An Afternoon of Good Times

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The second annual National Public Housing Museum fundraiser, billed “An Afternoon of Good Times,” was attended by a sold-out crowd of cheering guests, eager to applaud the hard-working hosts and their choice of honorees, former public housing resident luminaries and their achievements. The welcome address by Chicago Housing Authority officials Joyce Chou and Scott Ammaral was a smooth take-off into an illuminating program.

Next, Ald. Walter Burnett (21) graciously introduced Bern Nadette Stanis aka “Thelma” from the popular 1970s television sit-com “Good Times,” which brought Chicago’s own Cabrini Green public housing development into focus nationwide. She is the national spokesperson for the museum and was the mistress of ceremonies for the event. Stanis’ background includes a past of actually living in the Brownsville Housing Development in Brooklyn, N.Y.

CHA tenant leader Francine Washington (right) is joined with actress Bern Nadette Stanis, also known as "Thelma" on the "Good Times" television sitcom, and Keith McGee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, after receiving an award from the museum during their "An Afternoon of Good Times" event at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 10, 2011. Photo by Jacqueline Thompson

As a part of the afternoon’s theme honoring former residents through the “Telling Our Stories” Award, she shared with the audience the important message from her father that gave her the confidence to grow naturally, by understanding that, “What’s around you does not have to be in you.” The sound inspiration coming from within her home life gave her strength and courage “to do better than what ‘they’ said my future could only be. Thank you.”

On that note, Stanis addressed the awardees who had been gathered from across the country by reciting Lorraine Hansberry’s famous poem, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Each ‘Story Teller’ was given an opportunity to share their paths through “social segregation to the fulfillment of their dreams to become accomplished adult members of society and thereby rescuing them from becoming a ‘dried up raisin in the sun.’ Large video screens brought each presentation up close and personal.

Inez Medor, from an Atlanta, Ga. housing development, addressed her comments to “the powers that be.” She said, “All people can be successful, including black people. Let’s not do things that fail. It is the responsibility of the people who do things that cause failure. First, it was slavery. Second, it was civil rights. It is when ‘they’ start tapping into the unlimited potential to empower, based on capacity, when entire people come together, all children can succeed.”

Then Medor gave thanks to Keith McGee, the museum’s executive director, and the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Victoria Rowell told of her life as a foster child living in public housing and all the love and mentoring she got from “Nine Women,” which is incidentally the title of a book that is currently on the market. Rowell, a ballerina, actress and author, said, “The people who gave me art at times didn’t have much but they had heart, they had soul and everything that goes with those things they shared with me. That allowed me to grow into a successful adult. And for that, I give thanks.

“Many great things happened early in life for me, even though all things were not so great. At seven years old, I won a Ford Foundation grant to study ballet and later went on to train and dance professionally under the auspices of the American Ballet, Twyla Tharp Workshop and the Juilliard School before becoming an actress.”

Rueben Cannon, a film and TV producer, shared his experiences growing up with other brilliant, observant peers who lived in the same public housing development on Chicago’s South Side – the now-demolished Harold Ickes Homes.

“My mother bought me a suit I wanted from a catalogue that had changing parts to it and I was so proud of it, I wore it to school,” Cannon recalled. “And what did I do that for? I forgot I went to school with friends I had bested at signifying, and man, they had seen the suit too and they knew all about the chart that showed how to change the parts. They bested me that day and we became closer friends, through less signifying and more laughter. No shooting. No fighting. Friendship only. One time, I noticed our shower heads were not functional, so I got busy, got a chance to get hold to a few better ones, and went into a small business for a short time. Life for me in public housing was learning, doing and joining in ‘Good Times’ with my widowed mother and sisters and brother.”

Francine Washington, vice president of the Central Advisory Council and president of the Washington Park Local Advisory Council, was very proud to share her story of living in public housing too. Her opening statement grabbed everyone’s attention right away: “Can you imagine what public housing has done for families?”

This got a warm response from persons in the audience, some of whom were still residents and some who formerly lived in public housing.

Washington continued, “The way we lived, we were never really poor, no money, but never poor. We were neighborly. We helped one another. Our children were friends. And I still have my mother, my bestest friend.”

At this point, Washington had her mother stand, and the audience applauded.

“I have worked in the community to help keep the peace and with the Local Advisory Council to help encourage residents to continue participation in our connection with Chicago Housing Authority.”

The friendly, cordial, happy atmosphere of the guests confirmed the Museum’s event was as advertised, “An Afternoon of Good Times.”

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