Unity Circles Group Photo - 9 Women wearing masks smiling at the camera

Coming Full Circle: At “Unity Circles,” Residents and Staff Create Space to Heal and Grow

When Anna Marie Fai and Alyssa Tuaolo stepped into their resident-serving roles at Britton Court Apartments in San Francisco, they found a community in need of healing. Violence in the surrounding Visitacion Valley neighborhood had left families reeling, and within the building,  they sensed the need to build trust.

A photo of Anna, wearing a headset and speaking into a microphoneAnna, a Resident Services Manager at Mercy Housing California (MHC), was raised in Visitacion Valley and applied to work at Britton Court in part because of her roots in the community. “Residents were having serious issues with each other, even those who had lived here for upwards of 20 years, and 100% of people here have experienced the trauma and turmoil that comes with having low incomes. We needed to figure out what we could do right now to address some very serious issues residents were facing.”

A photo of Anna, wearing a beige cardigan with a black scarf and top. She is smiling towards the camera.“I knew I wanted to engage more with residents,” said Alyssa, Britton Court’s Property Manager, who grew up in nearby Sunnydale, a neighborhood currently undergoing a community-led transformation in partnership with MHC. “If I can’t engage with you, how can I serve you and make sure you’re in a safe environment? But I didn’t know where to start.”

To facilitate a more connected culture, MHC’s resident services and property management teams leveraged a generous grant from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas to enlist the support of Trusted Space Partners (TSP). A national organization, TSP guides affordable housing providers who want to improve the quality of life for all residents by inspiring a shared sense of ownership and investment in change. The advisors at TSP suggested that Anna and Alyssa invite residents and staff to attend weekly “Unity Circles,” giving community members the opportunity to get to know each other better and discuss solutions to practical problems such as trash collection and parking.

One of the first residents to show up was Rochelle, who has resided in Britton Court Apartments since the community opened in 2001.

A photo of Rochelle, wearing a navy blue shirt with pink stripes on the shoulders. She is smiling at the camera.“I loved it because, when I went, it took a lot of the anger and hurt out of me,” recalls Rochelle, who has lost young family members to neighborhood violence. “We talked about things that could change Britton Court, things we could bring to Britton Court … like jobs for the youth, programs for youth… and about five teenagers even started joining the group! It was like therapy, but a little bit better.”

Earlier in the year, Rochelle had experienced a conflict with an MHC desk clerk. Connecting at the “Unity Circles” gave the two the opportunity to address the issue and repair their relationship. “Anna and Alyssa made everybody understand, it’s not about pointing the finger at anyone: we’re here to find out what we can do to make it better for the residents and staff who are here,” she said.

Over the course of thirteen months, Anna and Alyssa facilitated twenty-four “Unity Circles,” providing 30 residents and a rotating group of staff the chance to socialize, work through conflicts, and hold each other accountable to personal goals. “It was difficult, but it was also really fun,” said Alyssa. “I’m just loving the dynamic we were able to create. Now, when I see residents, they say, ‘How are you doing, girl? How’s your goal going? Are you drinking your water?’… It was so helpful to connect first as human beings, and to empower residents to make decisions about their community.”

As MHC looks to expand the community engagement strategies explored at Britton Court Apartments to other residences, Anna said she hopes staff will take Mercy Housing’s core values of respect, justice, and mercy to heart, and keep in mind the dynamic opportunities staff can share with residents when building relationships. “I’m most proud that we were able to strengthen the lines of communication,” she said. “Even when there’s conflict and hardship, residents are coming to us with an open heart.”