Afrofuturism and Housing Justice
Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Rasheedah Phillips
"If we have any hopes of fundamentally breaking away from the patterns of the past and rupturing the inadequate present, the future can no longer be envisioned only by those with the privilege of time and space to imagine. It can no longer be constructed within a bootstraps narrative of personal responsibility and self-determination that treats only some as deserving of a roof over their heads. Our measure of progress must rely on how much we can transform our values to provide broad scale and equitable access to housing opportunities for all.”
In this episode, Angela talks to PolicyLink Housing Director Rasheedah Phillips — Afrofuturist, attorney, tenant organizer, policy advocate, and interdisciplinary artist. Listen in as Angela and Rasheedah discuss how time can be created, reclaimed, resourced, and redeemed; and the ways that we, collectively, must operate from a place of temporal abundance versus temporal scarcity.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:06)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Let me share a quote: "If we have any hopes of fundamentally breaking away from the patterns of the past and rupturing the inadequate present. The future can no longer be envisioned only by those with the privilege of time and space to imagine. Our measure of progress must rely on how much we can transform our values to provide equitable access to housing opportunities for all." That's a quote from the PolicyLink Director of Housing, Rashidah Phillips, an interdisciplinary afrofuturist artist and cultural producer. Her work focuses on growing tenants rights, housing, and land use movements, and addressing policies that have a disparate impact on people of color. We are so lucky to have Rashidah with us today, but the movement is lucky to have an artist with her big vision working in transformative solidarity for change. Rashidah, thanks so much for joining us.
Rasheedah Phillips: (01:15)
Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to talk with you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:18)
I wanna ground Afrofuturism for our listeners so that they really know what you're talking about. The concept of Afrofuturism really has been around for decades. There's Sun Ra's music, Octavia Butler and her amazing imagination, and then there's what people have been calling speculative fiction. But how do you define Afrofuturism?
Rasheedah Phillips: (01:40)
I find Afrofuturism to be a container that can accommodate a lot of different visions and a lot of different approaches. It doesn't, for me, have a very specific definition, but I see it more as a political tool. I see it as a dimension of time. I see it as a language and a roadmap that allows Black people to access their futures, um, and futures that we have been by and large cut out of and cut out off from and as well as our past. Right. And so what Afrofuturism offers to me and, and what I've seen in the works of speculative fiction in the works of folks like Octavia Butler and Sun Ra is this bending and breaking of time, the way in which they're able to pull in the past, pull in the future, pull in the now, and sort of entangle it, in this very generative way.
Rasheedah Phillips: (02:23)
Afrofuturism offers something different. It offers a language. It's both a forward reaching and backward reaching construct that corrects for the past and can allow us to reshape futures, can allow us to access past and speculate on a past that we've been by and large cut off from. For my own family, I'm not really able to go back further than three or four generations because of the ways in which slavery impacted my family. I have to use speculation to go back and think about what could have happened in the past or to connect with ancestors on a sort of different temporal plane that informs me when we think about linear time and it's sort of cutting off from the future, cutting off from the past. It really creates things on this sort of causal line. Afrofuturism draws on and is informed by, um, Afro-Diasporan ways of thinking about and viewing time, which can be cyclical, which can be, you know, linear can be all sorts of different shapes and configurations.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:17)
I'm curious though, how did you arrive at all of this?
Rasheedah Phillips: (03:21)
Yeah, so it's been a long journey -- my relationship with Afrofuturism started off as a young child. I was born in Trenton, New Jersey. As a kid I was always interested in science fiction. I wrote science fiction as a child. I came to the realization when I was in law school in college that a lot of the science fiction that I was reading and looking at and ingesting just did not reflect my reality. And so that is where I was led to writers like Octavia Butler, writers, like Tananarive Due um, was able to come across a whole community of Black science fiction writers and Afrofuturists who were doing just really amazing both creative work, but also bringing Afro futurism into the community. And so I was really inspired by that. And at that time, I was entering into my career in legal services, and it really dawned on me that in order to really serve my clients effectively, I had to really have an understanding of time and of the future and how this notion of time impacted the lives of the people that I was serving. People who were primarily black and brown folks, people who were at risk of losing their homes, losing their children, their livelihood, and understanding the way in which they were being cut off from their futures. And what this idea of Afrofuturism offered to expand that vision of the future and to really open up access to this space that we have, um, as black folks largely been cut out of. So, um, found Afro futurism to be a mechanism, a tool, a community, a way to really center black people and their access to the future.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:59)
I'm wondering whether there were any particular things when you were growing up that drew you to speculative fiction, anything that made you think that the strategies for social change were in need of a boost or a refresh?
