Reflections on ubuntu at Avalon

By: Avalon Housing

Stop by Avalon Property Management some time and you’re likely to hear a funny word come up in conversation: ubuntu. Ubuntu is something we talk a lot about at our meetings; we even had t-shirts made with an ubuntu slogan on them (“I am because We are!”). Ubuntu is a philosophy with roots in South Africa, and in its essence, it means that we’re all connected to one another. So why do we talk about it so much in Property Management?

Let me tell you a quick story.  A call came in that a resident in one of my properties was not well. I arrived at the house shortly ahead of the ambulance, and I found one man supporting another on the stairway just inside the front door. The resident who wasn’t well had been trying to make it down the stairs, but he was dizzy and trembling and he only made it part way. His housemate was keeping him steady and wiping the sweat from his face while they waited for help. When the EMTs showed up and saw how these two guys were wedged in the stairs, with one able-bodied dude supporting his housemate, they asked if the one could help the other make it to the bottom. “I’ll carry him to your ambulance if you need me to,” he responded. It was a simple, beautiful moment. That’s ubuntu in action.

One of the things about these two guys is that they haven’t always gotten along. They often still don’t, to be honest. Being in community is hard work; for these two, it’s sometimes grueling. But on Thanksgiving, the one who had been ill that day several months before roasted a turkey for the whole house. That’s ubuntu, too.

Desmond Tutu says that ubuntu is the awareness that “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.”

Ubuntu is not something that Property Managers or Support Coordinators deliver to the apartments and communities we’re connected to. It is already there. Our work is to notice it, and, in a fashion, to name it. When you look closely, you realize that Avalon is a network of people whose lives are charged with the spirit of ubuntu. This is as true for staff as it is for our residents. It is realizing that Property Managers and Support Coordinators are absolutely reliant on another; that Maintenance is no less essential than Community Builders; that the accountants, the developers, the communications staff… we’re all interdependent on one another. And most essentially, we are all here because of the residents whom we have the privilege to walk beside in our properties and scattered-sites. In and through them, the inter-dimensionality of our web is formed and sustained.

But if we’re being candid, then we have to confess that in our busyness, we sometimes overlook our intrinsic mutuality. We get lulled into thinking that because we sign leases with folks, that it means being a landlord is what this work is about. Or we think because someone is a client, that healthy boundaries are the last word on those relationships. Thank goodness it isn’t so. The reality is far richer and more complex!

One principle of permanent supportive housing is that everyone with an apartment is a lease-holder. But ubuntu says that a lease can’t do the work of connecting us to one another. Not really. It’s our humanity that does. And I need everyone in the Avalon community to teach me what that looks like, day-in and day-out. It might be a guy holding a trembling housemate on a narrow stairwell. Or it might be a social worker holding the hand of a resident as he passes gently away, his beloved Miles Davis playing on a cell phone on the pillow by his head. I’ve seen that, too.

Of course, not every day is strung together with these luminous moments. How easily we get lost in the minutiae on the one hand, and the next crisis about to knock the wind out of us, on the other! I admit, on those days, I’m liable to forget this ubuntu business. I may not even want to hear about it. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, says that true community comes about when we stop hiding our insecurities, and when we give up trying to prove our worth to each other. So I’m beginning to think that it’s when I’m feeling most disconnected, most worn down, that I’m in the best possible place to experience what ubuntu is truly about. Because when I forget, there’s always a resident or coworker to remind me. They needn’t have ever heard this funny word. Because it happens here. This place is charged with it. If you have any connection to Avalon whatsoever, then you know what ubuntu is. And if you forget, don’t worry. I’ll remind you. That’s ubuntu.

By Joel Barson

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