Jacqueline Paul "Jackie" Sims is never afraid to ask questions. When she heard that a company from outside of Tennessee was tearing down affordable housing units in East Nashville to build a new development, she called one of the planners.
"I said, 'Can we talk? I want to hear your plans for the people who live in that community.'" After multiple conversations with Jackie, the developer is now helping the current residents find new homes and cover expenses, such as deposits, moving costs and the first months' rent, in homes that are better than where they previously lived. "Everybody I've helped move is much better off than they were in that wretched, wretched apartment," Jackie says.
Jackie has been helping low-income Nashvillians find and keep affordable housing since she moved to
town from South Carolina in 2008. A mental health professional and single mother who experienced homelessness herself, Jackie saw her move to Nashville as a new opportunity to help people. She became a community organizer and grassroots advocate, getting involved with several organizations, including the People's Alliance on Transit, Housing and Employment
(PATHE), an organization she now leads.
"This is like a calling for her – working among the poor and homeless – almost like a preacher has a calling to the ministry," says Eddie Lattimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources Inc.
(AHR), a NeighborWorks America affiliate. Jackie serves on the AHR board and uses her background and network to help guide AHR's grassroots outreach, especially when it comes to evictions, disaster assistance and the community dynamics of neighborhood gentrification. "Jackie keeps us aware of what's going on," Lattimer says.
Jackie is being honored with the 2021-2022 NeighborWorks America Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership because of her hands-on work solving the problems facing underserved communities in Nashville. "For her, this is not a hypothetical, do-good thing," Lattimer says. "Instead, she says, ‘Come along with me.'"
Jackie recalls one man who struggled with substance abuse telling her emotionally, "Miss Jackie, I'm tired of this. I want a different life. I want to get off the streets." Jackie brought the man home to stay on her sofa until a rehab bed was available three days later. When he finished that program and still had nowhere to go, she moved him into a spare bedroom for nine months, until she found him a place in a senior complex. "He said, ‘Nobody ever believed in me until you,'" she recalls, adding that he now reaches out to people he knew on the streets, encouraging them to seek the same help he received.
Jackie Sims Illustration/Audrey Chan
Jackie talks to many community members about AHR's homeownership classes, which she has taken herself. "AHR understands what is required to develop the level of affordable housing that we need here in Nashville," she says. "They have the tools to educate others about the dynamics about affordable housing. You can't begin to help fix what you don't know or don't understand."
Lattimer says Jackie's strength is building trust by finding the positive things people agree on. "Jackie brings pros together instead of cons," he says.
Indeed, a "radical, burn-everything-down" approach is not the best way to enact meaningful housing reform, says Jackie, who prefers bringing parties together for conversations about the people affected by decisions made in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. It's an inclusive, direct style she learned from Dr. James Lawson, an activist, educator and civil rights leader in Nashville. "His whole spirit around community work really touched me. When I connected with him, I knew I was on the path to doing what I wanted to do for the community henceforth."
Just as Lawson has been an inspiration to Jackie, she knows that many in middle Tennessee look to her as a mentor, a role she is happy to take on to help shape the next generation of leaders addressing Nashville's housing crisis. "I'm ‘Miss Jackie' to so many young people," she says. "It keeps me grounded. It helps me to be very responsible to what I do and how I present myself to the community. It keeps me very spiritually connected."
She tries to teach those younger people about the importance of moderation, temperance and self-care so they can give their best to the people they're serving. "Never lose sight of what you're doing and who you're serving," Jackie says. "It's never about you."