“Everyone’s welcome”: The facade of the tiny house movement

Naysayers claim the tiny house movement is just another white hipster trend, and for years I’ve been trying to refute that myth. Some in the tiny house community will explain that the movement is overwhelmingly white because it’s mostly white people interested in tiny houses. Hmmm….maybe where they live, but I can’t buy that argument. I started my tiny house journey six years ago in Washington DC, years before all the tiny house TV shows existed, and some of the first people I met building tiny houses on wheels were women of color, two single moms. The only other people I knew interested in building a tiny house community were three black women who were planning a community in West Virginia. Over the past five years, while building a tiny house and founding the former Boneyard Studios community, I have hosted and participated in more than 100+ events around tiny houses, and none of these events were all white. Yet whenever I go to national tiny house events they are overwhelmingly, if not all, white — both presenters and attendees.

I didn’t want to believe that the lack of racial diversity I saw at these national events was intentional, so I attributed the homogeneity of both the speakers and attendees to the fact that the events were held in areas that were overwhelmingly white already — Vermont (97% white), Colorado (84% white), and Oregon (78%). This year, given the rapid growth of the tiny house movement, the Tiny House Jamboree, the nation’s largest tiny house event, was handed over to Reed Exhibitions, a professional event organization. Instead of being held outdoors in Colorado, the Jamboree will be held at an exposition center in Arlington, Texas, right outside of Dallas. Both Dallas and Arlington are diverse cities (less than 50% white), so I hoped that both the speakers and attendees would be representative of the demographics of the area and that we, as tiny house advocates, could finally dispel the myth that only white people are building tiny houses.

I didn’t assume more diversity in presenters just because of a change in location; I expected it because many of us advocates have addressed the lack of it at the last two Jamborees. I brought up the lack of diversity when I gave a talk on the main stage at the first Jamboree in 2015. At the 2016 Jamboree, during an interview with the founders of Tiny House Trailblazers, an organization created to highlight people of color in the movement, the MC for the event stated, “These really are conversations that need to take place on the main stage.” In addition, I saw tiny house colleagues ask how they could learn more about racial justice, and I saw some organizers put into practice their desire to have more diverse events. So, last month, when the main stage lineup for the Jamboree’s third year was announced I was disappointed to see no representation of diversity again — 6 white guys and one white woman were the keynote speakers. I expressed concern to both the organizers and to several of the keynote speakers I knew about the lack of speaker diversity. Their response was to rescind the contract I had signed to do two workshops at the event, and I was told that “it would be better for everyone if I did not attend.” While I was very disappointed with the way I was treated by Reed, I’m more concerned about some of the responses I got from other tiny house colleagues.

Tiny House Trailblazers team after being interviewed by the Tiny House Podcast team at the 2016 Tiny House Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Tiny House Podcast website.

I am hoping that by sharing my experience we can do better in the future to create more inclusive tiny house events. If we don’t, we will fall right into the media’s stereotype of us as white hipsters concerned only about our Instagram posts. I am writing in the plural and without gender wherever possible (except for a few social media references that are public anyways) because my goal is to share these examples, not to point fingers at individuals. Wherever you see “they” it is usually singular. It does not matter who said or did what. What matters is that these thoughts and actions are happening in our community, and those of us who care about being allies have an obligation to address them.

Transferring the tactics of diversifying the tech industry to the tiny house world.

After years working in the geospatial tech industry, I have seen the positive effects of efforts to diversify not just the industry, but industry events, which tend to be predominantly male. To do this, you can educate event organizers about what a diverse and inclusive event looks like, and why it matters. Invited speakers can also play a role in helping create more inclusive events: speakers can make a commitment to not speak on a stage or panel unless there is gender diversity or, if the organizers won’t invite any women, a speaker can offer up their spot and, ideally, offer up recommendations of potential speakers as well. Pretty simple, but very effective.

