06.05.20 Leadership Shout Out: Mila Jam
Born in Aurora, IL and raised in Columbus, Georgia, Mila Jam made her way to New York at the young age of 18. She is one of the few New Yorkers to have the same roommate for her entire tenure in the city. Celebrating 10 years of living together, Mila reflects on her housing journey and how it’s empowered her to live out her dream as a musical artist and community leader. Within the Habitat NYC network, Mila is known for her riveting roles as a panelists at the 2019 Built with Pride event and as moderator at our 2020 Advocacy Leadership Summit, both produced by HYP NYC.
HYP NYC: Hi Mila! We’d like to start by saying Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, and Happy Pride Month! We know we’re preaching to the choir here but, for those who don’t know, Pride started as a riot against police brutality; which was predominantly led by queer people of color. Specifically Black Trans Women. We thank you for being an incredible leader!
Mila: Hello! And yes! Thank you. I’m excited to connect with HYP NYC again.
HYP NYC: How are you doing with everything going on in the City and across the world?
Mila: You know, I was raised with a lot of resilience. You have to be resilient as a Black Trans woman. It’s a constant balancing act because you have to be strong, always. We rarely have a moment to break down because there’s no one to pick you up when you’re Black, let alone Trans, and a woman.
HYP NYC: That’s so real. And exhausting! We stand with you, Mila. We also stand with the Black, Trans, LGBTQIA+, and female-identified communities. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. You mentioned being raised with a resilience. Could you tell us more about that?
Mila: Absolutely. So I was born in Chicago and was raised by my parents got divorced. I was five years old. My mom sent me to live with my grandma because we wanted me to have stable housing while we figured everything out. At the time, we had moved into the projects and it just wasn’t safe. So off to Columbus, Georgia I went. Living with my grandmother was an amazing experience. Fun fact: Bob the Drag Queen and Chilli from TLC are both from Columbus!
HYP NYC: We love Bob and Chilli! Did you live with your grandma until you moved to New York?
Mila: Technically, yes. After my mom worked everything out she moved to Georgia with us. My mom worked really, really hard to reunite with me. When she did, she ended up moving me to Atlanta because she bought a three-bedroom house. We lived there until my grandmother passed away at 60 years old. Then mom and I took over my grandmother’s home in Columbus, where I lived until leaving to New York City for college.
HYP NYC: Wow! Big ups to your mom for that power move. Resilience definitely runs in your blood. Tell us about your move to New York.
Mila: Yes! I love my mother and grandmother. As for New York, I gotta say… I feel like I’ve had one of the most unique housing journeys when it comes to New York. We’ve all heard the horrific stories of unsafe rentals, expensive rent, and scandalous roommates; but that isn’t my story. My intro to the city was living on 70th and Columbus. I had been accepted into The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, so this was where their dorms were. At 18 years old, you don’t really understand what it means to live in that kind of neighborhood by comparison to all the other realities of housing in New York.
HYP NYC: That’s so amazing, the stars really lined up for you. What was it like when you left student housing?
Mila: So my roommate from student housing became my bestie and we moved out together. We’ve always been very diligent about the process and have explored every path. We’ve done walking tours to find places for rent, gone through every website (including eBay… I don’t even know how that was possible), we’ve gone through brokers, applied for low-income housing. Over 10 years, we’ve seen and done it all when it comes to finding a place to call home in the city. I’m so grateful to have the same roommate. It just adds a layer of security. And, as an artist, it’s hard to afford living in New York.
HYP NYC: eBay?? That’s so random but adding it to the resource list. But what a unique journey for so many reasons. A lot of people in our [LGBTQIA+] community experience homelessness.
Mila: Very true! And very grateful that I haven’t had to endure that struggle. I know Habitat NYC and HYP NYC already know how important it is to have a place to lay your head at night. But I want to share how equally important it is to have a place you can let your guard down and just be you. Just breath and have a moment for yourself. So many New Yorkers are deprived of that because of housing inequality.
HYP NYC: Preach, Mila. What does having this kind of access mean to you, what kind of role does it play in your day to day living, and how do you pay it forward?
Mila: Housing is the foundation for everything and everyone. It influences every aspect of your life. So if you have safe, decent, affordable housing then you’re probably a lot closer to actualizing your dreams. My roommate and I, we recognize our story is rare so we definitely pay it forward as much as possible. I remember one time we had a friend who lived on our couch for years. They had no where to go and opened our doors. We were able to be there for them in a meaningful way. While “just a couch” it was a place for them to come home and recharge after long days of being out in the city trying to figure out the next steps. Staying with us certainly ended up being longer than any of us planned but it all worked out.
HYP NYC: That is so beautiful, Mila. We love you and your roommate for paying it forward like that! So what’s your dream when it comes to housing. Let’s talk about the future.
Mila: One can dream big and wildly, so I do. I love, love, love New York City. This is my home. My dream is to own a condo here in the city but know the reality is that New York is crazy expensive. I never wanted a house with picket fence, but that sounds nice too. As long as I have a place to call my own and to freely be me then I’ll be happy and grateful.
HYP NYC: Very true. A lot of our HYP NYC Board members feel the same. The city is home but the cost is terrifying. Do you think where you live influences your music?
Mila: Housing doesn’t influence my music in the way I think it could. As a creative being I can create in any environment. I do wish I had a sound proof place. It would make creating so much easier so I do what it takes. My music is a constant stream of new, more, better, what’s next. There was a time when I thought “Okay, this is it and what people will love” now I’m in the space of everything I release will have its own life and its own legs. I’m still building my fan base and defining my sounds.
HYP NYC: That’s exciting! We love your music and encourage everyone to check out your new single, Eye on You. You’re a leader and you inspire us to live out our dreams. That’s part of why we’ve launched this series. Its important for Habitat NYC and HYP’s networks to see the many amazing people behind the scenes who are participating in building a city – and a world – where everyone has a decent place to live. Mila, thank you for your commitment to serve. Thank you for your leadership and thank you for just being you. You’re great!
Mila: Thank you!