Interview by Joanna Chisolm
Joanna: Can I have your name, age, and where you live?
Charlene: My name is Charlene Nimmons, I am 53 years old, and I live in Wyckoff Gardens public housing.
Joanna: When did you enter public housing?
Charlene: 29 years ago, I moved into public housing.
Joanna: How old were you?
Charlene: (laughs). You are a troublemaker.
Joanna: I was just trying to make it natural. What was housing like when you first moved in?
Charlene: It was a great place to live, you got to really see a lot of family, community, just, a nice place for the children to play, playgrounds, it was so close to schools. My daughter was in first grade, she was six years old. And, it was really a learning experience of being around a community. I was used to living in a brownstone where it was maybe one and two families, but we had over 500 families in one area. And just learning to get to know people who lived here from the time that Wyckoff Gardens was built to the time where over a course of years new families were coming and integrating with each other. I think that it is just a dynamic that people don’t get to experience. Public housing to me is not just a place to live but is a way to build your extended family.
Joanna: What do you think are some of the main stories about public housing that are not being told?
Charlene: I don’t think that we talk about the goodness of public housing and how, the people that live in public housing have the same ideals that anybody else for their children. They want to live in a safe and healthy environment, they want to be, you know, a part of wherever they live. We don’t celebrate the goodness, most of the time you hear about the negative things that are going on, you don’t hear about how many children are really graduating, how many children [pause] graduating, the importance of, you know, the growth of the children. Now some of them are going off to college, you watch them start of, you know, sometimes the mom being pregnant with them. I have a real close friend who, her daughter was born, about two weeks before my son was born and he wouldn’t walk when he turned one. He would just cling on to everything, hold on and then my friend brought up his birthday gift and we were just sitting around my living room and the both of them, well she was walking around and he was following her but he was holding on to the sofa. And she went to one side of the room and he decided to let go, and he walked behind her. And they ended up going to school together and graduating at the same, were in the same classes, and we always have a little side joke of she letting him into his victory of walking.
Joanna: What do you think is missing from the community?
Charlene: I think we are missing the importance of engagement around the resources that we actually have access to but we just don’t engage as much as we should. And I think that it is important for us to know what is available to us, in order to enhance our lives. So I think, yeah.
Joanna: What made you become a housing advocate?
Charlene: I was actually in a transition where I was PTA mom and then I started working for the Board of Education, and then my son was having a little struggle in school and I ended up resigning from the Board of Ed and homeschooled him for a season. And in that transition, I started to try to figure out what am I going to be doing and I thought about all I was able to do within the school system, how could I now impact the lives where I live. I started to go to the community center and I started to volunteer with the young kids in after school program. I learned about the resident association meetings, I started to go to the meetings, and some of the residents started to hear me speak and then began to ask would I run. And I decided to run for office. Going through the training, and learning what it meant to be an advocate for where I lived was so, it was motivation, reading those HUD regulations and learning about what it took to really engage in opportunities that may have been available, getting access to these resources that are actually here. HUD has all these dynamic opportunities and we really don’t tap into it. And I started to see the importance of training and learning how to not only impact my personal surroundings but how can I take that information and share it with others. So we started a non-profit organization, myself and some other resident leaders around the city, we started looking at what the needs were, we did a survey and started asking a question: what are the needs? You know listening to the community rather than coming in and telling them what to do. We wanted to hear from them. And that was the beginning of that process.
Joanna: How long… well, what are some of the positions you held on the board and how long have you been involved in this?
