mp_508 Jim Knight

Giving Meaning to the Word Justice with Jim Knight

Jim Knight has led Jubilee Housing since 2002 and joins us this week to share their commitment to building compassionate communities for everyone to thrive.

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Jim Knight has led Jubilee Housing as its president and CEO since 2002, guiding strategic direction for the organization’s mission and vision. He also spearheaded the launch of the Justice Housing Partners Fund, an impact investing fund which you’ll hear more about on today’s show, and he helped establish the Platform of Hope, working with families in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood of Washington, DC, and a collective impact initiative, working with partners to establish city-wide housing and services for residents returning from incarceration.

That’s a lot. But if there’s one thing that has come out of our team listening to this episode as we’ve been in production this week, it’s that Jim Knight is a special sort of kind human being.

Why is kindness important? So important that we call it out in our show notes? Because Jim has channeled his kindness to work for those who need it the most.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, affordable housing is defined as supporting residents earning up to 80% of the Area Median Income. In contrast, Jubilee Housing is dedicated to creating deeply affordable housing, housing that supports residents earning less than or equal to 30% of Area Median Income, while maintianing a connection to services that make that community special for everyone. Jim is using his deep well of kindness to change the fabric of communities.

We’re thrilled to introduce him to you, if you haven’t had the opportunity to meet him. Thanks, Jim, for your willingness to share your work — and your kindness — with our audience this week.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi there, and welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the power of communication. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation. This season, we are talking with an impressive mix of non-profit and foundation leaders along with some of my favorite communicators about some of the most common challenge points and barriers to moving missions forward.

Carrie Fox: Today’s guest is someone I have been admired for many years, and as luck would have it, that I also had the privilege to work alongside and learn from in more recent years. Jim Knight has led Jubilee Housing as its president and CEO since 2002, guiding strategic direction for the organization’s mission and vision. He also spearheaded the launch of the Justice Housing Partners Fund, an impact investing fund which you’ll hear more about on today’s show, and he helped establish the Platform of Hope, working with families in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood of Washington, DC, and a collective impact initiative, working with partners to establish city-wide housing and services for residents returning from incarceration.

Carrie Fox: Jim is one of those really special leaders who brings a blend of love and heart and really smart business sense to his work. I am so thrilled to get a little time with him today and to share this conversation with you. One more thing before we get to the interview, as some of you may know, I write a weekly column called Finding the Words. Stay tuned at the very end of today’s episode for a special reading of this week’s column.

Carrie Fox: Jim, I am so thrilled to have a little bit of time with you today to reflect on the work that you are doing now, reflect on the journey that brought you to where you are now. Thanks for joining us.

Jim Knight: Oh, Carrie. My pleasure indeed, and it has been quite a joy to work alongside you in this process.

Carrie Fox: Let’s start at the top. I gave a quick background about the what of what you do at Jubilee, but you are such an interesting person with a fascinating background. I would love for you to share a little bit about how your journey brought you to Jubilee.

Jim Knight: Yeah, I appreciate that opportunity. It is really meaningful to reflect on the journey because at different points along the way, each of us might remember how we got where we are differently. Today at least, the way that question resonates for me is I was really at a life change moment that I hadn’t really planned, and came to realize that the work that I was doing, while I enjoyed it and found it to be valuable, just was clearly not going to be my long-term future.

Jim Knight: So I was soul-searching a bit and fortunate to be connected to a faith community in my hometown and working with a pastor and mentor there, raised the question, "Maybe I should head off to seminary." And he surprised me with his response. He said, "Maybe you should, but I’ve got another thought for you." I said, "Okay, shoot." And he told me about a year-long volunteer program in Washington, DC called Discipleship Year, that was connected to the Church of the Savior, which is the same community that created Jubilee Housing.

Jim Knight: So on a whim jumped in the car and drove up to DC from North Carolina, and had a whirlwind tour that afternoon and pretty well decided that this is what I wanted to do next. So began a year’s internship where I was the low man on the totem pole at Jubilee and was literally the gopher, and chasing down loose ends all over the property community, and taking classes in a servant leadership school, and being part of this web of supports and mission. Maybe the single biggest influence in that time was the way I was welcomed by Jubilee families.

