By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers
July 8, 2012
When Sunny Fischer was 4, her family moved into a new apartment with a shiny stove and easy access to green space and playgrounds.
"The schools were great — I had terrific teachers," Fischer says.
"There was a library within the development that I used to go to all the time. I can still remember the librarian's name — and this was a really long time ago."
When Fischer says that that's what public housing can be, it's tough to argue with her. The development where Fischer lived actually was public housing: the Eastchester Projects in the Bronx.
Fischer, 67, has traveled a long way from there to executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, an influential position in Chicago philanthropy. But even today, striking black and white photos of public housing hang on the walls of her Michigan Avenue office, along with art prints, elegiac landscapes and photos of the grandkids. And Fischer's job description at Driehaus, a family foundation that supports the preservation and enhancement of the built and natural environments, includes overseeing grants aimed at improving the quality of architecture and design in less affluent neighborhoods.
Fischer, who also chairs the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency board of trustees, has been involved in funding projects through Driehaus ranging from a makeover for a North Side welfare office to an award-winning restoration of what is now the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, north of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
"I think the Driehaus Foundation has a really important role to play in raising the issue of public interest design, making it more fundable, making it more a way that people can see it as problem-solving," she says.
"The mantra is, everyone deserves good design, and it's in all of our self-interest to make sure that people have good design."
Fischer also serves on six boards of directors, including that of the planned National Public Housing Museum, to be housed in Chicago in a remnant of the former Jane Addams Homes. Among the inspirations for the public housing museum is the Tenement Museum in New York, which highlights the experiences of working-class immigrants.
"It's fabulous," Fischer says of the Tenement Museum. "It's changed museum practices all over the world. It's a site of conscience and that's what we want to be too. To bring up issues of race and poverty and how should government treat its residents, especially the most disadvantaged. Those are the issues we want to take on."
Q: What is your greatest attribute or fault?
A: I think actually it's the same thing — my patience. I have a lot of patience just to deal with difficult issues, especially in my job — to see organizations grow, to see movements grow. And at the same time I think it's a fault, because at times I should move things faster, and I shouldn't put up with certain things as long as I do.
Q: What's your greatest possession?
A: I suppose right now, because it's so poignant — my stepmother died a couple years ago and she left me her gold charm bracelet. Eventually my socialist father made a little killing on the stock market and they were able to travel, which they both wanted to do. It wasn't until, I think, their early 60s that they finally began to travel and she had a charm from each of the places she went. So it's really lovely to have that reminder of their lives getting easier.
Q: What is the best lesson you've learned from your mother or your father?
A: Well, one of each, maybe. My father was a kind of an internationalist and his values about how to treat people were very, very strong. Everybody deserved courtesy, and difference was interesting, and it was an important part of life to learn from other people. He deeply believed in equality, and he passed that down. I think I got my work ethic from my mother, who loved to work — she just loved it. It gave her a sense of herself, of being useful. She was volunteering until she gotAlzheimer'sand didn't remember the alphabet anymore.
Q: What is the one secret to success?
A: There is no one secret to success. Mostly, I'd say hard work and imagination.
Q: What do you consider your biggest mistake?
A: I can't tell you.
Q: Must be a good one.
A: The bodies are still alive.
Q: What's your favorite movie?
A: "The Organizer." It's an Italian movie, Marcello Mastroianni was in it. It was about the labor movement in Italy, and I remember it just opening up a world that I hadn't seen before — the power of one person, his ability to make things happen. ... And then "Some Like it Hot" — I love that movie. It is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.
Q: What did you want to be at age 13?
A: A psychologist or a flight attendant.
Q: Had you put a lot of thought into that second choice?
A: I had never been on a plane, but I figured that was one way to get on a plane. I had a real desire to travel.
Q: What is your professional mantra in fewer than 10 words?
A: Stay open and listen.
Q: That's lovely.
A: That's my job.
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