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ISAAC: Hello, this is Isaac Haney-Owens. And you’re listening to the Leaders for Inclusive Community podcast hosted by The Kelsey, covering topics related to housing and disability. Welcome. Thanks for listening. Each episode, I’ll meet with different community leaders to learn about what they do and ask them questions about how their work can make housing and communities more inclusive of people with disabilities.
[chill music starts]
MICAELA: That’s been so important to The Kelsey from the beginning, is having people with disabilities as advisers, coming to focus groups, as paid staff members or consultants, as Board members, as decision makers. They’re being heard, and their ideas are actually being codified and implemented in our work so that their ideas actually have value and meaning.
ISAAC: I’m Isaac Haney-Owens, and today we’re interviewing Micaela Connery, founder and CEO of The Kelsey. Let’s dive in!
Today, we are going to ask you a few questions about The Kelsey and your experience working in housing.
MICAELA: Thanks for interviewing me, Isaac. I’m excited to do this.
ISAAC: Yeah. I’m glad to have you here. [music fades out]
The first question is, what’s the name of the other organization that you founded, the one you started before The Kelsey?
MICAELA: Yeah. So, before I founded The Kelsey, I started an organization called Unified Theater. And our mission was to do school-based inclusion for students with and without disabilities. So, we ran programs that were led by students for students around the performing arts. And it was really interesting because as I was doing that program, we talked a lot about the value of inclusion and supporting people with disabilities to be fully included in their schools and communities and how that would impact them in their adulthood. And also for people without disabilities to value and appreciate inclusion and diversity and all that having relationships with people with disabilities brought to people’s lives. And then I realized quite unfortunately, that that kind of inclusion that we were doing in schools wasn’t being continued into adulthood. And so, that’s made me start to think about housing and how housing could be both a need that people with disabilities had to have affordable, accessible housing, but also how housing could and would be a mechanism to really build inclusion for adults as well.
ISAAC: And then where did the other organizations start?
ISAAC: So, Unified Theater was founded in West Hartford, Connecticut. So, I’m originally from the East Coast but moved out to San Francisco to start The Kelsey for a couple reasons. One was that San Francisco and the Bay Area has like a really, to me, inspiring and exciting history of disability rights and disability justice. So many of the biggest leaders in our field have spent time and have led movements that started in the Bay Area. And two, the Bay Area, on the flip side, has been sort of the epicenter of all of the affordable housing crisis and has been, you know, had the most challenges around housing affordability. So, it felt like the right place to do something very disability progressive, but also solve for the housing challenge in a really challenging housing market. And the idea that if we launch it in San Francisco and in the Bay Area in general—San Jose, Oakland, and everything in between—we could build something that could be replicated in other places.
ISAAC: Did you start that by yourself or with somebody else?
MICAELA: I started that by myself. Well, I guess I had help from different people in my community, but I was pretty young when I launched Unified Theater. And I really just launched it, I was 15. It was really just a club at my high school. And then slowly over time, grew that into a full organization.
ISAAC: Is that still going on, even though you’re not working on it anymore?
MICAELA: Yeah, it is. It’s a part of a national organization now called Kids Included Together, which is a national not-for-profit that does inclusion for kids—thus the name, Kids Included Together—kids and teenagers. And so, Unified Theater was acquired by them, and it still runs as a program. The school where I initially founded Unified Theater just had their 18th annual Unified Theater production. So, it’s been going on for 18 years now.
MICAELA: Yeah, it’s wild.
MICAELA: Although they had it virtually because of COVID. So, they did their first production that was virtual on a YouTube livestream kinda thing.
ISAAC: Yeah. Where did the organization start?
MICAELA: So, I started The Kelsey while at, I guess not really started it, but my work around housing started first as a graduate student at Harvard. I did some research on different disability housing models and needs nationally, including meeting out here in San Francisco and studying some organizations and meeting some organizations in this area. And through that research, identified what was needed in a new organization and launched The Kelsey. And we launched in the Bay Area and received our first round of funding in the later part of 2007, 2018, sorry.
ISAAC: And I remember when you came to The Arc, and you talked to some people there about what kinda housing they wanted to see.
MICAELA: Yeah, yeah! That’s exactly. So, when I was in graduate school, I traveled around the country and both visited existing disability housing models and then also went around to people with disabilities and asked them directly, “Hey! What would you like to see in your housing? What’s important in your community? If you could kinda create your ideal housing, what would that look like?” And so, I did focus groups with hundreds of people all around the country, including the one that you did at The Arc, which was really cool.
ISAAC: So, why did you decide to switch to this organization?
MICAELA: To The Kelsey?
ISAAC: Yeah, to The Kelsey.