Jim Knight: I’m knocking on the door, I’m here to clear your clogged toilet, or I’m here to bring the pest control service to your apartment. Not exactly the best way in the world to meet a new friend, and almost every time it was, "Well, come in, tell me about yourself. Who are you? You’re new. Tell me about your life." And the next thing you know, I’m being fed at a dinner table and learning things about life that I had not been exposed to before. That was the turning point, where I knew I wanted to be in the work longer, but it was still a bit of a path to get back to Jubilee.

Carrie Fox: What an incredible story, and for as much as I thought I knew about you, I did not know that. I didn’t know that’s how it started. You were reminding me as you were talking about something my brother shared with me that my brother leads construction management at Stanford, but first, he started his career at AmeriCorps because he said, "If I want to be able to lead and build buildings on campus, I need to know what it feels like to hold the hammer. I need to start at the very bottom and earn my way up." It’s similar how I’m sure that perspective has stayed with you and informed how you show up as a leader.

Jim Knight: Yeah, absolutely. I think there was hard work learning of being with families and hearing their stories and being inspired, inspired by their lives. And then there was I think what you’re alluding to, an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of many of the Jubilee staff roles or activities. So learning the business side of the work from the ground up.

Carrie Fox: Jubilee is such a special community, and it is inside… For those who are listening, inside the Adams Morgan community in Washington, DC. For those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about that community, Adams Morgan broadly and Jubilee specifically.

Jim Knight: Yeah. So for many years, decades in fact, Adams Morgan has been known as one of the most socially and culturally diverse neighborhoods in the district. It has been a destination neighborhood, both in terms of restaurants and food from all over the world.

Jim Knight: It has seen waves of immigration through the years, so folks from many different nations calling it home. Just quite a mixing pot, to be sure. And it’s one of the reasons that I was drawn to it myself. I think over the years though, as the district has seen so much investment in new infrastructure including housing and other resources, that diversity is under a bit of threat right now. So our work is I think more important than it’s ever been to ensure that residents who don’t have high-end incomes are able to continue to enjoy neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades.

Jim Knight: A little bit more specific to Jubilee, serving about 600 people a year these days, and quite a mix across the age spectrum from the youngest children to the oldest seniors. I think the racial demographics tend to be about two-thirds African-American, about one-third Hispanic, but all sorts of characters in and out and throughout that mix, and a couple of my favorite qualities of community members, just an indomitable spirit to continue, to persevere, to press on, and then a crazy joy that comes along with that.

Jim Knight: So, many of the families that live in our community are earning some of the smallest salaries around and don’t have a whole lot of dollars left at the end of the month. And yet there is a joyfulness and a zest for life that is really contagious.

Carrie Fox: I mentioned at the top justice housing, and I know that phrase, those words are really important to you, and they’re important to your community. And here we are on a podcast, a communications podcast. So we’re talking about the power of words. I remember having conversations with you around the distinction between affordable housing and justice housing, and in your mind, it was really important to really stake a claim to this concept that is designed to really challenge how we think about housing. And I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that. Why was justice housing so important to you?

Jim Knight: Oh, it’s such an important question. We so appreciated your work and your team’s work in helping us flesh this out. I guess I will find out with your audience now whether I have internalized the answer as well as I think I have. I think a couple things led up to the moment where you joined us and helped us work through this language.

Jim Knight: And for much of my time at Jubilee, for most of the 90s and 2000s, early 2000s, affordable housing was not on the map politically. It was not on the map socially. It was not an issue that enjoyed much support. So for a long time, the work seemed to be about teaching and inviting people to understand why affordable housing itself was important.

Jim Knight: I guess I would say after the economic collapse in ’08 and ’09, that had an effect, and I’m not saying solely that collapse, but about that time period, this issue of housing that is affordable began to climb up the income spectrum, and you had middle income people who were earning comfortable livings who were also now all of a sudden feeling a pinch around affording housing. The popularity of the district was on the rise. The housing stock was not keeping pace with demand. So prices were just going through the roof, and it wasn’t hard to get people to understand why affordable housing was important anymore.

