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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

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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.

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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.''