MICAELA: So, I didn’t know that I was gonna start another organization when I left Unified Theater, but I really did know that I wanted to work on issues around inclusion of adults with disabilities and community supports for adults with disabilities. I felt like, and I still feel like, we talk a lot in our communities and even in our policies around educating kids with disabilities and early childhood intervention for people with disabilities and like, you know, cute recreation programs for children with disabilities. And I feel like we don’t actually value enough, nearly enough the rich adulthood and what it means to be a fully included adult with disabilities that has a self-determined life in the community, where they have experiences and jobs and housing and relationships, and that our society has not really been designed for included adulthood. And so, that was really, that piqued my interest as I was doing Unified Theater, where I saw so many of our young people as teenagers and children before that getting so much support in those years of their life. And then when they turned 22, it was like they no longer have any value. And that was so bizarre and you know, actually brought me a lot of anger. [chuckles]
And so, when I went to graduate school, I kind of went with that issue in mind of how do we do more for adults with disabilities? And I didn’t know whether I’d start an organization or go work for another organization or do public policy. And then, like I mentioned, through my research, sort of really got into this housing-specific issue and did ultimately, obviously, decide to launch a housing organization around that.
ISAAC: Did you ever think of being a Special Ed teacher before this?
MICAELA: You know, it’s funny. I did not think of being a Special Education teacher. My sister and my aunts and many of my cousins are Special Ed teachers, and my mom is a high school teacher. So, I have a long family of educators and really value education. But no, I never really was on the classroom side. And even Unified Theater was extracurricular, so it was after school. But, yeah. Worked with a lot of teachers. But no, never really looked at that path.
ISAAC: What are you most excited about The Kelsey?
MICAELA: I am most excited about the way— So, besides our actual developments, you know, it’s pretty amazing, and it still feels like we have so much work to be done. But the fact that in really just over two years of having funding, we’ve been able to secure such amazing sites and actually be able to have homes coming for people with disabilities at a pretty comparatively accelerated timeline. I’m really excited. I’m proud of our team’s work to make that possible.
But I think where I’m most excited about The Kelsey is how I feel like we’re starting to get traction on building a field and really changing the mindset for people of both better understanding of the need for housing for people with disabilities and also new approaches to meeting that need that are more progressive, that are more inclusive, that have people with disabilities really involved in defining and leading those solutions that have the potential to not just be developments that we, The Kelsey, build. But I’m really excited about the way that, whether it is in our partnership with housing advocacy organizations that previously weren’t necessarily thinking about how their housing advocacy organizations could be disability inclusive, and us really moving the needle and having them think about that differently. Or how we’re getting disability service organizations who now are thinking, hey! I’ve always done group homes, but what would multifamily inclusive housing look like? And actually them thinking about that model. Or policymakers saying, wow, we need to fund mixed-income, mixed-ability housing because that’s what people desire and what our communities need. So, I’m really excited about the ways that The Kelsey is sort of helping pioneer—with a lot of partners and a lot of support in a really, I think, powerfully collaborative way—define a new norm for what’s possible in inclusive housing. So, I’m excited about that.
ISAAC: And why did you decide to focus on housing and not some other aspect of the disability community?
MICAELA: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think about that a lot. I think that one is, housing to me, is such a fundamental when I think of sort of what makes life life and where, you know, kind of where you lay your head every night and who you eat dinner with and who you see as you come and go for your daily activities. Like home, to me and my own personal experience, is just so fundamental to what it means to be a human. And without access to home, all of those other things, whether it be a social life or a job or safety or health, like all of those things are really hard to have possible and have in a good way without first having actually a home to live in. And so, to me, the idea of home is just really, really powerful.
I also think on a research side, just every single family or person with disabilities that I met with in my early work here and kind of saying why was adulthood not as inclusive or supported or happy as you wanted it to be? When I talked to people with disabilities and when I talked to their family members over and over again, they said, “My number one challenge is housing.” And so, it just seemed like that was where I should focus.
And then the third is a bit more personal, which is I’ve moved around a lot my whole life. I moved eight times before the 7th grade. I’ve lived in kind of every single type of housing that there is to have. I grew up living in hotels. I’ve lived in different dorms. I lived on bunk beds [chuckles] in my early 20s in New York City. I’ve lived in houses in sort of shared housing. And so, to me, I feel like my own lens of how all those different types of homes have sort of benefits and challenges and how home has evolved and my needs in home have changed over the years, I find it really interesting to think about that concept in an inclusive way. So, yeah, that’s why.
And I’m excited of how The Kelsey can partner with employment organizations or healthcare organizations or service organizations or rights-based organizations in the work that we do. Because it does take all of it, even though we’ve focused on housing.
ISAAC: And what’s your favorite part of working at The Kelsey?
