By Robin Farmer
Heather Mullins Crislip ’95 spoke for different kinds of people when she was a student government leader at the University of Mary Washington. Her service as president and vice president of the Student Association deepened her commitment to advocate for fairness and access. It also set her on her life path.
Today, she’s president and CEO of HOME, Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia Inc. The Richmond-based nonprofit promotes equal access to housing through fair housing enforcement, research, advocacy, and statewide policy.
Crislip already had a passion for justice when she arrived on campus. But, she said, “My interest in civil rights and issues of systemic poverty definitely blossomed and became more defined at UMW.”
Under Crislip’s leadership since 2012, HOME has focused on fair housing as a civil rights mission. “Litigation is just one of the tools we use when we need to,” she said. (Story continues below.)
In January, HOME settled a discrimination case with a Richmond developer, architect, and construction company involving a 129-unit apartment building in Shockoe Bottom. The lawsuit claimed the property failed to meet the handicap accessibility requirements for new construction under the Fair Housing Act. Because of HOME’s involvement, the property will be retrofitted for accessibility, and the nonprofit will be compensated $50,000 for damages.
“Our purpose is to create equal and fair housing markets,” Crislip said. Besides her work with HOME, Crislip serves on the board of directors for Housing Virginia, a public-private partnership committed to affordable housing.
Crislip majored in economics and political science at Mary Washington, and she learned about the housing issues that would shape her future: Housing patterns underlie education systems, crime activity, and opportunities for success.
“I came to understand homeownership, access to credit, and the ways we build wealth develop two different housing systems. It has created most of the wealth inequity we see in America. Where you live makes all of the difference,” she said. “One housing system is built on private ownership and subsidized mortgages and the opportunity to create private wealth, and one is built on public housing and subsidized with a very different outcome in terms of wealth.”
Crislip earned a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law, attending classes at night while directing the welfare-to-work center for the New Haven, Connecticut, region. She also served as assistant to the mayor for policy analysis and applied her talents to workforce development and homeownership issues.
After law school, she became chief of staff to a Hawaii state senator and executive assistant to the chancellor of the University of Hawaii.
She returned to Virginia in 2008 and accepted a position at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, where she oversaw bipartisan policy projects for former Gov. Gerald Baliles. She also served as the staff director of the Goode National Transportation Policy Project, which was honored by President Obama in 2010.
Besides shaping her professional interests, Mary Washington played an important role in Crislip’s personal life. She met Andrew Crislip ’95 during the first week of freshman year. They lived in Bushnell Hall, dated all four years, and married a year after graduation. They are the parents of daughters Grace, 11, and Renna, 7. Andrew Crislip is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
UMW’s highly regarded debate team and liberal arts emphasis were what first attracted Crislip to the college.
Her debate experience gave her a head start in learning how to be a successful member of student government, said John Morello, UMW associate provost for academic affairs. He was the director of the debate team when Crislip joined.
Debating is a thought- and labor-intensive activity, Morello said. It requires students “to have a fair degree of initiative and mental toughness and smarts in order to be successful, and she was very successful.”
As a sophomore, Crislip was half of the first UMW team to win three tournaments in a year.
Meeting Cedric Rucker ’81, now UMW associate vice president for student affairs and dean of student life, helped change her focus from debate to student government.
As a teacher and as an administrator, Rucker encouraged students to include different worldviews and think beyond themselves to recognize others’ struggles. Rucker challenged Crislip to be selfless and to use her voice in student government to make sure that everyone had a representative at the table. She has continued to challenge organizations and systems that exclude certain groups.
Rucker “was one of the biggest influences on my life and the reason I work in civil rights today,” Crislip said. The two are still friends, and she continues to consider him a mentor.
Rucker recalled Crislip’s early days of student leadership. “It was great working with her, and I think I drove her nuts,” he said with a robust chuckle.
“She really wants the world to be the sort of place where everyone has an opportunity and everyone can use the platform from which they come to excel based on their strengths and their interests,” Rucker said. “I am in awe of her and all of the things she continues to do, especially in my hometown of Richmond.”
Crislip moved to the state capital for its location between her family in her hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia, and her husband’s family in Fairfax County. It’s a good fit.
“Richmond is an easy place to live. There’s so much to do, it’s beautiful, it’s quirky, and it’s at turns both deeply reverent and completely irreverent,” Crislip said. “But the spirit of Richmond today, of authentically exploring and figuring out what and who we are and what we value, is the thing I love the most.”
The community loves her back. This spring, Richmond YWCA honored Crislip with one of its eight Outstanding Women Awards, given to women who make important contributions to the region. She was recognized for her commitment to ending systemic discrimination and segregation statewide through fair housing enforcement, education, and advocacy.
She was selected for the Service Leader of the Year Award by her peers in the Leadership Metro Richmond class in 2012. In 2015, the governor of Virginia appointed Crislip to the UMW Board of Visitors, which felt like an award, she said. “It was one of the highlights of my career.”
Her contributions to the Richmond community involve more than housing, said her friend and neighbor Kristen Green ’95, a journalist and author of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle.
Green and Crislip met freshman year. They lived across the hall from each other when Crislip served in student government and Green was an editor for the school newspaper, then called The Bullet.
“She’s always been incredibly ambitious and driven and achieved amazing things,” Green said. “She is a super energetic person who just throws herself into her many passions.”
When she is not working and volunteering, Crislip enjoys her family, raising chickens in her backyard, and renovating her old Richmond home – from building a spacious deck to retiling bathrooms.
“We’re always working on something,” she said. “I tend to start a project, we get in over our heads and then figure it out.
Crislip lives by something Teddy Roosevelt once said: Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are.
“It inspires me to get going and also be OK when there are constraints that I can’t control,” she said. “Or when I’m wishing I could do more.”