I employed these same tactics this year with the issue of racial diversity in the tiny house movement (the tiny house movement has done a slightly better job with gender diversity than the tech industry). I had a conversation on diversity with some colleagues, including one of the Jamboree organizers, and shared digital resources with them on how to create more inclusive events, including one of my favorites that speaks to event organizers who use the need to make money as a reason for why they have majority white male presenters. Months later, when I was told by the organizer that the main stage was full but I saw an all-white lineup, I emailed them to ask if they were reserving any space for more diverse representation on the main stage as I had speakers I would like to recommend if they were. I also expressed concern that if this was the first time they were reaching out for more diverse speakers it might come across as tokenism if the main programming was already set. There is a difference between tokenism (just checking off a box) versus inclusion (recognizing that diverse perspectives matter and including them in the programming from the beginning rather than as an afterthought). I checked in with Jewel Pearson of Tiny House Trailblazers to see who she had recommended as I knew the organizer had reached out to her indicating that they wanted to learn about issues of diversity in the movement. She informed me they never contacted her back to follow through. A week later, after not receiving a response to my initial email, I followed up to see if they had received it and asked if we could chat. They wrote back that “diversity and racism are inflammatory topics” and then informed me they couldn’t talk with me.

I know how easy it is to misinterpret emails or texts, and I have a direct communication style, so I followed up again with an email asking about the lineup and explained:

“None of these issues seem contentious to me, but if there’s a reason they are because of the way I phrased something, please let me know. This issue of diversity is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s not about any one of us individually. It’s about making sure the tiny house movement represents the broader society we live in, especially in 2017”

To that email I did get an answer to whether or not they had reserved any space for more diverse representation. It said: “No, Reed has not. If you would like to talk more about that, please email…xxxx…”. Having struck out with the tactic of sharing resources with the organizers and expressing concern to them, I decided to contact some of the main stage speakers I know personally to share suggestions and resources with them. You can read that email here. I received positive responses, and two who said they were also bringing up concerns about the lack of diversity to the speaker selection committee. In addition, I reached out to Tiny House Trailblazers to see if any of their colleagues would want to teach the tiny house lifestyle workshop, one of the workshops I had been invited to teach, and Dominique Moody was interested in doing so (unfortunately Reed canceled the workshops after they rescinded my contract).

I wasn’t the only one bringing up the lack of diversity when the lineup was announced, but I was the only one who had signed a contract to present at the event. Jewel Pearson, co-founder of Tiny House Trailblazers, posted a photo of the main stage lineup on Facebook and called out the event for having an all-white, and almost all male lineup again in 2017. She tagged a few of us in the movement who care about inclusiveness and representation, so I commented to let her know what I was doing — contacting speakers and sharing resources. I reiterated that it’s not okay in 2017 to have an all-white lineup at this national event when the last two years we’ve brought the lack of diversity to their attention.

Tiny House Jamboree main stage lineup as announced in August 2017. Image courtesy of the Tiny House and Simple Living Jamboree website.

I didn’t realize when I commented on the post that it was public nor did I realize that it was in violation of my contract to express any criticism of the event. Yet Reed interpreted both my email and my comment to be “bad press,” and I received a call from the event manager the following day. They were very upset with me. Trying to calm their concerns, I explained the lack of representation at past Tiny House Jamborees, and how I was excited to attend and wanted to promote the event, but I also wanted to help them get more diversity on the stage, not just people of color but speakers who represented the diversity of the movement: someone building tiny house communities for the homeless, a single parent or a family, an artist using tiny houses as art space, etc.

They were more interested in berating me for speaking up than they were about learning what they could do to diversify the event. During the course of that half-hour phone call this is some of what they told me:

“I will NOT add any speakers just for diversity’s sake”
“I need All Stars for the main lineup. Everyone else thinks these speakers are All Stars. Don’t you?”
“You have caused us so much trouble this week”
“My audience is not just tiny house people, I need this event to draw in the larger Dallas population”

After an animated talk, we left the call on a shaky, but okay, note. I apologized for any bad press that my comment on Jewel’s’ post created, and said I would erase it. I mentioned giving up one of my workshops spots to help create more diversity (they weren’t exactly supportive of that, but I still was hopeful), and I gave suggestions for how they (and I) could do better at promoting the diverse speakers that they supposedly had yet to invite, even though they wouldn’t be keynotes. Nevertheless, they still tried to strongarm me into not participating before I got off the phone. I told them I would make that decision after talking with some colleagues, but I soon found out the decision wasn’t mine to be made.