Rasheedah Phillips: (05:14)
I think my own life experiences, um, really informed the way that I started to think about how Afrofuturism and science fiction showed up in my own life and in my community. In my own experiences of being someone who, um, was housing and stable. My family was housing and stable for a long time. I became a parent at the age of 14. My own mother was a parent at a young age, my grandmother, right? So just this sort of cycle that was running in my family, and my understanding of how to shift that cycle, how to fundamentally make sure that my child did not fall into the same cycle. I was really informed by this idea of science fiction and of time, of time travel. How do we go back into the past? How do we shift the past? How do we access the future? How do we shift the future? And just found Afrofuturism to really offer me a language and an idea and a vision for how that could be done.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:04)
Rasheedah, how has Afrofuturism informed your current work?
Rasheedah Phillips: (06:09)
As a housing advocate and former housing attorney? Afrofuturism shows up in my work in many different ways. First, it shows up again as an approach and as a lens, right? It's an understanding that, again, Black folks, um, have been in very specific ways cut out from our futures. And understanding that in the context of housing, thinking about, for example, the fact that evictions have a very specific impact in particular communities thinking about, right? The same confluence and factors that make Black women and Latinx women, the highest evicted groups of people both before in the pandemic, are the same factors that make them most likely to be exposed to Covid 19 or death from Covid 19 or other environmental hazards and, and issues, right? So when you're working with folks who are directly impacted by housing issues, by lack of housing, um, when you're working with organizers, when you're working with tenants, right, it's all about a future that they want to see shifted and that they wanna see changed and that they see themselves in.
Rasheedah Phillips: (07:09)
And it's also about this notion of time. Back when I represented clients who were facing eviction and housing displacement, you know, going into the courts, it's about how much time I can negotiate for my clients, how much time I can get them to be able to remain in their homes. People who are most evicted are often the people most likely to have eviction records. And those eviction records follow them into the far future, and it impacts their ability to be able to access safe and healthy housing that is the foundation for their families to be able to grow, thrive, and, and also access the future. All of this really dawned on me, um, as I was working in legal services and as I was face day in and day out, with having to work within a crisis response mode that left my clients, left, the folks that I was working with in the communities that I was working in little time to be able to plan for their futures. Having to live check to check and live month to month on, on a lease, um, you know, facing the risk of displacement. And so it really dawned on me how much time was embedded in these systems and how we needed to be able to grapple with the idea of time if we were really going to open up access to new and different futures.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:17)
So earlier this year, the PolicyLink team and partners actually launched a housing campaign called Housing Futures. Tell us about it.
Rasheedah Phillips: (08:24)
What the campaign hopes to do, right, is start to uplift these innovative models of how we can approach housing that enables community control of housing and land. And that doesn't treat people as mere commodities waiting to just become eventual homeowners and no other sort of options or flexibility around how they wanna live in their communities and be in their communities. And so that's gonna be uplifting models like community land trust, uplifting these sort of frameworks around land back and land restitution movements and co-ops. And just again, these other frameworks that are possible or may maybe don't even exist yet, finding an ability to build out this frame to talk about housing futures, um, and housing in a way that leads with a vision in a way that leads with abundant visions, abundant language, language that's generative rather than the sort of language of lack and detriment and crisis and gaps, right?
Rasheedah Phillips: (09:17)
Which is the main way that we tend to approach and talk about housing, which leaves people feeling uninspired. And if we're talking about systems change, we also have to talk about time. When we're talking about housing. We often tend to specialize how we're thinking about it. We think about it as a matter of physical space rather than this idea of, again, folks are being locked out of their future, you know, and in very literal ways. Um, you know, when we talk about things like life expectancy, right? And that Black folks in certain communities, um, you know, in Philadelphia where I come from, if you live in one zip code, your life expectancy may be 10 years shorter than someone in a neighboring zip code. And so it was very necessary, I think, to, um, bring in a focus on this idea of housing futures, um, to figure out how we collectively start to reprioritize our values around housing, how we sort of emphasize intergenerational housing stability over the sort of narratives that lead again in this space around wealth gap closing and, and eliminating that, you know, right? Which are all very important considerations. But, um, it is often talked about or framed to the exclusion of talking about intergenerational health, the ability for families to thrive over the long term and to live and be in their communities safely and healthily.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:33)
There is so much intellectual consistency in what you are saying. All these systems that are disadvantaging not just Black people, but Brown people and people with disabilities and so many others will not work for any people who are being marginalized until we get them to work for Black people. So let me ask you this, and you touched on it. Your work seems to just be right in the tradition that is emerging now of reparations. Is that the way that you see it?
