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Moms redefine community in public housing

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-23 06:00:32-05

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the past year, journalist Elissa Yancey has been reporting stories of Cincinnati’s oldest public housing development, Winton Terrace, which neighbors call “Brick City.” Read her stories here. This fall, she produced and co-directed “The Sister Circle from Brick City” with director Tina Manchise and eight members of Winton Terrace’s Sister Circle support group. The complete script of the Sister Circle from Brick City performance includes three longer monologues from three cast members, each of whom represents a different generation of women in the neighborhood. 

To outsiders, public housing developments, like those in Winton Terrace, look like desperation. They're a place to be avoided and, whenever possible, ignored.

But the women who live in Cincinnati’s oldest public housing development proudly claim Winton Terrace as their home. It’s where they work every day to build a stronger community for themselves, and, most importantly, for their children and grandchildren.

Known as "Brick City" because of its blocks and blocks of red brick apartment buildings, Winton Terrace is a place where neighbors become sisters and sisters share stories and mothering duties instinctively. They are, in no small measure, the bricks that hold their city together.

RELATED: A prayer for Winton Terrace: Sister Circle 

Nowhere is that sense of sisterhood more powerful than in Sister Circle, a support group LaMonica Sherman of St. Vincent de Paul formed six years ago. In monthly Sister Circle meetings, women ages 15 to 71 share meals, conversations and hope.

“What does home smell like to you?” 

“Laundry detergent,” says a Sister, looking up from her notepad.

“Honeysuckle incense,” adds another, and a sigh of affirmation echoes through the room.

“Weed,” says a Sister who traces her roots to comedians and alcoholics. The room fills with laughter and understanding.

“Describe your family members, your homes.”

“My mother gave me up for foster care when I was 12,” shares one. “My first foster parents did a lot of heroin and even tried to shoot me up. When I turned 18, I got an apartment in Winton Terrace.”

“What kinds of sayings were common in your house when you were growing up?”

“You’ll never amount to anything,” the former foster child remembers.

“You have the gift,” says the youngest member, LaQuita Brown, 14.

“What song represents you and your home?”

“I’m So Tired of Being Alone,” says the single mom of four who has a son in prison.

“I Won’t Complain,” says Sherman.

Stories turned into songs, songs inspired more stories and a script emerged. A core of Sisters agreed to put nerves aside and give voice to their neighborhood beyond its borders.

Members of the Winton Terrace Sister Circle wore these T-shirts for their performance at the Contemporary Dance Theater in College Hill. Phil Didion for WCPO.

One afternoon this fall, a Sister who played a key role in the “Sister Circle from Brick City” performance made her way to a rehearsal weighed down with four grandchildren, aged 10 months to 4 years. Other Sisters had already heard that one of her daughters was in the hospital and had miscarried twins that day.

Without missing a beat, Sisters helped a few slightly older children who were in the neighborhood’s community room corral the littlest arrivals in a small hallway. Nikki Steele, a Sister who also serves as president of the neighborhood’s Resident Council, rolled out a television and set it to PBS.

Nikki Steele sings her solo in the Winton Terrace Sister Circle's performance at the Contemporary Dance Theater in College Hill

The 48-year-old grandmother, who entered the room with slumped shoulders, was soon leading off each practice run with an energy the others worked to match. She never forgot a line. After rehearsal, Sherman made sure she got to the hospital so she could check on her daughter.

As cast member Mae Gallaher, 71, explains: “It’s up to us to bring in the new generations of babies, to teach them what we weren’t taught. To let them know that they are loved. And they are not alone.”

The complete text of Sister Circle from Brick City

Copyright 2015

I am from clothes that smells like laundry detergent

I am from air that smells like weed.

I am from a dripping faucet.

From an iron skillet.

From flowered curtains

And Indian rugs.

And a loud TV that’s always on.

At the age of 16, I got pregnant. My parents wanted to raise my baby as their own, not as mine. “Could you please recognize me as her mother?” I asked.

“No,” they stated, “only as her older sister.” After all that had happened, they wanted me to finish high school. Finish high school? That was out of the equation. So at the age of 16, I married her father. I later became a mother of two, and then a single mother. When I look back, I have no regrets. It made me who I am today. I’m 71 years old, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. I’m studying to get my GED. It is up to us to bring up the babies and to teach them what we were not taught. And to let them know that they are loved, and they are not alone.

I am from 10 kids in a room.

I am from watching BET with my family and honeysuckle incense.

I am from foster homes and troubled marriages.

From “Go to field.” “Go to school.” “Go to work.”

I am from comedians and alcoholics

And I am from “My children are going to make it out of here.” From “You’ll never amount to anything.” From “You have the gift.”

I am from praise dancing and drag racing.

I am from roller-skating and church on Sundays.

I’m a preacher, a teacher, a praise dancer, a mother and a friend. I wake up and pray, go to sleep and pray, I pray without cease. My church is bigger than Sunday morning. My church is bigger than four walls. My church is Winton Terrace. My church is Sister Circle. In my church, everyone knows love. And no one is alone.

I am from collard greens and hot water cornbread.

I am from chitlins and oxtail soup.

From fried green tomatoes

From fried chicken

From fried everything.

I am from chicken and dumplings

And marshmallows roasted on a gas stove.

I am from “A house is not a home if there’s no one there to hold you tight.”

I am from “It’s a hard-knock life.”

I am from “I’m so tired of being alone.”

From “I won’t complain.”

From “I gotta be me.” And I am from “Let it rain.”

I am from a strong mother and a homeless shelter. From straight As and getting up at 6 in the morning to get to school on time. I’ll be the first person in my family to get a four-year degree—unless my mother gets her first. I’m from a neighborhood full of mothers, which means I can’t get away with anything. But that’s OK, because I know I’m not alone.

I am from a tribe of women.

I am from Brick City.

I am from a circle of stories.

I am from truth and pain.

I am from joy and faith.

We all come from many places. We all have a story to tell. And that is why we’re standing here today, to make a difference in this world. That’s why “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine."