Get to know Tanisha Arena
What is your name, pronouns, and role at Arise?
I'm Tanisha Arena, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers, and I am the Executive Director of Arise. October 2023 marked my fifth year.
How did you become involved with Arise?
I actually started while I was in grad school. My former employer had an office inside of a local LGBTQ organization. And the person that ran that organization was the board chair. Since my grad school work was in nonprofit management, I had to interview people to find out about the workings of a nonprofit and the board. So, she and I would have different conversations. And I started to interview her about, you know, her work on the board of Arise. And then, towards the end, after I graduated, I got this email that Arise was looking for a new executive director. And in my mind, I was like, wait is that a thing? Can you literally just graduate school and then wind up being an ED? And the answer is, yes. Because that's what I did.
Up until about a year and a half ago, we were the asthma capital of the country, not the Commonwealth.
What are the current challenges or issues that Arise is working to address in the community?
There are a few things. I would say an overarching one is our civic engagement. Voter turnout is still fairly low in the city of Springfield, and we just had some elections. There's been some growth, but that's a marathon. In terms of organizing work, that ties to some of our other things. For example, our mold work in the air quality bill that is pending in our state because up until most recently, mold was not part of the sanitary code in the state of Massachusetts, which as you can imagine, is a myriad of problems that exists there for homeowners, for renters, with no recourse if there is a problem with mold, and that can affect your breathing, as well as neurological things. We live in the valley. Up until about a year and a half ago, we were the asthma capital of the country, not the Commonwealth. Springfield is a city that has disparate impacts in terms of asthma and other respiratory issues. More than half of the folks got inhalers. Our young people, our elderly. So, dealing with air quality issues is certainly important. That ties in with our environmental justice work and it also ties into our work with the unhoused as well as our housed population because what are the living conditions that people are in? We have had folks who live in moldy conditions and opted to stay in those spaces, because if they opted to leave, where are they going? There's currently a waitlist for our emergency shelter program. And that's for the state not Arise. If it was up to us, everybody would be housed.
What is your involvement in advocating for changes when it comes to local and national legislation?
Locally, we, you know, do interface with our city councilors because it's important to know where they stand on these issues, our local representatives, state representatives, and the bills that we can get them to support and draft. Then, we are also giving testimony about the air quality bill, asking other folks in the community to step forward and do written and oral testimony. It's up to the state to make sure that there are protections and guidelines in place because it's one thing that the regulations have been added to the sanitary code. There isn't anything in terms of what's next. So now we're in the what's next steps at the city level and then also at the state level. In the city of Springfield, there are no regulations on what happens when there's a code enforcement violation. What's the remediation process? What are the recourses for tenants? So, there's a lot of work to be done at a policy level.
Have you had any anecdotes from people that have been positively impacted by Arise?
I can think of a few different instances over the years. I mean, going way back, and I do get to talk about this sometimes in other spaces, we do radical work, and it's helping people and not doing things that are harmful with the systems that exist that are supposed to help. So we had a young mom come in with her kids, and she fled her home state to leave domestic violence. She left with the clothes on her back and her kids. She wound up in our office. She had been floating around for a while, and we were trying to get her into an emergency shelter. Of course, in the interim, DCF wants to know where the kids are because why aren't they in school? You're sleeping in your car, 51A. And we could make the decision to say to DCF, “We don't know where she is,” because having DCF involvement wasn't going to make her life better; it was going to make it worse. And again, DCF is supposed to be helpful. In that instance, not helpful because this mom was not harming her children. She had fled from harm and was looking for support. And the thing that happens behind the scenes because she'd been evicted from where she was because she fled. It's not like the abuser is like, “Oh, let me pay the rent.” And she'd been evicted. And those things are tied to the shelter system. So we were trying to get that snafu taken care of so she could get into the emergency shelter with her kids. And we just needed like three days to do that. So we hid her for three days. She got into an emergency shelter. By the time, DCF asked, “Have you seen him?” She's over there in the emergency shelter, and the kids are going to school. This is the thing, right? That's coming up with solutions that have value, are not harming people, and are supposed to be helpful. And of course, that translated into a much better outcome for this mom and her kids.
There's lots of “Thank you, this has made such a difference.” It's just to alleviate the conditions as much as we can before there are policy, structural, and systemic changes.
I can think of the things with mold. My board president is affectionately known as the Mold Lady in the city of Springfield. She has lots of information. She has lived experience with mold conditions, which impacted both herself and her son. And we've talked about the things that we can do that we know are just band-aids but are also helpful in terms of living conditions. So we are able to distribute air purifiers. We've gotten specific grant funds to do this work because it's one of the best things that you can have in your house. Everybody should have a HEPA air purifier in their homes for better air quality. It will help alleviate some of the symptoms of mold. We created an info packet with things that you can do. And I've learned that vinegar is actually the best way to handle mold where you see it, not bleach. Bleach can actually make it grow. I also learned that white mold is the most dangerous, not black mold. So, some of the times we have been able to bring in the air purifiers for families. There's lots of “Thank you, this has made such a difference.” It's just to alleviate the conditions as much as we can before there are policy, structural, and systemic changes.
Do you collaborate with other organizations in the area to push regulations?