MICAELA: Oh, that a good question! I think my favorite part of working at The Kelsey, one is I’ve always really liked, in all of my work, of the idea that you can bring a bunch of different people who have different views and priorities, but who all have some kind of resource to bring to the table. I love thinking about how to bring all of those people together to move impact forward. So, like in our Together We Can Do More project that you came to those workshops, to me, I love how The Kelsey in a room at a given time, you might have a real estate developer and a finance expert and a person with disabilities and an architect and a policymaker or like a City Council member all sitting around the same table and kind of all having very different views on what the issues are or what they can bring to the table. And if you’re able to get them all kind of working towards the same solution, you can do really, really powerful and exciting things. So, I love that nature of The Kelsey: that I get to shift from talking to somebody who wants to donate half a million dollars and wants to know how to have that be an impact or a City Council member who wants to understand how to communicate the need for this housing to the neighborhood where we’re developing or a person with disabilities who has perspectives on how their own housing experience can be used to inform how we design or operate or build the building. To me, that’s so cool that I get to talk to all of those different types of people and work with all of those different types of people.
And then I also just, I really love our team and all of our partners and people like you. I’ve really, to me, work wants to be a place that brings joy. Joy is a value of mine that I try to find everywhere. And so, I find a lot of joy in the people I get to work with.
ISAAC: Yeah. And you want to see people with disabilities be part of your organization to help out wherever they can.
MICAELA: Absolutely. That’s been so important to The Kelsey from the beginning, is having people with disabilities as advisors, coming focus groups, as paid staff members or consultants, as Board members, as decision makers. So yeah, that’s really key.
ISAAC: Because you need, because you wanna make sure that the people that you’re there to serve are being heard.
MICAELA: Absolutely! That they’re being heard, and they have an actual seat at the table. That they’re not just sort of being heard and said like, “Cool idea. See ya never.” But that they’re being heard, and their ideas are actually being codified and implemented in our work, so that their ideas actually have value and meaning.
ISAAC: Yeah. So, why did you choose the title of CEO instead of Executive Director?
MICAELA: Huh. That’s a interesting question. So, I never really thought about as much for me, but I picture that over time, we could have a shared leadership model, which is that— And it’s funny. I was just talking to one of my Board members who’s a mentor as well from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and she was saying that I’m unique in that I really like to share leadership. I don’t need to be the ultimate, which sounds funny with the CEO name, but that I don’t wanna just be at the top by myself. And so, I really loved the idea from the beginning of having a C suite. You know, right now we have myself and Caroline, who’s our COO. And she and I really work side by side and think about decisions together and give each other feedback and work through hard problems as a team. And so, to me, picking CEO set us up for a structure that, in the long run, we can have obviously right now a CEO and a COO, but maybe down the road, even having other C-level positions as we grow to really have a team of leaders in addition to our full team moving the organization forward and not just one person. Yeah, that was part of my decision making for that.
ISAAC: But the one thing about CEO is people always associate that with a leader of a big corporation—
MICAELA: [chuckles] Yeah.
ISAAC: —and not always associate it with non-profits.
MICAELA: Yeah, that’s very true. And I think that also having that title and a lot of what The Kelsey tries to do in our strategy is borrow from all different sectors. So, from the for-profit sector, from the tech and innovation sector, from public policy and government leadership, from obviously non-profits and social change and grassroots organizations. I’d say we don’t think that any single sector has a monopoly on what’s the best. And we actually do try to use different strategies across all of the sectors when it makes sense for our work. So, sometimes I think we act very much like a social justice, social change non-profit organization, and sometimes we operate very much as like a for-profit business that’s thinking about our bottom line and our strategy. And sometimes we operate like a government organization who’s trying to think about how what we do scales to the most number of people and how we set up systems for shared leadership and community input and getting down into the ground of a large constituent base that we need to serve. So, I think we jump between all the sectors depending on what the work requires.
ISAAC: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Is there anything you might want to add before we end this interview?
MICAELA: No. It was really awesome to connect with you, and it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.
ISAAC: Oh, nice to connect with you. [music slowly fades in and plays until the end]
MICAELA: Yeah. And thanks for doing this and for talking through our work and for being a part of The Kelsey’s team. So, thanks, Isaac.
ISAAC: Yeah, and I’m glad to be part of this organization that’s doing great work that’s meeting the need that isn’t really being filled by the rest of the world.
MICAELA: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks. I’m excited for more of these interviews to come with other people. That was great.
ISAAC: Thanks for listening. For more information on The Kelsey or to check out more of my podcast episodes, visit TheKelsey.org. If you have a topic you’d like me to explore or a person to interview, email me at Isaac@TheKelsey.org. Goodbye.