Tenaya Taylor sits at their desk in the Nonprofit Accountability Group office in Hartford. They are the executive director of NAG, which focuses on community mutual aid, environmental justice, housing advocacy and health equity. Madeline Papcun / CT Mirror

This is the third of an occasional series profiling Connecticut people who frequently share their insights, passions and opinions with fellow readers in CT Viewpoints commentaries.

“My earliest memory, I experienced childhood homelessness when I was maybe four years old,” said Tenaya Taylor. “Looking at the intersections, everything falls under having shelter.”

Taylor is now, at 32, a highly motivated social justice advocate in the Hartford community. They graduated from Capital Community College, and work as the executive director of Nonprofit Accountability Group, which focuses on community mutual aid, environmental justice, housing advocacy and health equity. 

Taylor’s personal experiences have led them to focus on housing in particular.

Taylor explained that, back then, their mother was “running from something” and the family ended up in a homeless shelter in the “dead of night” — something Taylor explained is harder to do nowadays.

“I just knew the importance of having somewhere for people to land. You can’t even do that anymore, you have to call 211, so you need a cell phone before you can even flee somewhere,” they said.

Taylor added that these foundational experiences early on can make maintaining resources even more difficult later on in life. 

“Homeless once? Good luck staying housed,” Taylor said. “So just by no fault of my own, I’ve experienced multiple evictions into adulthood — just things that were out of my control.” 

Hence, Taylor has spent much of their life active in the Hartford community, working with grassroots organizations, even before founding NAG in 2020.

NAG is primarily funded by the Connecticut Health Foundation and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, but also does fundraising events and projects and accepts donations. The group has about 50 members that help out to varying degrees, and two staff members — an office assistant and Taylor. 

At the moment, NAG’s small staff size allows it to work out of a one-room office on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, where a pride flag hangs on the wall next to a sign reading “BE A BUDDY NOT A BULLY,” and potted plants bask in the sun on the windowsill. Taylor hopes to one day expand the operation.

Because it was founded at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, NAG originally focused on building food pantries and distributing masks and sanitizers to “just help folks stay alive,” Taylor said.

Since then, NAG has expanded its work to include campaigning for housing legislation regarding tenants’ rights and rent caps in the Connecticut General Assembly. Beyond work in policy, NAG has “rehomed about six families in the past two years,” Taylor said.

Additionally, NAG is currently working on fundraising for a summer camp program for young people ages 13-18. The goal of this program is to provide adolescents a space to learn about the environment through activities like camping and hiking, Taylor said. 

Along with running NAG, Taylor contributes to CT Mirror Viewpoints as another form of advocacy. 

“First and foremost, I like writing too much,” Taylor said, comparing themself to the popular GIF of Kermit the Frog typing furiously. “Also just putting stuff on record, and getting it out there, because it’s a platform. And I definitely know how hard it is to get messages out there.” 

For Taylor, CT Mirror Viewpoints is one of many avenues for activism that in part helps to fuel other opportunities as well. “Even when I write grants, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna submit an op-ed about this,’ and they love that. Funders are like ‘Ooo, an op-ed?’”

But while writing may be an important platform for Taylor, not all of their writing is well received. They recalled a time where they had been “roasted” on Facebook.

“It’s because they don’t want to hear it,” Taylor said. “People are just going to think what they think.” 

Still, Taylor maintains a sense of humor regarding opposing ideologies.

“I actually love, like, right-wing news, because their ideas are so great,” Taylor said jokingly.  Taylor explained that when a conservative person sarcastically says “Well, maybe everyone should just have free everything,” as a response to social justice advocates, Taylor agrees. “Yes everyone should.” 

But even beyond negative comments on online platforms, Taylor recalled frightening experiences at in-person advocacy events.

“I do public speaking too sometimes,” they said. “And when I speak in front of a crowd, sometimes half the crowd be mad like, ‘What’d you say?’ I’ve had some people follow me out of the auditorium like ‘I don’t agree.’” 

Nevertheless, Taylor’s advocacy work continues. Apart from legislative work and NAG’s community organizing, Taylor is a rapper who released an EP last year and is currently working on an album. 

Even music is a form of advocacy for them, as Taylor often “sneaks” their activism into their music. 

“When I’m on stage and performing because I like to do shows, usually festivals, I’ll be heavy on the bands, or heavy on the, ‘Submit your comments for the public regulatory authority because we need lower electric bills,’” Taylor said, miming holding a microphone. “It’s sneaky and intentional because people do come to hear and learn.” 

Taylor said this tactic is particularly successful with younger people. 

“They see a protest, and they also see a rapper, and they hear a beat and they hear the music. So it’s going to draw people in.”

Even while highlighting the impact music can have in social justice, Taylor also emphasized the importance of slowing down to avoid burnout. Despite all of their prominent work in the Hartford community, Taylor still describes themself as an introvert, noting the ease with which burnout can creep into a life centralized around activism.

“It’s boundaries sometimes too, I’m realizing,” Taylor said. “Because when you are an activist, sometimes people are like ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!’ and I’m like ‘I gotta recharge.’ It’s a lot.” 

But still, Taylor cites healthy ways to remain involved with your community, that focus on said boundaries to avoid exhaustion in advocacy.

“I caught a quote from Mariame Kaba. Apparently she has a new book, ‘You are not needed everywhere, but we are all needed somewhere. It’s important to find your somewhere and plant yourself there.’”