There are a few local organizations that we partner with. There's the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, Live Well Springfield, that's in our environmental justice work. Then, in our housing work, we partner with Springfield No One Leaves. And then, in the broader sense, we're a member of Homes for All Massachusetts, and they're able to do a lot more lobbying because they have a C4. So that's where it's like, hey, politician person, we need you to write this law. We need this thing done. And you know, actually lobbying because Arise has a C3, you can't really lobby political candidates when you have a C3. So, belonging to Homes for All Massachusetts is essential. We do the Organizing School. I have taught a few sessions when they come into town. They're out of Boston. Then, I would even list some of our funders as partners in this work. No money, no mission. And it's funders that support the way we do our work. I am not filling out 10-page applications for a $5,000 grant, and I'm not nickeled and dimed or nitpicked about how did you spend the money? What did you do with the thing? There has to be an element of trust between the funders and the organizations. So, the Barr Foundation has been extremely supportive of the work of Arise. JPB Foundation and its general operating support, which in nonprofit land is like you can do whatever you want with this money, which means do this work in the ways that you see fit in your community in ways that make sense. Hey, they're funding us to be radical. What could be better than that? if you really want systemic and institutional change that's not going to uphold the status quo.
I'm still surprised about the number of people that have lived in Springfield for decades and have no awareness of Arise, and we will be 40 years old in 2025.
What about people outside organizations and the community? How can they support Arise?
Outside of making donations, get involved civically, know who your elected officials are, whether it's school committee or city council, and what these races are. We just had a mayoral race. Talk to your neighbors, your friends, and your colleagues at the water cooler. Know what's happening in your community. Be registered to vote and then vote, and then put that pressure on the elected person to do the things that they said that they would do. Right? Don't ever sit out in the election, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. No other group says that they've given up their vote, or I'm going to withhold it because I don't like the thing that you did. We all have that responsibility. And if you don't do it, you're basically saying I'm okay with the next person making decisions about my life. So, there's that part. You can volunteer at Arise. We're always looking for folks, for students. There’re internship opportunities. Also, just come in and say hi. It can feel like lonely work at times. The majority of times someone is coming through the door, it's because they need something. That's why we're here. But it's also nice when folks come in to just say, hey. So, there's lots of ways. Tell people about Arise. I'm still surprised about the number of people that have lived in Springfield for decades and have no awareness of Arise, and we will be 40 years old in 2025.
What is the most rewarding aspect of working with Arise? What keeps you going?
The people. I work with amazing people. They care about this work. I mean, it's the work, it's not the thing that they just go and collect the check. They take it home with them. As much as we talk about not taking it home, having good boundaries, and practicing self-care, it's life, and it doesn't turn off. A lot of my staffers have lived experience, and that's why they're in the work. It's not just I went to school, and I should do a thing. No, I have staff who are formerly homeless. I have a board president who has Black sons and grandsons. And you know, her prayers are different. She’s experienced with mold conditions and slum lords. And I've got an organizer, who has been to Israel and Palestine and witnessed those things firsthand. I've got a community advocate who is in recovery, and is also a substance use counselor, retired. I've got Indigenous folks on staff, who can talk about the atrocities of this country and how that shows up. So, lots of intersecting identities, and we get to have fun.
The work is heavy. And I've tried to bring in the things that I know from outside, like when we talk about collaboration. There are other things that I do in partnership with people that aren't exactly about Arise. But it's important work. So, I do consulting with Growing a New Heart, and my people there are super important. And that work informs my Arise space and how we engage in dismantling white supremacy culture. So, we do have a little dance. You know, we talk about the stiffness of agendas and time and how we interact with the community and not replicating harm. We're not going to harm people under the guise of helping them. Being able to take time off and let people know like, hey, take your PTO, take your vacation. If you're not feeling good, I don't want to see you in this office, go to your doctor's appointments, prioritize your health and well-being, and be able to see when you actually show up that way for folks.
They're happier, they're more productive. I don't micromanage. I don't like to be micromanaged. I don't need to. They do amazing work. It doesn't feel like work, even though it is work. And when it is heavy, they know that they're supported. It's not punitive; they have the freedom and flexibility to be their whole selves to say the things that are weighing on them. There's no like, well, check your problems at the door. No, bring it inside, and we can hold this together. So, it makes it a good space to be. Try that, hey, we're gonna have some good food. We're going to take the time off. We're not working today. I'm the quote-unquote, boss, and I'm like, okay. So, yeah, just to lighten it up and do it differently. If I want to show up and tell people we can do this differently, I'm doing it differently and having success.
None of these things are neutral. Neutrality only helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. If you see something, say something. Use your voice because if we are silent, they will kill us and say that we enjoyed it.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with whoever is reading this?
Yeah, there's a lot happening. The world is on fire. Okay, if you haven't noticed that the world is on fire, please come out from under your rock. Look at the things that are happening. Bear witness because there's a privilege in, like, oh, I don’t have to deal with it, and I don't have to see it, while there are people who are living it. That’s on a global scale right outside your window. Stay involved and take the breaks that you need. And as I'm saying this for the people outside, it's also for me inside, like to hold on to that little glimmer of hope, and sometimes it's a tiny dot because if we let that go, then all the mayhem outside just consumes us. And don't ever sit quiet. None of these things are neutral. Neutrality only helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. If you see something, say something. Use your voice because if we are silent, they will kill us and say that we enjoyed it.