Blacks review impressive examples of neighborhood self-help

Ten years ago the Cochran public housing project in St. Louis was notoriously squalid and crime-ridden. Today, it has been hailed as a model at international forums and has received numerous awards for excellence. The reason: tenant management as directed by one lifelong public housing resident, Bertha Gilkey.

Ms. Gilkey founded Cochran Tenant Management in 1976, transferring every aspect of management -- from rent collection to maintenance -- out of the hands of government bureaucracies and into the hands of residents. Since that time, Cochran Tenant Management has become a real estate development corporation with almost $1 million dollars in revenues. It has built nearly 1,500 units of low-to-middle-income and market-rate housing.

Cochran is the only developer in St. Louis that builds multi-bedroom public housing for large families. It also:

Founded a janitorial service which trained and hired 45 former welfare recipients.

Established six day-care centers in public housing and wrote the legislation on infant care for the state of Missouri.

Sent 30 public-housing residents back to school to obtain degrees in education.

Cochran also runs an on-site medical clinic. And it hired 47 hard-core offenders to do renovation work. These young men and women have since become apprentices, earning $15 an hour.

Gilkey described her experiences in tenant management at a three-day conference here last week. The meeting was attended by some 300 blacks from across the United States. It was sponsored by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE), Christian Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the US Department of Justice.

``If you want to achieve success,'' NCNE president Robert L. Woodson told the participants, ``then you must learn from those who have accomplished it. The only thing you can learn from analyzing poverty is how to create poverty.''

The purpose of the conference, entitled ``From Our Strength: a National Forum on the Black Family,'' was to learn from successes like Bertha Gilkey's.

Self-help success stories in the black community are not unusual, judging from the large number of programs described by participants. They included crime prevention through youth entrepreneurship in Camden, N.J.; skill-building for single mothers in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teenage fathers in Cleveland, Ohio; an adoption agency for black children in Detroit; a program in which teen-aged children of black professionals assist disadvantaged families in Los Angeles.

The goal of NCNE is to encourage and support grass roots efforts at self-help in the black community, and to bring them to the attention of the public so that they can be replicated in other localities.

Leon Watkins's Youth Gang Services in Los Angeles is a case in point. A few months ago the organization, which arranges work programs for gang members and mediates between them in an effort to diffuse violence, expanded its community outreach with a family hotline offering families of young people involved in gangs counseling, protection, and practical help in diverting the criminal activities into productive channels.

In an era when crises in the black community -- teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, widespread illiteracy, crime, and unemployment -- are receiving much public attention, Mr. Woodson and his colleagues believe that the problem-solving talents inherent in families, neighborhoods, and churches should be recognized and supported. Through a program called Operation Reachback, NCNE is encouraging black professionals to put their financial resources, expertise, and political clout to work to benefit the poor.

``While racial discrimination and economic deprivation may have been contributing factors in the current crisis in black America,'' says Woodson, ``the primary responsibility for solving it must rest with the black family.''

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