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

By Nicholas C. McBrideSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 1986


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.

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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.''

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.