For the poor -- hope, schooling, independence
KIMI Gray is the essence of congeniality as she walks through the housing project in the corner of northeast Washington she calls home. Most everyone she passes says, ``Hi, Miss Kimi,'' and she replies with a great big smile, ``Hi, baby, how you doin'?'' But her eye is always watching, watching who's around and what they're doing. ``Why aren't you working?'' she yells to two teen-agers she recognizes. And she makes sure she gets a satisfactory response.Skip to next paragraph
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Kimi Gray is a powerhouse among the 3,000 people who live in the Kenilworth Courts and Parkside Addition housing projects. She's receiving national recognition for her long list of accomplishments since 1974 -- the students she's persuaded to go to college, the reforms she has fought for in the project's management, the new attitude she has inspired among tenants, the money she has attracted for renovation.
She has been lauded by such congressmen as Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who are holding her up as an example of what an individual can do to make changes that seem to elude the federal government.
And with the power of her testimony in Congress, a bill has been introduced that would provide seed money for housing projects seeking to emulate what has been done at Kenilworth-Parkside.
But she still remains Kimi Gray, a woman of low income who has managed against the odds to scrape together a decent life for herself. When she arrived at Kenilworth in 1966, she had five children to feed, no job, and no husband. Taking advantage of a government program, however, she graduated from a business college, and she has worked most of the time since then with the District of Columbia's Department of Recreation as a youth counselor.
She is, she says, just ``a big dreamer.'' She takes little of the credit for herself, emphasizing that the improvements in Kenilworth-Parkside have come from the tenants who have been willing to work for change.
Kenilworth is in the part of Washington tourists never see. Across the Anacostia River from the marble monuments and museums, away from even the run-down charm of the 19th-century town houses where many of Washington's poor blacks live, Kenilworth and the smaller Parkside are stark 1959-vintage, low-rise housing projects. Here the chronic unemployed and welfare mothers were warehoused, raising their children with little hope of breaking the poverty cycle.
``Kenilworth was one of the worst public housing projects,'' Ms. Gray recalls. ``The crime rate was up and rapidly increasing. Vandalism was bad. Trash was everywhere. The high school dropout rate was high. Police were afraid to come in here, because kids would throw rocks at their cars.
``There was often no heat and hot water,'' she says. ``The project's management was more concerned with bricks and mortar than with people. City Hall was insensitive to our needs.''
By 1974, only two of the project's residents had been to college. But one day, she says, three high school students told her they wanted to go to college. Would she tell them how to go about it? She said she didn't know, and she told them to come back a week later to give her a chance to do some research.
The next week, the three teens came back, and they brought five others. Gray had learned that many black colleges were seeking recruits so they could keep their federal funding. She was able to help the students fill out applications and look for scholarships.
Seventeen Kenilworth-Parkside students headed for college that year. Four years later, when nine of them graduated, the residents threw them a ceremony and party to celebrate.