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An Exhibit Offers A Different Angle On Life In Public Housing

Ephraim Benton, a former resident of Tompkins Houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, is now an actor. Benton started a community-based organization called Beyond Influencing Da Hood, which puts on health fairs, film festivals and various free community events in his old housing project. This photo was taken in front of his old building in Tompkins Houses. (Courtesy of Shino Yanagawa)

Life in public housing sometimes can be difficult, but it's also a lot like life anywhere — made up mostly of work, school, family and friends. Still, many who don't live in public housing have a negative image of those who do.

Two former residents are trying to change that.

Rico Washington is one of them. The 38-year-old with long dreadlocks and a neatly trimmed beard grew up in Kimberly Gardens public housing apartments in Laurel, Md. When he was younger he was embarrassed about where he lived, he says, and would have co-workers drop him off down the street.

"I would wait till they had gone far down [Maryland Route] 197 and then I would double back and start walking towards Kimberly Gardens," he says.

Today, Washington is no longer embarrassed. He knows that many hard-working, incredible people live in public housing, despite the stereotypes of drugs, crime and despair.

'You Can Always Choose Your Path'

It was the 2009 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that inspired him to act, he says.

"People just could not believe that this woman was from public housing," he says. "I mean, she had had 15 years of experience on the bench. She also had two Ivy League degrees."

So Washington, now a writer in New York City, decided to try bringing other public housing success stories to light.

He teamed up with Shino Yanagawa, a photographer who had her own perceptions of public housing when she moved to New York from Japan in 2004.

At first she was excited when her then-husband told her they'd be living in public housing — in part, she says, because Western hip-hop music made it sound very cool.

"I thought it's going to be super-exciting!" she recalls. "I know it sounds crazy, but this is what happen when you grow up in Tokyo and listen to a lot of hip-hop."

Instead, she found crime, hopelessness, and urine in the elevators. But Yanagawa says she also saw other things there — families struggling for a decent life, and people like her ex-husband, who emerged to become a doctor.

She decided that she wanted to send a message to those growing up in housing projects "that you can always choose what you want, you can always choose your path."

So Washington and Yanagawa interviewed and photographed dozens of current and former public housing residents about their lives for a project that they hope will add something to the national conversation about stereotypes and race. Their work is currently an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society called We The People.

Breaking Beyond Stereotypes

The display includes numerous photos of public housing residents who have had successes, both large and small.

Washington points to one photo showing a young man sitting on a couch, laughing with his mother. His name is Brian Paupaw. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, Washington says, but got a scholarship to attend Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan.

While Paupaw was there, Washington says, a white roommate invited him to go snowboarding.

"And he was like, 'Nah, that's something that white people do,' " says Washington. " 'Black people don't snowboard — that's crazy. Why would I want to do that?' "

But Paupaw decided to go anyway — and it changed his life. He became an accomplished snowboarder and started a nonprofit called the Hoods To Woods Foundation, which takes teens from the inner city snowboarding, rock climbing and hiking.

Another photo depicts an elderly woman in a striped housedress and straw hat, staring into the distance.

"Susie Mushatt Jones," Washington says. "She's a centenarian. We interviewed her when she was 111."

Washington says Jones lived in Vandalia Houses in Brooklyn. She worked her entire life as a domestic servant, but managed to save up enough to help four nieces go to college, something she was unable to do herself.

Lessons In Doing More With Less

The stories in the exhibit involve some who are little-known and others famous, like hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. If there's a common theme, Washington says, it's that almost everyone they talked to said living in public housing actually helped them succeed, by teaching them how to do more with less.

Ephraim Benton, an actor who grew up in the Tompkins housing project in Brooklyn, is one of those profiled. As a teenager Benton, now 36, was involved in gangs and arrested for felony assault.

But because he was a minor, he says, he got a second chance — an opportunity to attend acting school. Benton has since appeared on television shows like Law and Order, and in movies such as the Oscar-winning Precious.

Coming from the projects, Benton says, helped him become who he is today.

"Seeing so much, you know, heartache and pain growing up, it helped me connect more with my emotions as far as characters," he says, sitting in the yard outside the eight brick buildings that make up the complex.

Benton doesn't live at Tompkins any more, but often returns; he's set up several programs, including an outdoor movie series, to help keep teens here occupied and out of trouble. He also hopes they see from his example that there is a way out.

"You know, these kids out here, they don't feel like nobody cares about them," he says.