Jim Knight: But what was hard, with that rise in income and the more ubiquitous sense of why it was important, those at the bottom of the spectrum started to lose out. The affordable at median income, or just below median income, important for a city important for a region, but not within the reach of people earning a minimum wage, and where Jubilee families tend to be. So we needed to figure out a way to differentiate that need. So on the one hand, it’s how do we differentiate ourselves from this broader idea of affordable, but on the other hand, it’s also a human rights issue.

Jim Knight: It’s also critical that each and every person has access to housing that is safe and high quality. So it’s a matter of justice, if you think about it that way. So it’s justice for the individuals who haven’t had it, as you helped us work through this, the first pillar of justice housing is deeply affordable to those with the greatest barriers. So the second half of that phrase, greatest barriers, began to mean more to us. So that led us into places like men and women coming home from incarceration who carried stigma alongside income gaps.

Jim Knight: So justice for those people, the flip side, justice for a city. We need to have neighborhoods that are socially and economically diverse. As the equity and inclusion movement has regained our attention, cities and neighborhoods can’t be equitable if they’re not inclusive. So justice housing helps both that individual who may not otherwise have a safe place to be, it also helps everyone by keeping us diverse and inclusive. Did I pass?

Carrie Fox: It sure does. You got it. And it sounds just as good now, Jim, as the first time I heard you say it. So you know what’s interesting is we were working together on the justice housing work in 2018, maybe into 2019, but certainly before 2020. And then we think about how much of our world, our society, our economy has changed and how the impact of COVID and of the racial reckoning that our nation has had on the election, and all the political environment and the divisiveness, there have been so many swirls in our society that I’m sure have had a meaningful impact on your community.

Carrie Fox: Tell me a little bit about how it has been to lead through COVID, and how you’ve had to change. Have you in fact had to change how you think about and look at the work?

Jim Knight: Yeah. You ask such deep questions, Carrie. I think two quick answers, and we can unpack a little bit more, but first it’s been disorienting. Nothing is the same. So a lot of change and adapting to be done for each and every one of us in our daily lives, and then also from an organizational perspective. I think that the second thing I want to say is that I don’t feel like I fully know how to answer the question yet.

Jim Knight: We’re still in it. It’s been a two-year saga and it’s not over. And I tell you, the most impactful period of this two-year saga for the Jubilee community has been the variant, the Omicron period. So that’s still fresh on our heels, so I can say a few things about how it’s shown up in a housing community, to see our resident community work so valiantly to keep up with a rent obligation as wages are dropping or being eliminated, to see proud and dignified folks need extra help with food security, that was the really two main areas where we shifted the way that we supported the community.

Jim Knight: And the first was finding access to food in ways that we had never needed to do before, so whether it was meals for children in the afterschool program, from the the Capital Area Food Bank or whether it was amazing restaurateurs who would call us and find us on a web and say, "I’d like to bring meals over, can you receive them?" Really just powerful to see both the way the need expressed itself, and then also the way so many resources were found to meet that need. Still think of lines of people around neighborhood blocks waiting for dinner.

Jim Knight: And in the 21st century, in the United States of America, it’s hard to really take that in. Another place where our direct services were needed to adjust, and I’m just so proud of our team around this was schools shut down as you know everywhere. So this virtual learning experiment was very difficult. There was a period of time in the first year where the District of Columbia Public School System had lost track of 38% of its students.

Jim Knight: Never made an online class, didn’t know where they were, how they were, who they were because of gap, gaps in access to a pad or maybe you have a computer, but you don’t have good internet or whatever of those pieces of breakdown were, we were super proud to be able to fill gaps with computers, with internet access and those things, and sitting down with families and sitting down with kiddos and helping them log on and be connected.