On Monday morning I had another call from the main event organizer. They told me they had seen a post Jewel Pearson made on Facebook and were furious with me for liking it. I asked if something about my comment was critical of the event and they said no, but then yelled: “I screenshotted that you were the second person to like her post!” I have no idea how often you have to be monitoring someone’s Facebook page to tell the order of likes on a post, but I imagine it’s more than I care to be on Facebook. I was then informed that they had never countersigned my original agreement that I had signed and submitted back in July, and they would not be countersigning it now. I asked for that in writing, and received it immediately:

“Reed Exhibitions and The Tiny House & Simple Living Jamboree have decided to not go forward with the Tiny House Collaborative Seminars and will not be counter signing your contract”

A tactic to maintain the status quo

I want to share with you my response to that last post by Jewel because it illustrates one of the biggest misconceptions I see in the tiny house community.

Jewel, I was reading Brain Pickings this morning and this by James Baldwin on demanding responsibility from others made me think of you. I love the conversations you have brought to the tiny house world and I will continue to speak up and, more importantly, act up even when it’s uncomfortable or not popular.

“BALDWIN: A great deal of what I say just leaves me open, I suppose, to a vast amount of misunderstanding. A great deal of what I say is based on an assumption which I hold and don’t always state. You know my fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way. But I am not surprised when they do. I am not that wretched a pessimist, and I wouldn’t sound the way I sound if I did not expect what I expect from human beings, if I didn’t have some ultimate faith and love, faith in them and love for them. You see, I am a human being too, and I have no right to stand in judgment of the world as though I am not a part of it. What I am demanding of other people is what I am demanding of myself.” — James Baldwin

Fury (or frustration or critique) does not equal malice. Buddhists say that anger is just a passionate desire for things to be different, so please remember this phrase the next time you question someone’s tone: “I wouldn’t sound the way I sound if I did not expect what I expect from human beings, if I didn’t have ultimate faith and love, faith in them and love for them.” (James Baldwin) A common tactic by white people is to turn issues around racial injustice into arguments about tactics and feelings rather than address the issues being raised. It is a deliberate tactic meant to maintain the status quo, and the responses I received from those in the tiny house community concern me more than how I was treated by Reed Exhibitions.

A critique is not an attack

After I responded to Jewel’s post and sent the email to the featured speakers I knew, I received a few messages from tiny house colleagues telling me that I needed to be kind. They hadn’t read anything I had written, but they shared with me that they had heard from others that I was “publicly attacking” the organizer and event. The extent of my critique were the following two things: the email I wrote (link here to read it) to six colleagues, and the comment I made on Jewel’s post on Facebook that was up for a little over one day (I took a screen shot before removing it):

I have suggested more diverse speakers if at least one will be featured as a main speaker. I plan on reaching out to some of the main stage speakers to share with them resources on how to diversify events, i.e. refusing to participate as a main speaker or on a panel that has no diverse representation (be that gender, race, or whatever the lack of diversity is for that particular industry). In the tiny house movement we’ve done a great job with gender diversity and an appalling one with racial diversity. The events I host and see here in DC and on the East Coast do not look like this lineup. They are more diverse and to see a national conference still not representing the movement is not OK

A few people also reached out to me to tell me how they thought Jewel’s post was “negative” and “not nice” (I encouraged them to talk to Jewel if they didn’t like the post, not me. To my knowledge, none of them did). It is disappointing that rather than addressing the topic — the lack of diversity — people chose to focus on one person’s tone and another person’s feelings. Interestingly, those who told me how much they didn’t agree with tactics or tone made no mention of the racist tone in a colleague’s response to Jewel’s post:

“Of course the Jamboree is going to look at the main players. The Jamboree is a main event. I promise you, if someone of color was sitting on years of work and have gained notoriety like the people you see in the picture, they would have been invited. Again, I hope someone steps up to the plate and puts in the work. It would be great to see people of color that have earned the right to speak at such a big event like all of the people you see in the picture.”

My response to the above comment was:

“I can think of several. Just because we don’t “see” them in the main tiny house arena, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there doing their work…..We have to look outside the main players. There are MANY, diverse groups of people who have made their careers doing “right-sized housing” and it’s on us to include them in the movement and our events.”

And another colleague’s response was:

“I have been a keynote, at this event, and I definitely don’t think I have worked harder than many of the people listed above (quite the opposite) or earned my way to that spot (I have a story that is skewed continually to fit media needs, that got me undue attention…). There is a real point being made that is being justified away with this comment.”

