel in my job that I have an ethical commitment to advocate for fair policies, and I am acutely, acutely aware of institutionalized racism in housing, predatory lending, threats to fair housing policy, and then these social injustices that are harming people’s rights to access housing. So, I am lucky that we have a huge advocacy portion of our model at Habitat, and so they will host these events and visits to Capital Hill. So, I’m able to take my data, which is almost entirely qualitative, to members of Congress, and have these conversations, and nobody’s going to read my white papers, nobody’s going to read it, you know, so I have a really cool designer on staff who turns the highlights, the results page of my work, into a cool infographic, because a staffer will read that and a member of Congress will read that. So, I’m very, very lucky, in that I have a way to, not just be a conduit between our programming and the clients we’re serving, but also our programming, the clients we serve, and people who are voting for a bill that could address predatory lending, threats to fair housing. In our prior presidential administration we had active leaders who were removing human and housing rights for people, mainly marginalized people. One policy that was particularly important for Americans was the affirmatively furthering Fair Housing Act, that embodied this strongly held belief, influenced by the Obama administration, that Americans deserve fair housing and fair access and equal opportunity to shelter. And so, the prior administration for this one removed that. And so, I think to remove that policy that specifically focused on fighting discrimination is vile and dangerous. And I hope that we can move into new chapters with this administration and we see healing through a multicultural recognition about policies that really support all people. And so, I think that’s a really cool place for anthropologists to be, because it’s specifically related around, you know, moving Fair Housing Act of 1968 into this new realm, and I think anthropologists are the coolest folks to kind of help that, carry that case and carry those stories. But, you know, I love the Ruth Benedict quote, of, you know, really what we’re doing is just trying to make the world safe for human differences and just because we’re different doesn’t mean that it’s bad or dangerous or scary. But that, when we do look at housing as an equitable and fair right to all human beings, that it really helps to have any anthropologists around. So, you know, I don’t think I have to preach the choir too much about, you know, having anthropologists join you, but there’s so many books out there and so many articles that I think could really make a difference for housing agencies and for places that are seeking to help anyone who has any kind of shelter hiccup in their life.  

Carie: Well, that is really exciting to hear that you’re able to take all of this data on the ground, all of people’s lives, and translate it into something that hopefully will make things a little bit fairer, a little bit better for them. So, that’s wonderful. It’s been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing your experiences.  

Chris: Yeah, thank you for having me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you and I absolutely love the podcast, so I’m super excited.  


Carie: Well, thank you.  


Carie: Join us next time as we discuss Sports Anthropology with Dr. Alan Klein, and how masculinity and ethnicity are revealed and reinforced, whether through bodybuilding in California, baseball in the Dominican Republic, or basketball on the Lakota reservation.  


Liked it? Take a second to support AOTS on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *