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After struggling as a child, mother and grandmother in Charlottesville public housing, Mary Anderson wants to help a new generation thrive

A woman in a gray t-shirt smiles for the camera in front of a brick building with columns.

The Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents offers paid internships to residents of public housing and recipients of Section-8 housing vouchers. Over the course of six months, for approximately 10 hours each week, PHAR interns learn about national and local housing policies, community resources, public speaking, and more, with the goal of using their knowledge and voices to influence the decisions made about their homes and communities.

Mary Anderson has always been a curious person. When she was a little girl in the 1970s, she would sit in a tree outside her grandma’s Westhaven home, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watching the goings-on of the neighborhood.

That curiosity is what led her to the Public Housing Association of Residents internship program. A friend of hers completed the internship, and as she told Anderson about it, Anderson wanted to find out what the program could do for her.

Anderson, who turns 59 next month, described herself as “a workaholic” with one daughter and one granddaughter. She knows a lot about Westhaven and Hardy Drive — between bites of those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she had her eyes and ears on the neighborhood. Plus, she now lives in the apartment where her grandmother lived, across the street from her brother, who lives in their mother’s home. She knew a lot about the public housing community, but throughout the course of her internship she learned about the public housing system — what’s going well, what’s not, and what the city and other housing administration programs can improve upon.

In 2021, Anderson was one of the first community members to complete the City of Promise Dreambuilders program, which focuses on helping adults become more self-sufficient. In that program, Anderson said she became a better reader, learned how to better manage finances, and prepared to take her driver’s test. She also learned how to rest.

A few weeks after completing the PHAR internship, Anderson shared some of her newfound knowledge — and some of what she’s known for years — with Charlottesville Tomorrow. She talks, too, about how going through both the PHAR internship and the Dreambuilders program took her life in a direction she never expected, a direction she’s proud of.

This interview has been edited lightly for length.

Charlottesville Tomorrow: What was the internship like? What were you doing, what did you learn?

Mary Anderson: I learned a lot of history, culture history. Where PHAR started from, for the poor Blacks, to where we’re at now. We learned about schools, zoning, different people and their names. Ms. Nikuyah Walker, I already knew her — I was in drug court one time, and she was one of my counselors, and then she was the mayor. I learned, that different people, different parts of Charlottesville are connected by Black history. I really enjoyed a lot of that.

I know a lot of people, so I was out in the community a lot. I talked to a lot of people, a lot of people came out to talk to me. I did basically whatever needed to be done, when I wasn’t working — I work for City of Promise now.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues facing the community right now?

I think that some of the people who work for housing [organizations and programs], they still don’t have the connection with the housing. There’s been a lot of shut doors. There’s a lot of doors opening, that they don’t want to open up. They don’t want us to know our rights, but we need to know. There’s a lack of communication there.

The PHAR program is opening the doors, teaching us to communicate with other people and programs. A lot of people have felony charges, other charges, from when they were younger, 17, 18, 20. [Note: Such charges can affect people’s ability to get jobs as well as their eligibility for certain income and housing assistance programs.] But now everybody’s getting older and realizing that we do have to work, we do have to have a place to live. But not everybody’s communicating with housing, with the outside world, with City of Promise. Everybody just wants to find a little space. And now I’m like, “well, we could….”

What could, or should, be done about all these closed doors?

I think they need to be forced open a little bit more. I think everybody needs to stay close and see, “If it’s working for them, it can work for me.” It can take a little time for some people to learn, because the attitude is, “I don’t care,” or “I don’t want it,” or “I want it, but I can’t.” The negative part will hit before the positive part. I used to do that too, like, “I ain’t interested,” or, “I heard about it, but I don’t want to go to that meeting.” Or, “I don’t know how to go.”

We should be just out walking around, and seeing, asking questions, and if it don’t fit, it don’t fit, and if it does, it does. I found out that a lot of things fit, people just have no understanding about it.

I’m like that. It takes a lot for me to understand. I have to ask over and over again, even when it’s something simple. I fight with it a lot. Some people already know it, and they will let you stand there and ask the same question over and over again, so I think that’s where a lot of the frustrations are coming from, why they can’t get no one to come out to participate in programs and stuff like that.

What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in Charlottesville in your time here?

I see that Charlottesville has grown. Charlottesville has grown so much, and they’re really trying to grow to put the low-income in the area where the middle class at, or the higher class at — they’re really trying to make us grow. I’m looking around at a lot of jobs that came here. I know when I started working, that was 1977-78 — I had my daughter in ’77 — it was Burger King, it was Long John Silver’s, it was Hardee’s. I remember the big cash register, where you had to press it with the big numbers, and ring the thing! Ain’t no computers, no cell phones, stuff like that.

[Now] we have a lot of different hotels [to work at]. We got the university hospital, we got the Downtown Mall, we got the students up on Main Street. We got the stores. And it ain’t the buildings, it’s the people — the doors have opened so much.

They’re remodeling [public housing] now, Sixth Street and First Street. They have to. They have to, because we have to come into the new generation that’s coming up. A lot of people tell me, “I don’t want to be there.” I don’t know why they don’t want to, but they’re not looking at it like they’re going to have a better building wherever they’re at. They’re going to be up to date with all the stuff that’s come out.

There’s been tension: “Where are we going to live at?” and “They’re taking our homes away from us.” But they’re just taking our home and making it better. It ain’t taking our hurt. My mom lived here and she passed away here. That’s not going to be taken away.

They [Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority] are just going to make us live better for our kids, our grandkids, and their kids, to live better so that they are really promised their tomorrow.

Charlottesville has really grown a lot, and a lot of people have tried to participate in it.

What is going well, that the city, the community, should be doing more of?

PHAR. PHAR has grown a lot. The older group of leaders have stepped down and a let a younger group come in, and they’re wonderful, they’re patient, they’re very understanding. I give them praise, they give me praise. It goes hand in hand.

I didn’t even think I was going to graduate [from the internship], because I was doing it between work and everything. But they did a wonderful job, and now I can see the future, how they’re going to help people, more people, out here in Charlottesville, and people on the outskirts, too.

Westhaven was always a family place. Children were never left by themselves. If parents had to work, there was always a neighbor, and kids were always safe and sound. It’s always been a tight place, a very tight place.

But for a long time, it [opportunity] was just blocked. It was blocked for Hardy Drive.

I used to be a street mentality person, a jail person, fighting back in my day. Everybody’s so proud of me now. My family’s so proud. I changed my life around, to grow to be a lady, a better woman, a better grandmother, try to be a better mother. It’s just amazing, seeing myself, and my name, on different things like my PHAR and City of Promise diplomas. I never thought I would ever be this, because growing up, it was always negativity: “You’re never going to be this, you’re never going to do that,” and growing up with that, that’ll keep you where you are. But I guess I was a fighter.

Now opportunity is for everyone, everywhere: Sixth, Tenth Streets, Twelfth Street, because everybody started communicating, coming out to things. I have seen a lot of people that are open-minded like I am, and we pass around knowledge.

I’ll be turning 59 in September, and I think that a higher God brought me back here to the exact same spot that I was raised up as a child. I guess there was a purpose. I’m just opening up my eyes.