Tiny houses at the 2016 Tiny House Jamboree. Photo by Lee Pera

What we need to do if we want inclusive events

It is not on others to prove their worthiness to us. It is on us to do research, and invite more diverse presenters to our events. We, of all people, are skilled at google and research: we’ve all planned and built our own houses, often with no guides. If we can find information on off-grid systems to rain screens to insulation types, we can certainly find more diverse presenters too. There are many people out there doing amazing work who are not being invited to speak about it. That doesn’t include just people of color, but also single parents, teens, those currently living without housing (who are doing amazing work building tiny house communities), people living with disabilities, etc. I am not asking us, as white folks, to never speak at an event or to stop promoting our business. I am simply asking that, when invited to speak at our community/industry/movement’s largest event, that you ask what you can do to elevate someone else’s voice and someone else’s experience and perhaps, as many men have chosen to do in the tech industry, make a commitment to not speak on a main stage or be on a panel of all-one demographic, in our case this means all white.

While Jewel has been the most vocal voice in the movement around the ways we’ve fallen short on inclusivity, she is not the only one to have experienced racism and discrimination in our community. These past weeks I have spent hours on the phone talking with four different women of color in the tiny house movement. I have learned how their tiny house journeys cannot be separated from the broader society in which we live (a lot of what was written above was took place right after Charlottesville, so imagine what it’s like to hear someone say they feel attacked because you critiqued an event after knowing that friends and loved ones are in real danger of actual, hateful attacks meant to harm them simply because of their skin color). During these conversations I also learned how tiny houses on wheels are simply another iteration in a history of migration homes that were being built by hand long before us white people in the modern tiny house movement started building our little homes on trailers (Dominique Moody, a storyteller, artist, and tiny house builder, talks about this in her work). I have learned how much we are missing by not hearing from the diverse voices in our community, not only missing out on stories, but missing out on creative alliances that could make our movement stronger and more accepted.

One colleague’s response when they heard why my contract had been rescinded simply said “Oh what a shame.” I believe it’s a shame too, but not for the same reasons. We tiny house dwellers pride ourselves on going against societal norms (putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations by doing so), yet we shut down when confronted with something that challenges our worldview. We pride ourselves on being willing to break the rules to build and live in our ideal homes, yet we want to enforce our rules of “proper behavior” on others whose tactics we don’t like, completely ignoring the important message they are sharing. We don’t want to get involved in the messy and difficult work around racial justice, yet we will gladly tackle the monumental, bureaucratic work of changing zoning to suit our needs. We need to work to be better allies, and doing the work of allyship requires being willing to make mistakes. I made mistakes in this process that I regret, but at least I tried. I will learn from them, and I will keep doing this work, and I’m sure there will be more mistakes. I would hope that others will do the same with me, but I don’t have much evidence for that right now. How are we supposed to learn and grow as allies and advocates when so many in the community don’t even want to begin the conversation*? That’s the real shame. 
*Dominique was recently asked to present on a diversity panel at the event and considered doing so, but when she mentioned that she didn’t want to be “the only” or a “token”, the organizer told her “I’m not ready to have these conversations at a national event

I wasn’t going to write about any of this, at least not right now, but last weekend Jewel received a threatening and hateful message via her website from an event organizer in the tiny house community. They railed on her for partnering with an organization I co-founded and for working with “the same white people you demonized in this community.” I will not rewrite any of the other nasty, racist stuff they wrote, but reading it made me realize I needed to write about my experiences to share with other allies in the tiny house movement. Silence is complicity, and I don’t see enough of us speaking up. We all likely have come across whoever sent the anonymous message at some time at one of our events, maybe shared a meal or beer with them. If we aren’t addressing these issues with each other and letting each other know where we stand, then what hope do we have for a more just and inclusive movement in the future?

Some of the people I mentioned above who have been working to try and create more inclusive events are: Tiny House Atlanta, Tiny House NC Street Festival, Tiny House Living Festival, Miranda’s Hearth, Kevin Polk, organizing the So. Cal Tiny House Festival 2018, and the organizers of the Mid Atlantic Tiny House Expo, whose proceeds are going to benefit CivicWorks and YouthBuild. Recognize that most of these events are done on a volunteer basis, so they are limited in who they can bring given budget, but they are still trying to get more diverse representation at their events.