Sitting Down With the Browns
Some Habitat families exceed all expectations and make us wish that our DC program could be twice its size. The story of Harvey and Juanita Brown is just that type of story. Harvey and Juanita grew up in the District of Columbia, not too far from where they currently live. Harvey’s father had troubles of his own, and though his mom raised him until age seven, at that point he was often moving from one parent’s house to the other. Juanita’s father pushed her to excel from an early age and she was an active member of her school and community. They lived next to each other, and he used to see her while taking out the trash. Their story took shape on the day that Harvey mustered up the courage to talk to Juanita. As successful and involved as she was, he knew that he wanted to be a better person because of her. “I was a bum, my friends used to do my homework and I would cheat on tests,” he says, self-deprecatingly. Nearly thirty years after they first moved in together, they now live in their Habitat house on 54th St., where they have resided for the last eight years.
They have three children, though only their youngest lives with them now. They recall how they finished all 300 of their sweat equity hours in one summer. “Our youngest child was two at the time. We needed someone to watch him, but we knew that once the summer was over, our children had to go back to school and we would be without a babysitter.” They worked tirelessly. Harvey and Juanita remember working on all of their neighbors’ houses and even the houses completed years after their own. “I stuck to what I knew best,” says Harvey, but Juanita learned everything. Plumbing, roofing, heating, you name it, she was learning it. Now, when the sink breaks, Juanita is there to fix it, often saving the family hundreds of dollars by fixing problems herself. “Families would come up and ask me to take a look at their air conditioning unit!” she says, half abashedly and half glowing, “it was a great way to save us money.”
Today their children are living proof of how great parenting and a stable home environment can have an effect on dissolving the bonds of poverty. Their eldest daughter Maleka is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Howard University, set to complete her PhD in developmental psychology this March. Alex, their middle child, was a student at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, pursuing museum studies and was the first in the family to leave the country when he visited Barcelona, Spain a few years ago. Now grown, their youngest child, Emmanuel, is an honor roll student in middle school. Anytime they speak of their children, both Harvey and Juanita beam with pride, and it’s obvious that these children were raised in a loving household.
Harvey and Juanita have dreams and accomplishments of their own. Harvey worked in architectural design before resigning due to discrimination. He decided to work for himself, with forays in garment manufacturing and shuttle driving. For many years now, Harvey has shuttled kids from the community on Saturday mornings to a gym in Virginia. It was through these trips that Harvey lost over 100 pounds as he ran around with the children, and he wants to continue his effort to bulk up. Meanwhile, he’s tried to be a good dad and loving husband.
Juanita, who had scored a 1600 on her SATs, was set to become an anesthesiologist, but decided against it. “Why do something if you’re not going to be happy?”she says. Last year, she published a book (available on Amazon) titled Wisdom: Spiritual Insight and she is already working on another one. In addition to that, she manages the family’s finances. When her husband lost his job during the financial downturn, it was their investments that kept them going. In the future, Harvey and Juanita hope to work in the community. They have dreams of opening a center that would be open at all hours, day and night, a place that would be safe and teach kids about health, giving, homeownership, and spirituality.
When they reflect on their experience with Habitat, they acknowledge that the program made many things possible. Before becoming Habitat homeowners, they lived in public housing projects in Kenilworth. “We had gotten to a point where we were just like, ‘Why bother?’ But they [Habitat] got us fighting again.” When they heard about Habitat, they arrived the next day with all the required paperwork. Chopping away at their sweat equity hours and attending the homeowner financial education courses “kept us on track,” they say. “Stability” is the word that Juanita offers to describe their gains from the Habitat process. They reflect that Habitat “has been vital” in helping the community connect. Working on houses and community builds enabled conversation to occur among community residents who would have otherwise not communicated.
Even so, they admit the community is confronted by problems. Drugs and violence are common in their neighborhood, and they constantly work to keep these problems off their doorstep. They have attended neighborhood meetings and civic associations; they have confronted drug dealers and stopped fights in their community. Though the problems persist, Harvey and Juanita Brown have upheld their responsibility to the community and utilized their influence as home owners to try to effect change. Little more could be asked of them.
The Brown family is an indispensable asset to their community. They have faced racism and poverty, violence and fear, inaction and disillusionment, but the most impressive feat of their lives is their ability to have done it with the compassion and enthusiasm that they exude. It is with pleasure that DC Habitat was able to partner with them, and we hope they will continue to inspire and nurture, as they have done for so many years.
You can watch the Brown’s tell their story and share experiences in our video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ikcCf08SjQ