Putting public housing in focus Summer program sharpens skills of teen shutterbugs

August 12, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

THE MAN on the bus was trashing people who live in public housing. Kenya Watkins fumed.

Kenya is 14 and lives at Brooklyn Homes, one of Baltimore's 39 public housing developments. She could have lashed the man with her tongue. Instead, she thought of fighting back with another weapon: her camera.

"I wanted to go out and take pictures of my neighborhood," she said indignantly, "to let the man on the bus know my neighborhood is not like he thinks it is."

Kenya is one of six teen-agers who spent the past month and a half in a pilot program learning about photojournalism, and applying the lessons by taking pictures and writing stories about life in public housing.

The purpose of the program is to do something positive for teen-age public housing residents who excel in school -- to begin to teach them how to take pictures and write stories, to improve their job and communication skills and, at the same time, to provide them jobs. They worked four mornings a week in public-housing developments for elderly residents.

Charlotte Hall, a graduate student at the University of Baltimore, supervised the six teen-agers. She brought in journalists and other professionals to talk to them. She gave them cameras and tape recorders, assigned them stories to cover, took them on tours of newspapers and museums, and is overseeing a newsletter they're putting out that will contain their pictures and stories.

She also took them to New York City for a look at public housing there. According to Baltimore housing officials, 600,000 people live in public housing in New York City, compared to 40,000 in Baltimore. Of the 40,000 in Baltimore, 16,000 are younger than age 18.

The six in the program are Derrick Jones, 15, and Chantaye Adams, Nyisha Barnes, Tirrell Coates, Karena Metz and Kenya, all 14.

Nyisha wrote a story this summer about teen-age pregnancy. She interviewed and photographed the director of a family support center near her home. "I have a lot of friends who have children or are pregnant," she says, and she knows of a 10-year-old who was raped and who later gave birth to twins.

Chantaye, who lives at the Mount Winans development in South Baltimore, says it's important to remember that teen-age girls in private housing get pregnant and that people in private housing use drugs. Concern about stereotypes of public housing's residents runs deep among the program participants.

Kenya says the man on the bus, and lots of other people, too, would be surprised to know that her community is fairly peaceful. Their opinion of the projects is drugs and violence, she says.

Although Kenya didn't get the chance to document life in the development where she lives with her mother and brother, she and the others took lots of pictures of people and things they encountered during the program: children in fenced playgrounds, busy streets, buildings, a basketball court, a wheelchair, each other, relatives and friends. In their 15 rolls of film, there is only one picture of a police car. It was taken in New York.

"They call it the ghetto," says Nyisha, who lives at Cherry Hill Homes with her mother, whom she says is an entrepreneur, a private-duty nurse now who plans to open a day-care center soon. "It's like everyday living to me . . . . It's not where you live; it's how you live."

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City's Division of Family Support Services developed and runs the "Steps Toward Success" program, with help from its fine arts and recreation program and Resident Advisory Board, as well as Baltimore Commonwealth, which provides jobs and college opportunities for inner-city youth.

Samuel B. Little, assistant director of the Division of Family Support Services, said his department will run the program for at least the next three summers, and maybe even during the school year on weekends.

Karena, who lives at O'Donnell Heights in Southeast Baltimore, says she's learned a lot this summer -- about photography and writing, neither of which she likes too much -- and about communicating with people.

"I was real shy," she says. "I didn't want to answer nothing. I didn't want to ask nothing."

She describes her family as middle-class. Her mother is a housekeeper at Tremont Plaza, and sometimes she's the supervisor of all the housekeepers, Karena says. Karena has one brother. Her father doesn't live with them.

She learned something else, too, something about working that anybody who's held a job knows. This lesson is revealed in a question the children who live around her keep asking. They're real impressed that she has a job, she says. But they want to know why she comes home all the time with a headache.

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