No ceiling on her zeal for the poor

February 13, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

Bertina Nick commands attention.

A large woman inclined to bold colors and bright head scarves, she is not afraid to speak her mind. And when she speaks, people usually listen.

For more than 20 years, she has been speaking on behalf of the poor who live in Annapolis' public housing projects and on its fraying downtown streets.

She has fought to spread affordable housing throughout Anne ** Arundel County, helped organize tenant councils and embraced children of drug addicts, trying to give them hope.

don't know why I do it," Mrs. Nick said. "I've never been a person who does what others do. If I see a need and I feel like I can contribute, I just do it."

In one respect, Mrs. Nick's story is almost a cliche: Welfare mother and high school dropout fights her way off public assistance, returns to school, finds work and becomes a successful community leader.

But such a description is too simplistic. It fails to acknowledge her upbringing in a supportive family dominated by a grandmother who insisted that the children attend parochial schools.

And the cliche doesn't adequately describe Mrs. Nick herself, a woman who acknowledges that as a teen-ager she was wild and rebellious and as an adult has remained blunt-spoken and determined.

"One of Bertina's traits is that she is a very strong woman," said Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden, D-Ward 5, whose election campaign Mrs. Nick oversaw last fall. "People know where they stand when they deal with her."

Mrs. Nick was the first public housing resident to become head of the Annapolis Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners. She helped organize tenant councils in public housing projects. And she worked to build Greenbriar, a low-cost townhouse development.

Mrs. Nick, 46, said she has little tolerance for public officials who talk but do not act. "I'm not an establishment person," Mrs. Nick said.

She is not afraid to cross political boundaries, and has supported Republican and Democratic candidates in local elections. She is the kind of woman politicians want to please.

But she did not always command so much respect.

She had her first child at 15 and dropped out of school at 17 to marry. She and her husband lived in a number of dingy apartments and houses -- until he joined the Army and she was left to raise seven children alone.

She moved into the Robinwood public housing development when it opened and soon afterward took up the cause of affordable housing. "If people are to get a good life, they at least have to have shelter," she said.

Her first work in tenant organization came in 1970, when she volunteered with the Community Action Agency as part of a jobs program. Yevola Peters, then the agency's assistant director, chuckled when she recalled Mrs. Nick in those days.

"She didn't bite her tongue," Mrs. Peters said.

Although publicly brazen, Mrs. Nick was secretively unsure of herself, Mrs. Peters remembered. "She had a tendency to doubt her capabilities."

But Mrs. Nick showed remarkable skill at organizing community groups and developing housing programs.

The two women became good friends, working together with the South County Residential Projects Inc., an independent branch of the Community Action Agency, to develop low-income housing in Anne Arundel.

Mrs. Nick continues to direct the nonprofit group, as well as consult on housing issues throughout the state. She has returned to her old neighborhood on West Clay Street in Annapolis to help residents reclaim the community from crime and poverty.

She wants to organize the Clay Street residents and teach them how to take charge of the community, to fight bureaucrats she said have tried to impose programs without listening to what the residents wanted.

When she was growing up, residents left their doors unlocked and looked out for everyone's children. Today the elderly now are afraid to even sit on their porches.

But Mrs. Nick refuses to be intimidated. As she moves about the neighborhood, it seems everyone knows her. She is not afraid to bawl out teen-agers using foul language or a pedestrian who tries to throw trash in her yard.

"It's just not in me. I don't know what it is like to be afraid," she said.

When she considers the conditions in which many of Annapolis' poor residents live, she said she regrets that she has not been able to do more.

But Mr. Snowden said she may have done more than she realizes.

"She is a living example of what is possible with determination," he said.

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