Charlene: So I was a resident association president for 12 years and I just recently decided to, just totally operate the non-profit organization which is Public Housing Communities Inc, and that organization we started about nine years ago and I was doing both at the same time. The beauty was that with what I was doing, I was able to get resources via the nonprofit that actually assisted the resident association but even beyond our resident association at Wyckoff, through the non profit we were able to help other resident associations around the city. That non-profit that we created was able to help get training, and to help get resident certified so that they could get jobs in the construction field so we looked at what were some of the other dynamics. And the youth, we got the youth involved, it was a funny story about that one because I am thinking and I am doing such a great job and I am helping all of these people and then I am walking down a block and group of the teenager says: “Miss Charlene, you don’t do anything for us”. And I am thinking, oh my god, didn’t we just go to the basketball game, didn’t we just do, because we were able, the non-profit was able to sign onto a community benefit agreement with the New York Nets, oops, the Brooklyn Nets, we were able to get basketball tickets to give to different communities and so when he said that to me it kind of shocked me and made me just stand there for a moment. I did for them what I thought was good, but they are telling me something different so I thought, you know what, come to the office, Wednesday night at 6 o’clock, and we are going to have a talk. “Tell all your friends”, and I started talking to all of the teams, and saying “meet me in my office Wednesday night at 6 o’clock”. So we started meeting in my office every Wednesday night at 6, from 6 to 8, and the first night it was 32 of them came to the office. And we are sitting here, and I just said, “what do you guys want?”. And they just said, “music, we want to learn about the music industry”. So I am automatically thinking, they just want to rap, and all of a sudden I find out about this rap, I’m sorry about this artist, he actually was a rapper, but I find that he was a three time platinum artist and he was coming into public housing and he was starting to do some music programs throughout the city and so I was introduced to him and so I thought you know what if I bring him in as a consultant you guys have to be committed to coming into the office and you have to attend the workshops. They said “we gonna come we gonna come”. He sat down in the room and he said, “what is it that you want to do in the music industry”. “I wanna rap”, “I wanna do videography”, “I wanna be an engineer”, I said “who is this people and where do they come from? Because I’m thinking they just wanna sing, not only just sing but they wanna rap”. But we started to see they were really involved so we started the music program and we used actually the HUD funding called the tenant participation dollars and is used to enhance the lives of the residents in the community. So we hired a consultant, we brought them in and they came in twice a week and the children learned how to use the cameras, they learned how, the engineering, one started a management business, they started an independent record label, they did their own video and we actually have a video of them where they are actually learning the fundamentals of music. And it just took off and yeah it was great.
Joanna: That sounds great! How can some of the HUD regulations change the lives of the residents outside of maybe that story that you just told us?
Charlene: I think it is really important for residents to understand the HUD regulations and how it could impact their lives. Each of those regulations, I am just going to talk about two in particular, 24CFR964 and 24CFR135. 964 teaches resident associations how to really set up their association, how they are supposed to really operate and how they should relate with the resources that are around them so that they can have a positive impact on the community of the residents that live there. And, then, 24CFR135 is self-sufficiency HUD regulation. That HUD regulation really speaks to how do you get people who maybe, they don’t have the proper training or they are not ready for a job but there are three prongs that is really key to that. There is a training component, there is a job placement component, and there is a business ownership component. And I think it is important for us to really take those HUD regulations and really share that wealth of knowledge with the residents and let them know, some people wanna just work and have careers and some people want to own their own businesses and those that own their own business, you could actually hire the people in the community to work for you. So I think it is really just utilizing the HUD regulations, that’s how we can really make a significant change in the lives of the people.
Joanna: What is your favorite memory from housing?
Charlene: Wow. My favorite memory. There’s multiple, wow that was a big one. You know what I think was the fondest memory was watching the young people really start to take ownership of where they live. What we do is we bring the young people in and they actually work for the non-profit and we teach them how to manage an office, you got to start off by sweeping and cleaning up the bathrooms, but I took them to a meeting and watching them engage with elected officials, and executives made me really proud to know that these are residents that came from public housing and we are really telling the truth of the positive energy and the positive people that live in public housing. So I think the fondest memory to me was watching the young people take what we were able to teach them and then really put it out there in the universe.
Joanna: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Charlene: I think I’m good.
Joanna: Thank you for your interview.