It's an attitude that Washington and Yanagawa think is exacerbated by the stereotypes those young people face, and that their exhibit could do a bit to correct.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, images of public housing and the people who live there. Public housing is often seen through a negative lens, and two former residents are trying to change that. NPR's Pam Fessler has their story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Rico Washington relaxes on a bench outside Kimberly Gardens - that's the housing project in Laurel, Maryland, where he grew up. Washington's 38 with long dreadlocks and a neatly trimmed beard. He says when he was young he was embarrassed to live here. He had coworkers drop him off down the street.

RICO WASHINGTON: I would wait until they had gone far down 197, and then I would double back and start walking towards Kimberly Gardens.

FESSLER: Today, he's no longer embarrassed. He knows many hard-working, incredible people live in public housing despite the stereotypes of drugs, crime and despair. Washington says it was the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that convinced him he had to do something.

WASHINGTON: People just could not believe that this woman was from public housing. I mean, she had had 15 years of experience on the bench. She also had two Ivy League degrees.

FESSLER: So he decided, as a writer now living in New York City, to bring other success stories to light. He teamed up with photographer Shino Yanagawa, who had her own images of public housing when she moved to New York from Japan. At first she was excited when her then-husband said they'd be living in the projects.

SHINO YANAGAWA: I thought it was going to be super-exciting. And I know it sounds crazy, but this is what happens when you grow up in Tokyo and listening to a lot of hip-hop.

FESSLER: She says Western hip-hop music made public housing in America seem very cool. Instead, she found crime, urine in the elevators, hopelessness. But Yanagawa says she also saw something else - families struggling for a decent life and people like her ex-husband who emerged from public housing to become a doctor.

YANAGAWA: So I wanted to give the opportunity to the children in housing projects that you can always choose what you want. You can always choose your path.

WASHINGTON: We can start, I guess, here.

FESSLER: Washington and Yanagawa have now interviewed and photographed dozens of current and former public housing residents about their lives. The result is an exhibit called We The People at the Brooklyn Historical Society. They hope it adds something to the national conversation about stereotypes and race.

WASHINGTON: This is Brian Paupaw.

FESSLER: Washington points to one photo on display of a young man sitting on a couch, laughing with his mother. Paupaw grew up in public housing in Brooklyn but got a scholarship to attend Parsons The New School for Design. Washington says while Paupaw was there, a roommate invited him to go snowboarding.

WASHINGTON: He was like, nah, that's something that white people do, you know. Black people don't snowboard. That's crazy. Why would I want to do that?

FESSLER: But he did go, and it changed his life. Paupaw became a prolific snowboarder and started a non-profit called Hoods To The Woods. It takes teens from the inner city to go snowboarding, rock climbing and hiking.

WASHINGTON: Susie Mushatt Jones.

FESSLER: The next photo shows an elderly woman in a striped housedress and straw hat, staring into the distance.

WASHINGTON: She's a centenarian. We interviewed her at - she was 111.

FESSLER: Washington says Jones, who lived in Brooklyn public housing, worked her entire life as a domestic. But she managed to save up enough to help four nieces go to college, something she was unable to do.

WASHINGTON: This is Dr. Tony Medina.

FESSLER: He's now a poet and professor at Howard University. The stories go on and on, from the little-known to those more recognized, like hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. Washington says if there's a common theme, it's that almost everyone they talked to said that living in public housing actually helped them to succeed. They learned how to do more with less.

EPHRAIM BENTON: My name is Ephraim Benton. I am 36 years old, soon to be 37. And I am from Tompkins projects.

FESSLER: Which is also in Brooklyn. Benton is profiled in the exhibit. As a teen he was involved in gangs and arrested for felony assault. But he got a second chance - an opportunity to attend acting school. He's now a professional actor appearing on TV and in movies. He says coming from the projects was a plus.

BENTON: Seeing so much, you know, heartache and pain and growing up, it helped me connect more with my emotions as far as characters.

FESSLER: He says he can cry at the drop of a hat. Benton doesn't live at Tompkins anymore but returns often. He's set up several programs, like an outdoor movie series, to keep teens here occupied and out of trouble. He also hopes they see from his example that there is a way out.

BENTON: You know, these kids out here, they don't feel like nobody cares about them.

FESSLER: An attitude that Washington and Yanagawa think is exacerbated by stereotypes and make some of them embarrassed to admit where they live. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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