Inner-city youths in D.C. get hands-on training in citizenship. They work with `real life' adult counterparts to learn politics, issues

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Wallace Sutherland is only 17, but already he is a mayor. Actually, he is one of two ``youth'' mayors elected every year by 500 inner-city students here. The students have all been chosen to participate in a city program that tries to give them a strong sense of responsibility for family, community, and the world.

Like thousands of young people in this city, Mayor Sutherland has to cope with the challenges presented by widespread drug use, crime, and other disadvantages. But he and others selected for Washington's Youth Leadership Program work with ``real life'' adult counterparts to learn the political process and the issues.

In Sutherland's own words, it has ``taught me how to deal with fear, feelings, and friends.''

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The institute was founded six years ago by District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry and Commissioner of Social Services Audrey Rowe to fill what they perceived as a void of opportunities for young blacks to learn leadership skills.

Against seemingly enormous odds, it has graduated 2,000 youngsters since 1980 from an intensive program aimed at providing them with a strong sense of civic and family responsibility.

Many of those young people have gone on to have excellent college records. One institute graduate became Washington's youngest elected official, winning a delegate seat at the district's statehood convention.

The institute's motto is, ``If it is to be, it is up to me.''

Executive director Jackie Robinson, himself a product of the housing projects of New York City, says transcending harsh circumstances hinges on tapping the young people's inner resources, not ``sticking religion down these kids' throats.''

He explains: ``We don't preach to our kids. ... We use positive examples and downplay the negative.

``We show them they have the power ... to change the situation, and then allow them to experiment on how to make those changes.''

Ms. Rowe says that the momentum of history during the black American civil rights movement forced people like herself and Mayor Barry to learn leadership skills.

Though segregation is illegal now, she notes, a new set of challenges face young blacks, who must deal with covert racism.

Barry says, ``We cannot leave their leadership development up to chance.''

Sam Tucker, executive director of the World Council of Mayors, says Washington's Youth Leadership Program is likely to be the prototype for such programs in other cities. Mr. Tucker says mayors from all over the US have been asking ``how they could get something like this. I hope it can be implemented in many cities. I'm going to do what I can to make this happen.''

Tucker says most US cities have employment training but that Washington's institute ``goes far beyond that.''

Mr. Robinson was formerly professor of contemporary civilization at Queens College and assistant headmaster of the Lower East Side Preparatory School in New York.

He says these young people are in a position to move faster and effect changes more dramatically than those who came before them.

He terms the institute a ``laboratory'' for learning through trial and error which simultaneously enables the youths to profit from the insight of today's leaders.

The institute has a ``mentorship'' component in which the young people ``shadow'' adults working in disciplines such as government, law, medicine, and the media.

The youths enter the one-year program each June after a nomination process of five months. School officials, church groups, and community organizations submit 2,000 nominations that are narrowed to a class of 500 ages 14 through 17, representing both sexes. They come from all eight wards of the city.

``We have kids here from the Gold Coast (an affluent area of Washington) to the projects,'' Robinson says.

During the summer the youngsters are housed at the Howard University campus, leaving to work at mandatory summer jobs during the day and returning in the evenings for training sessions.

The training consists of workshops on, ``Who Am I?'' and ``Team Building,'' with seminars on international cooperation and career development. A trainer, usually an institute alumnus, and 10 students, play awareness and self-esteem-building games.

Annual elections are held for two 35-member youth city councils and two youth mayors.

These officials are spokespersons for their peers and work with their ``real life'' adult counterparts to learn the political process and the issues.

Wallace Sutherland, who is a youth mayor this school year, says the institute has ``taught me how to deal with fear, feelings, and friends.''

Mayor Sutherland says the program's intensity frustrated him at first, and the brutal honesty and self-analysis required some getting used to.

But as time went on he began to see himself in a larger context and that his existence made a difference.

``Our elections really give you a feel of what adult politicians have to go through,'' says Sutherland.

And after being Mayor Barry's ``shadow'' for a day, he says, ``I now have an appreciation for how hard his job is.''

In 1980, one of the institute's first young mayors, Kemry Hughs, made history as the first teen-ager to testify before the Washington, D.C., City Council. Mr. Hughs opposed Mayor Barry's hike of student bus fares.

Recalling the experience, he said, ``We still lost; they raised the fare. But the important thing was that we weren't a rubber stamp.''

Kemry, now 24, has worked in several local political campaigns and intends to head his own campaign someday.

Robinson says young people from the inner city are not given positive role models to emulate.

``They see adults say things and then don't do it. They understand the inherent contradiction, and they object to it. We want the kids to learn they must live their convictions, even though it may be painful or unpopular.''

Kemry says the institute gave him something he couldn't find elsewhere - a bond of love with his peers and a knowledge that ``there are no bars, no limits to what I can do.''

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