By Robert Holly/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — Think positive, stay focused and take one day at a time.
As a girl, those are the words Margaret Neil told herself when her mother passed away from a likely aneurism.
They were the same words she vowed when staying strong for her son, who school teachers said stared out the window with tears in his eyes, after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 27.
And now, they are the words that guide her actions as the newly elected chairman of the Champaign County Housing Authority’s board of commissioners, a position Neil promises to approach with the same enthusiasm and fight as she lives her life.
It is a promise those who are close to her believe she’ll keep.
Neil has been a resident of public housing since she moved into the former Joann Dorsey homes when her children grew up and left home. Her firsthand experience gives her unique and valuable insight into the public housing community.
“I’ve got just a tremendous amount of respect for Margaret and for her fight,” said Ervin Williams, executive director of Restoration Urban Ministries, who has known Neil about 15 years. “She’s a fighter, she’s going to voice her opinions, she doesn’t hide her faith and she is really concerned about poor people – she’s genuine.”
Neil becomes chairman during a tumultuous time for the housing authority, as community members have been voicing their displeasure over voucher distribution, Bristol Park and “Resolution 2012-27,” a proposal to include preferences to the voucher application process. During her first board meeting as chairman, Champaign resident Martel Miller even demanded two commissioners resign.
But, Grant Henry, the commissioner who nominated Neil as chairman, said he believes Neil’s positive attitude and lengthy experience as a resident leader will bring harmony to the community, the board and the housing authority.
He said Neil’s more than 20 years of living in public housing allowed her to forge relationships with building mangers and the housing authority’s administration. Over the years, as Neil became progressively more active in the community, she acquired the experience needed to make informed decisions from the critical position of chairman, according to Henry.
Nobody opposed his nomination of Neil.
“I could see her integrity and enthusiasm for serving the residents, and that kind of grew on me,” said Henry. “Over the past four years, I could tell that she had a burning desire to try and do as much as she could to bring about transparency, awareness and understanding for the residents of Dorsey and the other housing units.”
Henry said his appreciation for Neil’s commitment was solidified in June of 2008, when the remodeled Joann Dorsey Community Center was named in her honor, and she received the Embracing Resident Empowerment Award.
The award, which Neilproudly keeps copies of, was the first given by the housing authority to a resident. She earned it for being “a champion in working to empower disadvantaged youth, adults and families” and for being “an advocate for those without a voice.”
For instance, as a resident she helped develop the Juniors Achieving a Mission council, a group that strives to ensure young students living at Dorsey have an educational, safe and engaging after-school program. Since then, the council has sent promising students to leadership conferences and orchestrated community service projects.
In 2005, Neil got together with other residents and made a cookbook, which was later published and sold to raise money for community events and programs.
Neil said her path from being a resident, to a commissioner to chairman “has come full circle,” and that she remembers sitting in the audience at board meetings in 1992 wanting to sit behind the commissioners’ table.
“They would talk about the policies and housing issues for residents, for seniors,” said Neil. “And the more I became involved with residents, the more I knew that sitting on that board I could be the voice for residents that never attend board meetings.”
Earlier this year, she was given an opportunity to be that voice.
In July, the housing authority attempted passing a resolution lowering the worth of vouchers to 70 percent of fair market value. For example, if the average price of an apartment was $500, the housing authority would give residents vouchers for $400 and they would be obligated to make up the difference.
Neil said she recognized the effect the change would have on rent-burdened households and voiced her concerns to the board. When she spoke, she said the other members didn’t listen, and she felt ignored.
So instead of talking, she took action, organizing a picket to protest the change.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Neil. “So, we had to picket.”
Neil said the picket “blindsided” the authority, and, later that day, it dropped the proposal.
As chairman and a resident, Neil said she believes she could further eliminate the gap between the community and the policy makers. She said one of the most important things is to simply keep the board and Housing Authority informed by using a resident’s perspective.
Neil’s dedication to her job as a commissioner is also evident in her attendance. This year, she has been one of the only commissioners to attend every meeting, according to the housing authority.
Growing up in Painesville
Neil, 61, isn’t originally from Champaign. She grew up in Painesville, Ohio, a middle-class community outside Cleveland. Neil, her sister Bernice and her brother Joseph lived in a neighborhood where she said, “If there was poverty, we didn’t know about it.” Her house was the first on the block to get storm windows on the front porch, installed to protect the family’s piano which Neil was encouraged to practice.
In 1962, Neil’s father worked at a textile factory but retired when her mother suddenly passed away from what was reported as “a stroke of the brain and a heart attack.” At the time, Neil was 11.
Finding a home in Champaign
The day her mother died, Neil’s family was preparing to visit family in Georgia. In the afternoon, her mom gave Neil and Bernice money to “buy goodies and books and things to take on the train.”
When they got home, a neighbor called to ask to speak with her dad because her mother was in the hospital. The neighbor was driving behind Neil’s mom when she abruptly pulled over, complaining of a terrible headache. Hours later, she passed away.
“My father, after my mother died, he tried extra hard,” said Neil. “Having double-duty, he did above and beyond what he could to make us happy.”
Although she was devastated, Neil said her mother’s death forced her to become mature at a young age and inspired her to work “extra hard” in order to make her parents proud.
In school, Neil said she was an honor student who excelled in history. She dreamed of“being Barbara Walters” and practiced her reporting skills in the mirror, her hair brush serving as a microphone.
But, school counselors had other plans and directed her toward the life of a housewife, said Neil.
“Counselors would never talk to you about college,” she said. “They’d always ask, ‘Are you going to get married and have children?’”
At the time, only one black person could go on to higher education and there wasn’t room for anybody else, said Neil. In her class, it was Jeanine Hamilton, who was the first black homecoming queen and a cheerleader.
Neil eventually married, meeting her husband in Painesville when he was stationed at a military base nearby. She moved with him to his hometown – Champaign.
Eventually, the couple divorced, but Neil decided to remain in Champaign because she liked the community and said it was a nice place for her three children – James, Anissa and Yolanda – to grow up.
Neil moved into public housing when her children left home, and she wanted a smaller apartment. She said she never imagined living in public housing, but – because of opportunities to get involved in the community – she considers the move one of the best decisions she ever made.
Her children are all in their 40s now and have children of their own.
Neil’s granddaughter, Brittany, said her grandmother is caring, loyal and “really likes to help people in need.” But she said her grandmother is strong-willed, and people’s belief that Neil will help “keep things in order” is accurate.
As chairman, Neil has many issues to resolve but because of her background and success in the face of adversity, her supporters, like her granddaughter, have faith in her capabilities.
“We have a couple things that need to get straightened out and need better awareness and understanding,” said Henry. “I think she has the expertise and insight to get us over the hump and get us in the direction we need to go.”