Micaela Suminski: Reflections on Documenting and Researching Social Housing

As I embark on a documentary project with Kansas City Tenants, I am exploring themes that include: social housing in the United States; municipal housing policy in Kansas City, MO; segregation and the built environment in KCMO; the role of documentary interviewing in constructing oral histories; the role of documentary filmmaking as part of an ethnographic project; the role of documentary storytelling in community organizing and collective liberation; and more. While I am not conducting an ethnography here, I do theorize that some of the practices in which I’ll be engaging–observation, participatory action, interviewing–will be reminiscent of ethnographic research. 

In my research, for both my paper and my documentary film, I hope to gain a solid understanding of the history of the housing market (that includes segregation, race relations, class relations, unions, city council decisions, and more) in KCMO. I bet that a bulk of that research will appear in my research paper. In my documentary film, I hope to expand on this history and bring the viewer into the present moment: why and how are residents and tenants in KCMO organizing themselves? What is their liberatory vision? 

This is not the first project on housing policy that I will have conducted. In my undergraduate education, I conducted several projects related to housing policy. However, this is the first time I’ve ever studied or interacted with or learned about Kansas City. I have discovered in these first few weeks of research that I desire a firmer understanding of Kansas City–without being there, I find it difficult to really understand the facts that I’m learning. This is typical and unsurprising–that’s why ethnographies are an immersive practice! Since I am unable to spend the entire summer in Kansas City, I plan to lean on discussions with folks who have lived in KCMO before or currently, and to speak with another NYU peer who is able to spend the whole summer in Kansas City, also working with the Tenants Union. 

Some of my film equipment has started to arrive in the mail! I’ll use these mics for interviews.
Community organizing means coordinating busy schedules! Here’s me texting with two KC Tenants organizers about a meeting we had a couple weeks ago.