Rasheedah Phillips: (11:07)
I absolutely do see this, um, as heart and parcel to the conversation around reparations. I've talked about it briefly, right? How access to housing and land has been racialized in the same way that access to time in the future has been racialized. And so when we're talking about the idea of reparations, um, two frameworks I think emerge for me. And it's the idea of spatial reparations and the idea of temporal reparations. So I love this definition from the National African American Reparations Commission, where they're calling on policymakers to invest in spatial reparations, which they define as a restorative and reparative geography of socioeconomic and political opportunity, particularly for those displaced and dispossessed by American slavery and their descendants. And so I think that framework as well as, as a framework that acknowledges again, how time has been used to oppress Black communities, right? When we're talking about things like sun downtowns, right?
Rasheedah Phillips: (12:01)
Where quite literally black folks and, and brown folks had to be out of a city's limits by the time the sunset, right? And it was advertised otherwise they were killed, harmed, beaten. When we're talking about reparations, we also have to configure the ways in which we've been cut off from time. And I think that framework, right, how generations are cut off and cut down because of lack of access to housing or to land or, you know, spatial justice. And so these frameworks that, that get at that directly, that get at the harm and start to make repairs, acknowledge, you know, even acknowledging it is the first step either looking at racist deed covenants, right, that have, again, strip generations, um, of black and brown folks from being able to access safe and stable housing or this o also important wealth building opportunity that, that folks always.
Rasheedah Phillips: (12:48)
So how do black folks make it into the future? How do we connect with our past, um, without shelter and foundation, right? That is the question. How can we make or keep memory if we don't have a place to hold or deposit our memories? And so both this housing being the foundation for everything, right, that we need. You need a job, you need a house. You wanna access education and take your kids to school, you need a home to do that. You need an address, right? So all these factors and these indicators of our success, our ability to thrive and to be who we are, um, in, in a lot of ways hinges on this notion of housing. And so temporal reparations, I think is, is an exciting place to think about how we start to repair, whether it's, again, how do we think about how black folks can wait less?
Rasheedah Phillips: (13:31)
Um, how do we think about how we get our time back? How do we skip the line? We have inequitable access to time. We, we experience time poverty in the same ways that we experience fiscal poverty or, or housing poverty. When someone in Philadelphia is being faced with eviction court, they have to go downtown because there's one eviction court in the city. None of those folks live downtown, right? So it takes time to commute, to get down to court. If you're not there by 8:45 on a dot, you're gonna be evicted three weeks later, right? So folks who aren't privileged with this, this notion of time, how do we repair that? How do we get them their time back? How can they reclaim time meaningfully? Spatial reparations and temporal reparations offer some really unique ideas and frameworks and, um, models for how we can start to do this work.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:22)
Rasheedah, I said when I introduced you at the top of the show, that you are an artist. Your work is clearly a representation of your artistic sensibilities. It's not surprising that an artist would be at the forefront of bringing a new strong vision into the work because artists have this unique way of weaving in new perspectives into the way they see the world. They play such a key role in narrative and cultural shift. Tell us about the visual art that you've been engaged with.
Rasheedah Phillips: (14:51)
Yeah, absolutely. And, and thank you for asking this question. And again, it's, it's really exciting to be at a place where I can show up as my full self and bring my full self into the work. Um, and so as a interdisciplinary artist, I work primarily as part of a collective called Black Quantum Futurism. And our collective is all about, um, again, grounding Afrofuturism in this idea that when you put the afro on the word futurism, right, we're talking about a different kind of future. We're not talking about the same standard future. And so we really, um, emphasize both researching sort of these Afro-Diasporan approaches to thinking about time and space and, and how our ancestors observe time and space and, and incorporated into their daily lives and rituals, but also really researching the history and constructs of time itself and, and of this notion of the future -- linking it to things like slavery and, and colonialism and all these things.
