Remaking Resident Services in a Time of Social Change

Current conditions require a concerted effort to address inequities in affordable housing, says Kevin Lewis of Operation Pathways.

Kevin Lewis

The success that residents in affordable housing achieve is even more pronounced now, in a time when our country is increasing its awareness and acknowledgement of historical social and racial disparities.

2020 was marked by several incidents that made us examine the impact of years of systemic racial oppression, and it has worn heavy on our hearts. Like many in our country, we asked how and why we have allowed inequity in important systems like education, criminal justice, employment, health care, housing, etc.—to become as integral to our American experience as baseball and apple pie.

These current conditions require a concerted effort to address inequities in affordable housing communities.

Coaching relationships

How can those in resident services tackle many of the key elements of systemic racism residents face? Experience shows that partnering with those in housing communities via a coaching relationship is key. An approach such as Family-Centered Coaching developed by The Prosperity Agenda with the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, or EMPath’s Mobility Mentoring, work to meet the interconnected needs and desires of a participant’s life while working to dismantle educational disparities, underemployment, health care, financial literacy, food access, neighborhood safety, etc.

A few years ago, we evaluated our programs and services and realized we needed to do more to create an environment where the desires of residents were at the forefront of our work. The genesis of any equitable relationship is hearing, seeing and actively listening to someone else. The next step is taking action to tangibly put resources and systems in place to address inequity in a real and sufficient way.

The best coaching approaches provide a set of strategies, tools and resources that help human service organizations reinvent how they engage with families experiencing poverty. Coaching programs, by definition, offer ways for practitioners to create and sustain robust holistic services and programs that are only fully realized by partnering with families to address their needs and make progress on their goals. This kind of inclusive approach increases the likelihood of long-term success and transformational outcomes.

For example, on-site coaches (Resident Services Coordinators—RSCs) learn to redouble efforts to ensure residents feel seen, heard, valued and supported. Best practices call for preparation ahead of working with residents. Ideally, staff work to ensure that coaches not only understand the practical applications of the coaching, but more importantly, appreciate why and how using a new approach would benefit them and residents. One of the essential aspects of coaching programs for contracted service providers like FCC or Mathematica’s Goal4 It!™ is an understanding of the impact that historical racial inequity has played in how human services organizations have offered services to people of color. 

One of the shifts that such training encourages is how to move from sustaining people to transforming people. These practices enable participants and residents to better believe in themselves, gain strength from support and achieve goals. This is especially important at this time of societal consciousness and action to address and combat our country’s racial, social and economic disparities.

“Coaching alone can’t resolve years of goals suppressed by systemic racism and social inequity,” said coach Carla Reid, RSC at St. Luke’s Plaza and a lead trainer. “But it can provide tools that people can use to transform aspects of their lives and kindle a flame to make empowering choices. We train our team and residents to embrace this mindset.”

Inspiring staff inspires residents, leading to change

Model personal growth and connection

Personal development is a big part of an organizational culture shift. Allow staff the time and space to grow and connect as individuals and embrace new methodologies. When leaders model these behaviors, they invite the same in staff, who in turn offer that security and comfort level to participants.

Box-checking is never enough

Initially, we noticed that the people we trained weren’t fully invested, opting to check boxes for an aspect of the training without fully embracing the “why” behind it. We moved away from the nuts and bolts of the training into understanding the FCC role and helping staff understand how this would make staff and residents feel. 

Use powerful questions to encourage reflection

One of the core coaching skills is asking powerful questions. We inspire true buy-in by asking meaningful, open-ended questions. Everyone—from staff to leadership to participants—has hopes and dreams that deserve to be supported. Invite reflection and encourage change through a coaching relationship.

Lift up bright spots and big goals

Work hard to connect training to both everyday successes that residents experience and long-term strategy benefiting communities as a whole. We encourage any organization undertaking training to tally the small wins to help build capacity and inspiration for sustained change.

Measurement is king

The father of modern business management, Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” and this is true of coaching as it is with any other business practice. If you can’t measure something and know the results, you can’t possibly get better at it, therefore incorporate goals into annual plans and develop ways to measure quantitative and qualitative success.

It is important that we all see ourselves in the principles we are employing, because when you can see yourself as both coach and coachable, and employ true empathy, coaching skills will go a lot further. The initial training changed us as individuals, elicited reflection, and allowed us to ask and explore powerful questions. We brought this forth into our organizational training.

One of the strongest lessons coming out of the 2020 fight against racism and inequality is the abolishment of looking at the people we serve, as “others.”  We are on this journey together with our community members, collaborating with them to build a better, stronger and more equitable society.

Resident Services coaching is just one way we can work together to attain goals and work towards a more equitable future.


Kevin Lewis is the assistant vice president of resident services & deputy executive director at Operations Pathways, a subsidiary of The NHP Foundation. 

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