Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Periodically, we catch up with a HECUA alum and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, or their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email email@example.com. This month we are delighted to feature Kevin Walker. Kevin is the Vice President of Housing and Shelter at Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a collaborative of congregations united in action to create homes and advance equitable housing. He participated in the Community Internships in Latin America (CILA) program in Colombia in 1993.
What was a highlight from your HECUA experience?
I remember our getting premature coconuts, slinging it behind our backs, and walking up the beach in Cartagena. We struggled to get the green coconuts open. Perhaps that was a metaphor for effective community development, that it relies on patience and an understanding of when the time is ripe for the all the pieces to mature just right for the rewards to follow.
From my homestay experience, I also remember the quiet elegance of my host mother, who operated a small uniform shop in her basement and her pride in her sons. I found that even the best-rated Indian restaurant in Bogota, a personal treasure and find for me, was no great catch for my host mother, who endearingly (and politely) tried one or two of the chutney spread, only to bemoan to me that all were ‘demasiado picante!’ and so beyond her comfort level. Other efforts to share my Minnesota food loves and heritage with her – with a massive batch of homemade wild rice soup that I made from a care package of wild rice that my own Mom shipped to Colombia – also did not fare well as Bogota’s electricity blinked out overnight and my three full Ziploc bags of frozen wild rice soup soured and had to be thrown out!
I also remember trying out group drumming and basketball with youth who came to participate in activities supported by the community center near Ciudad Bolivar where I did my work. On all our percussion, I found it hard to leave behind high school John Phillip Sousa marches and pick up the salsa rhythms that came naturally to the community center program leaders and the youth.
Did your HECUA program help shape your future academic/ career pursuits? If so, how?
Yes. The intensive historical study and opportunity to understand the ways that Colombian leaders found resolution to the years of ‘la violencia’ left a lasting impact on me. I left Colombia with a continuing interest in seeking out opportunities for exploring cultural difference and challenging imperialistic policies and practice.
The next summer, I interned at the City of St. Paul and interviewed many youth facing apathy, chemical use, and violence in their neighborhoods. After graduating from college, I moved to Old San Juan and joined the Office of the Court Monitor to monitor prison conditions in a class action lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections.
I subsequently joined the Senate campaign for U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. After the campaign, I moved to Hong Kong and taught Spanish to middle schoolers for an academic year and a half.
I came back to the U.S. for graduate school in urban/regional planning. As part of my planning degree, I returned to Bogota with a Colombian colleague, where we did a joint research project, funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and that culminated in a Master’s thesis for each of us. I then moved back to Minnesota, where I became a cooperative housing developer, first working on senior housing cooperatives and then manufactured housing cooperatives.
What work do you do currently and how did you become involved with it?
I work at Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Beacon is a collaborative of almost 100 congregations that work to end homelessness through supportive housing development, shelter, and systems change.
My work in this area grew out of my experience as a cooperative housing developer and my interest in working on behalf of and in partnership with those who have come out of homelessness and/or face housing instability.
What is something that continues to be meaningful for you from your HECUA experience?
My primary takeaway lessons from my HECUA experience were:
(1) the importance of lifelong learning
(2) the power of authentic partnership
(3) the practice of design/do
(4) the importance of factoring in culturally specific definitions of what matters for and in a community into any community development strategy.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I found the staff of HECUA and my CILA class of ’93 to be important mentors on my journey of how I wanted to explore meaningful and constructive work in social justice and practice of authentic community development. I am honored to contribute to the anniversary of a remarkable organization who has benefitted from the thought leadership of a tremendous program and executive leadership staff, from Nadinne Cruz, Alicia Duran (our Colombian program lead), and Mauricio Barreto. In my experience, HECUA students and staff share an interest in community development work that draws its transformative power from the people themselves. It is the kind of community development that views people not merely as tenants or clients, but as people whose values and goals must necessarily shape the form and outcome of the development itself. For that – for decades of fostering meaningful social change, HECUA should be proud. I think that it is not too much to say (though it has been said before!) that HECUA is a critical incubator for the kind of thought leadership and work that the world needs now.