“I don’t want to put people through the wringer to get assistance. The population we serve is dealing with enough. Poor people are burdened to death with measures of accountability before they can receive any kind of help. I think that is grossly wrong because people of means are not burdened that way.” — Jackie Paul Sims
As Executive Director of the Nashville-based non-profit People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing and Employment (PATHE), Jackie Paul Sims’ devotion to community activism and service is apparent, but it’s not something she was born to. A native of Philadelphia, she grew up shielded from many of the harsh realities of poverty in the US. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in what is considered ‘Black Middle Class,’” Sims says. “My parents always worked, we had two cars, we took vacations, we owned our home. My father was a cop and my mother worked for General Electric and had a very good job. I wasn’t lacking for anything in my little world, but I didn’t understand how the world really works.”
A move to South Carolina; college at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama; marriage; five children; divorce; and a successful career as a mental health professional working with law enforcement followed, and then, tragedy struck. “My oldest son was in a head-on collision at 16,” she says. “He came as close to death as you can get. My girls went to Atlanta to stay with my sister, and four weeks after the first wreck, my sister and one of my daughters were hit by a truck. I was a complete emotional wreck. I went into a downward spiral and I was let go from my job. I went through all my savings and retirement and in no time I was destitute.”
In early 2008, Sims decided to move her family to Nashville where her parents had recently relocated and another sister had lived for several years. “Moving to Nashville was part of finding my way back,” she says. “My life became so desperate. All I had was to cling to God for dear life to pull me through a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time, so I came to Nashville very intentional about being of service, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like. I knew I would not return to the role of therapist, so I began volunteering for various community organizations.”
Along with her volunteer work, Sims got the chance to learn about community organizing and activism from a master, Dr. James Lawson, one of the architects of the national Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. She also found a specific focus for her activism.
“I eventually landed on housing because housing is where the most intentional harm has been done by both the public and private sector,” Sims says. “Secure, affordable housing was at the base of all the intersectional issues that I was working with.”
Sims’ commitment to housing and the various social issues accompanying the lack thereof led to her co-founding PATHE. The non-profit agency not only advocates for public policy change in support of safe and affordable housing but provides educational, legal, and financial assistance to residents facing housing insecurity, eviction, and displacement. Their most recent project is the Riverchase housing project in East Nashville. Current plans call for the existing apartment complex to be demolished and rebuilt with 1,000 brand new units. Only 150 of the units will be earmarked as “affordable” housing for lower-income residents, and none will be designated as Federal “Section 8” housing. Unless the plan changes, approximately 100 current Riverchase residents will be facing eviction with nowhere to go.
“I want to see an iron-clad right to return for those Section 8 residents that leave in good standing,” she says. “These are good people who have been there 10, 15, 19 years. They’re seniors now. If they want to return, they need to be able to return. If they want to move, this old girl’s gonna help them move so they can enjoy the remainder of their time in something nice, new, beautiful, and comfortable.”
A fire of commitment and determination shines through when Sims speaks of her work. She’s not fighting for causes, she’s fighting for individuals with the passion and understanding of a survivor of the same challenges. “I am constantly reminded of my own experience,” Sims says. “You can have everything in the world going for you and something beyond your control can change your whole life and put you in the position I found myself in — not having the ability to keep a roof over your head.”