Jim Knight: So 100% of Jubilee kids remained connected during that process, but the learning loss is pretty profound. So what do we do about that over time? And then we were one of the first community based groups to move into a hybrid setting a year or so into the pandemic. So we were having in-person programming well before the schools reopened. Kids and families told us that was about the most important thing that had happened for them. So I’m super grateful for our team who works with the afterschool programming and all of our team who overdid it. But those are two ways that we felt it most and the learnings, communication, I’d have to say I’ve felt inadequate as a leader most of the time.

Jim Knight: We’re a staff of 50 or so. A third of the folks every day are working on the buildings, properties. And a third of the folks are working on direct services, and there are those of us who are raising money and making sure the deposits get to the bank and those kinds of things. We’re spread out all over the place. Over half of us were remote for more than a year. We’re not back yet. How do you communicate to your organization?

Jim Knight: I mean, it’s a living being, and I’m not sure we did well enough, but we worked as best we knew how, and our all staff Zoom calls, our staff meetings that were Zoom calls for 40 people were fun, we were trying different things. And one thing that comes to mind is we were on Zoom all staff meetings when George Floyd was killed. You sit there and look at the screen full of 38 faces who are hurting and what do you do? Again, I feel like the lessons learned are it’s going to be a while before I can categorize those, but finding ways to be present. I mean, I think communication ultimately is conveying presence. So it’s so important to learn how to do that.

Carrie Fox: Jim, I appreciate that answer so much. And the vulnerability in that answer, but I’m also going to give you a little perspective, being outside and having watched you and your team the last few years is you have one of the greatest gifts that I have ever seen of someone who shows up day after day and takes a step forward, even in the hardest of days. Any one of those issues that you just laid out would’ve been enough to just set someone off course.

Carrie Fox: Perhaps in part, Jim, it is your faith and I’d be curious to ask about that. I know my faith has certainly kept me grounded and focused in those hardest of days, but there is something incredibly noble and special and focused about how you’ve shown up in this work in these last few difficult years. I know your staff and your team and your colleagues and your peers and your donors all see that in you too, that slow focused progress forward. The consistency of that means a lot to people.

Jim Knight: Well, I certainly appreciate you sharing that. I do think you said it though. It is about showing up and we don’t control outcomes. We certainly do all we can to influence them and that’s how we focus, but don’t for a minute fool yourself into thinking you have real control over those outcomes.

Carrie Fox: That is for sure.

Jim Knight: It’s funny the way you pose that. Of course, it’s easy to say that my faith is what energizes me but I think I would add, how do you show up when you don’t know what to do? And so many of those days, I didn’t know what to do. So many of every day, most of us don’t know exactly what to do. We can work our way through our task list and that kind of thing, but in terms of solving the biggest problems, we don’t know how to do that.

Jim Knight: To me, it’s cultivating imagination, daring to see things differently. And then just trying to show up faithfully to that new way of seeing. I don’t know if we ever fully get there, but we wouldn’t move if we weren’t moving towards something new and different.

Carrie Fox: And working towards something so much bigger and greater than us. I mean, think about the impact that Jubilee has had and will continue to have, that the way that your community is connected to one another and supports one another, that there is something that’s just so special about that, that we don’t have to have all the answers. I think we just need to make sure that we tell people we care about them and we’re there for them. And we’ll show up as people need us to, just as we will hope people show up for us in those in tough days, too. It’s not a solo sport. None of this is a solo sport, that’s for sure.

Jim Knight: Yeah. I think one of the things that struck me in those first volunteer days in my intern year that has held true all these years is the power of community. It is caring about more than self and learn to invest in others and to allow others to invest in us, and that connection is I think what powers it. The days that I don’t want to come in, I think about it’s not me.

Jim Knight: It’s 600 people in this direct housing community, but all the other people that we’re all part of and we all touch, and that is usually enough to get one foot in front of the next. And then the really cool stuff comes from beyond us anyway, so if we just keep showing up, we can expect a happy miracle to happen.

