Inside the Bricks - Episode 3: How To Start

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The monthly Woodhill Homes management meeting happens in the gleaming gym and auditorium space inside the Woodhill Community Center.

Based on my experiences attending a few sessions, it's largely a space for residents to voice discontent — about everything from unanswered maintenance calls to disrespectful neighbors.

That's why resident Julian Grossman stood out to me from the moment I first met him at one of those sessions. He rose from his chair and, in what I would come to recognize as his trademark understated manner, asked what would happen if residents worked together to solve problems. To build on the positives of Woodhill Homes — its stability, its convenient location, its people — alongside the shortcomings that result mostly from a chronically underfunded public housing system.

From there, I had the chance to hang out with Julian quite a bit over several months. I learned that the 48-year-old chef and line cook not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. Although he confessed to moments of self-doubt and depression, I found that Julian's hustle and drive to find meaningful and well-paid work was matched only by his pursuit of bigger goals.

For example, he had an idea to start a nonprofit cooking program at Woodhill for dads and their kids. He attended meetings of a local group planning to start an employee-owned laundry business in the neighborhood. (Woodhill Homes does not have in-unit laundry facilities or a central laundry room.)

Julian also invited me to join him on a job interview at Chillie's, a popular deli within walking distance of Woodhill Homes. This experience taught me that sometimes, finding and keeping a job can be a catch-22 for residents. Rewarding and well-paid though the job may be, a change in employment status often triggers an increase in rent. The added expense can leave residents feeling budget-strained even as they're working long hours.

Some residents, including Kisha Nixon from Episode 2, find a way around this dilemma by enrolling in a goals program that allows residents to save their extra rent money in escrow.

Others pursue vocations and passions without taking much or any payment.

Dequan Jackson is one of those people. He's a 21-year-old artist who occasionally takes commissions for tattoos and other pieces of private art. On the first page of his sketchbook is a poem he wrote to keep himself motivated. It's called "How to Start." The first line reads: "Write, draw, remember, cry, laugh, love."

I can't help but look at the work and self-discipline that Dequan and Julian are displaying here at Woodhill, and compare the rewards they're getting to what they'd get in a whiter and more affluent neighborhood.

In this episode, co-host Jeanette Marbley and I listen to their stories, then grapple with some big questions. How are people's work opportunities influenced by race and circumstance? To what extent do government policies around public housing and poverty discourage and oppress Black entrepreneurs and workers?

“Inside the Bricks: Woodhill Homes,” an ideastream podcast, focuses on one of the nation’s earliest public housing neighborhoods on the eve of its planned reconstruction. It's made possible by a grant from the Saint Luke's Foundation.

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