Rasheedah Phillips: (15:44)
And so our art really represents that. In some ways we try to make our art very literal. Um, and so a lot of my projects are involved with taking clocks and sort of breaking those clocks down. So we have a series called Dismantling the Masters Clock, where we, um, create clocks that respond to bodily movements that respond to sound, respond to music that really just have people question the idea that when we look at a clock, that that clock is objective in the same ways that we think about maps often as being objective as telling us the true territory when it's not, right. It's a, it's a very subjective object that is a representation of politics. But we read the mapping, we say, hey, the, what the map says is true. We tend to do the same thing with the clock. And the clock really flattens our own subjective personal universal experiences of time, because it is so tied to the notion of labor, to the notion of money, to the idea that time is running out.
Rasheedah Phillips: (16:49)
And so a lot of our art just really explores these ideas, um, both through objects and artifacts. We do a lot of exhibitions and installations. We actually have an exhibition in Germany, um, where we built a stage that is a rotating clock that's gonna be on the river. And so we're gonna perform on that stage because also an important part of our work is performance. The movement of the stage is dependent on the time of the river and how it moves. Another project that's really at the intersections of housing advocacy and, um, Afrofuturism is a project we have called Community Futures Lab. This is a project that was started in a community in North Philly that was undergoing, um, mass displacement as a result of the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority rebuilding back housing there. That would take essentially over a, a decade almost for folks to be able to return to that community.
Rasheedah Phillips: (17:41)
And lots of other folks were displaced through that process. And so we opened up this space because what we found was that the community that was the subject of this redevelopment was being really maligned in the media. And that area of the city is maligned anyway, because it is an area that is, um, experiencing both rapid gentrification, but has experienced significant disinvestment over decades. So it was really a key place to start to set up. So we opened up this community space. We did what we call oral futures interviews with community members, provided resources, had housing futures workshops, but really used that space to influence what was happening politically in Philadelphia around displacement and housing justice.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:23)
And you've gathered so much wisdom in understanding and insight from your experiences. I wonder, what would you tell your younger self?
Rasheedah Phillips: (18:33)
That's such a great question. I, I really believe that Afrofuturism has informed how I experience time and how I move into the world. And so I would say that I'm constantly in contact with my younger self, um, because I don't see the past as the past. I see the past as sort of layered into the present and layered into the future. It's a sort of cyclical sort of relationship in how I talk with my younger self. So I'm in constant dialogue, right about the past, about what needs to be healed, about everything's okay in the future, right? Like, you, you made it, you're successful. Um, all these things, right? I have to keep in touch with my younger self because that, that younger self is still healing. I'm still healing as a, as a Black woman in this world, right? It's, it's a constant process. And so I love what Afrofuturism has offered to me. And in order to, in reality shape and shift my relationship to time, it has made my life, um, much more generative. It's made things much more connective, um, again, in terms of how I approach my practice and my work. And so I see Afrofuturism as a life practice, as something that, you know, in some ways is very spiritual in terms of how you can move through and approach the world in reality. And so, I'm, I'm, I'm always in touch with my little Rasheedah.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:47)
Rasheedah, thank you for talking with us.
Rasheedah Phillips: (19:50)
Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure and, and so inspired by your work and all that you've done and the pathways that you've created for us to be able to approach the work in this way and with these, um, innovative sort of frameworks. So appreciate you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:04)
Rasheedah Phillips is an interdisciplinary Afrofuturist artist and Director of Housing for PolicyLink. When listing the atrocity stemming from racism, we must not overlook stolen time. An Afrofuturist lens brings the multifaceted nature of this theft into relief: from Black lives cut short to Black lives, interrupted opportunities, cut off and dreams too long deferred. Racism has robbed black people in their communities of their past, present, and futures. Afrofuturism helps us see how the past, present, and future are layered into each other in ways that expand our thinking about what justice means. The Afrofuturist lens also invites a vision for vibrant Black futures and a just and abundant world.
Radical Imagination was produced for PolicyLink by Futuro Studios. The Futuro team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Joaquin Cotler, Stephanie Lebow, Juan Diego Ramirez, Liliana Ruiz, Sophia Lowe , Susanna Kemp and Andy Bosnack. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Vanice Dunn , Ferchil Ramos, Fran Smith, Loren Madden, Perfecta Oxholm and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Since its inception, PolicyLink has worked to anchor the fight for housing in communities of opportunity — from advancing inclusionary zoning to equity-focused post-disaster housing recovery to anti-displacement strategies to fair housing. We know that healthy communities of opportunity are a key predictor of life outcomes and therefore the PolicyLink approach to housing has never been just about housing and that housing is connected to opportunities that include access to high-quality schools, safe and convenient transportation options, and healthy food.