Carrie Fox: Sometimes I think people don’t know what to do with me because I set this up as a communications podcast, and now we’re talking at much deeper issues around humanity and life. And at the end of the day, I think that’s what communications is all about. I mean, I think there is no communication if there is no relationship. Then you’re just spurting information at someone, and the last thing that world needs more of is just useless information.

Carrie Fox: But if we really think about the work we’re doing and reflecting on this very short, but so thoughtful conversation today, it’s really connecting human to human and person to person, and thinking about what can we do together? And you and your team are just a great model for that. What’s possible when you all come together.

Jim Knight: I appreciate you that. I’m inspired by your last comment to try to make one more connection. Communication can live at the functional level of, "Oh, we’ve got to get good at it and we need some consulting and we need to know the right words." And there’s a place for every bit of that. But when communication is most effective, it’s because it’s conveying meaning; it’s conveying purpose. And that’s what we all need. We all need to be connected to meaning and purpose.

Jim Knight: So if the communication is serving as a strong connector to that, which is most real, then we’re going to get to be moved by it. So I have such an appreciation for people like you, who can help the rest of us learn how to package and offer what’s happening to others, so that they can touch it and feel it, and decide if they want to be a part of it. It’s a compliment to you, and it’s just a recognition that we need to see communications as more than a tactic. We need to see it as a pathway to that which is important.

Carrie Fox: Well, appreciation right at you. I can think of no better Jim Knight wisdom to end the show with, as we are already there at the end of the show, is to think about how communication gives meaning to life. So, Jim, thanks for your time and your wisdom as always, and for the incredible impact that you and your team are having on our city.

Jim Knight: Thank you, Carrie. So glad to be with you.

Carrie Fox: Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lockhart and the Mission Partners Team in association with TruStory FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Slipstream and Josh Leake. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, we hope you’ll consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time.

Carrie Fox: Make a run. I’ve always loved a good underdog story. So it’s no surprise that St. Peter’s run in this year’s March Madness basketball tournament captured my heart just as it did millions of others, who may first have asked, "Where’s St. Peter’s?" Or as the coach of Duke flippantly said, "What’s St. Peter’s, a hospital?" Indeed, St. Peter’s is a hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey, but after their 11-day fairy tale run for the Final Four, it’s safe to say that folks may now know this under the radar, under-resourced and largely commuter school with an enrollment of just over 3,000 as the little school that could.

Carrie Fox: Henry Bushnell at Yahoo Sports called St. Peter’s the ultimate underdog, a team of overlooked players representing an overlooked school, and a student body of overlooked kids. 75% of those students are minorities. Nearly half are Hispanic, almost all, 99% receive financial aid. Many are first generation college students. Many have been disadvantaged to some extent by an unjust society. "The university became their pathway to a more prosperous light."

Carrie Fox: And if you’re even a little tuned into sports, you’re not overlooking the school or its basketball team today. And while their March Madness run has ended, their story will certainly not fade fast, because their story represents the very best of us. The St. Peter’s Peacocks represent what can happen when we give something our all, when we bring our very best, when we do the work and believe in one another. When we make a run for what we believe in, even if all odds are against us. Folks who have been in a facilitated session of mine know that I love the book Scaling Up Excellence by Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao.

Carrie Fox: I use it as a teaching tool whenever I can, because of one very simple and profound lesson in its pages. Before scaling up an organization or team, focus on who you are at your most excellent. Know who you are at your core, know what you stand for and what you don’t. Chin up. Shoulders back, head high.

Carrie Fox: In just 11 days, a little known team of basketball players from St. Peter’s University reminded us who we can be at our best. Strip away the pep band, the cheerleaders, the fancy uniforms, St. Peters didn’t have or need any of those things to get them to the tournament. And you’ll see the real heart of the game. You’ll see what really matters. In basketball and in life, it’s not about the flashiness of the show, and you won’t win by hoarding the ball. In basketball and in life, everything works better when you’re in it as a team, when your head and your heart are aligned.

Carrie Fox: The beauty of His life is He gives us opportunities to see what we’re capable of in the unlikeliest of places, sometimes even the unlikeliest of basketball games, but you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t make a run for it.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.