Housing as health, housing as community, housing as liberatory — that is the vision of the future we are working toward at PolicyLink. Bright and bold housing futures for America’s communities mean new models and approaches to creating and preserving homes that are unapologetically inclusive of all, imagined and designed by the communities most impacted by housing inequities. Futures where people can arrive and remain home — a place where they are healthy, joyful, and thriving in their chosen communities. A place where each of us can exist with a secure and healthy relationship to our chosen families, homes, communities, and the land we live on.
This Q&A was drafted at the onset of Rasheedah's role as Director of Housing at PolicyLink
Rasheedah: I am most excited for the opportunity to partner with communities working directly on the ground, supporting people with lived experiences of housing insecurity in their efforts to access housing justice and equitable, long-term futures. While more and more organizations are striving to involve community voices as they address urgent problems and respond to crises, PolicyLink is uniquely poised to support communities in having the space and time to think more creatively, expansively, and positively about the future of their neighborhoods and what a thriving community would look like to them. New solutions for tackling housing insecurity and creating equitable housing futures lie outside of the crisis-response model and the sense of time urgency that leaves little opportunity for communities and individuals to plan for their futures.
What work do you feel PolicyLink is uniquely positioned to do in the world that will make it possible for us to win on equity?
Rasheedah: Housing exclusion and instability are racial in nature, sewn into the very fabric of our institutions, policies, and value systems. Today, more than 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968′s prohibition against housing discrimination, exploitative real estate practices, and the deep inequities flowing from them are not historical artifacts. The timeline from 1968 to the present reflects a society designed to systematically leave Black and Indigenous families and other marginalized communities and people behind. In this chapter of history, these communities have been effectively locked out of the future. Under constant threat of displacement from their homes, and often occupied with planning how to financially survive the next day, week, or month, they are often left unable to dream about and plan for the future.
The future calls for reprioritizing our values to emphasize intergenerational housing stability and health over intergenerational wealth and eliminate the debt that keeps marginalized families forever running to catch up on the timeline of progress. Families can build wealth, access education, and avoid poverty when they aren’t being pushed out of their communities through eviction, redevelopment, rising rents, and property taxes — when their communities are invested in before they get pushed out and the neighborhood gentrified.
PolicyLink provides an opportunity to advance national housing policy with an expansive equity lens centering the lived experiences of individuals and communities who have faced housing instability, and with a broad group of stakeholders — impacted tenants, neighbors, government officials, landlords, advocates, and the private sector working together to envision and build housing models that allow everyone the stability to dream about and pursue bold futures. By leading with equity, PolicyLink is poised to help transform the value systems that are required to shift before we see any material shifts in the systems and structures that keep communities locked out of housing opportunities, and by extension healthy futures.
What is something from your past, a lesson or experience, you’ll be bringing to your work at PolicyLink that you imagine will have a positive impact on your work and the results you deliver for the 100 million?
Rasheedah: In our culture we often say that time is scarce, running low, or running out. As an Afrofuturist, I believe that time can be created, reclaimed, resourced, and redeemed and that we will need to operate from a place of temporal abundance versus temporal scarcity in our collective futures. Achieving equity for the 100 million calls for dismantling systems that deprive people of temporal and spatial equity and that raise irreparable conflicts in timelines. Achieving equity requires actively addressing the ways in which healthy, happy, creative, and safe futures are by and large made inaccessible to Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and opening up access to those futures. Using Afrofuturism as a way to access alternative perspectives on what the future will look like is not only encouraging to people who have been given the message that they likely won’t survive to make it into “the future,” but it also comes with a whole visual and cultural language that posits joy and hope as technologies that allow Black people to shift the means of access to the future.
When you imagine a just, equitable future — one worthy of our people — what do you see?
Rasheedah: When I imagine a just and equitable future, I see the end of housing as a matter of private contract, where housing and land are no longer considered commodities, where time is no longer money and money is no longer a measure of value. This future unapologetically prioritizes housing policies that include everyone, unapologetically prioritizing youth, Black people and other people of color, the formerly incarcerated, survivors of violence, women, seniors, LGBTQ, nonbinary, and trans people, disabled people, immigrants, and others who are disproportionately evicted or impacted by housing instability. This future is non-linear — it is both forward-reaching and backward-reaching simultaneously — correcting the past and reshaping futures where justice and equity are fundamental and inalienable aspects of our shared reality.