At 19 years of age, Kimi Gray was a mother of five and had separated from her husband. Insufficient funds forced her to leave her rented three-bedroom home and move in with her godmother -- sleeping with her five children in one room. Money was tighter than the space they shared. Two years and several addresses later, she ran out of choices. Not much more than a child herself with no college, little exposure to the world of work, and five kids under six years old, there was really only one legal alternative for her -- welfare.

Kimi Gray is now chairman of the board at the Management Corporation of the Kenilworth Housing Complex in Washington, D.C. What was once regarded as housing of last resort has become a self-supporting, resident-run, 494-unit mecca for people who want to learn and do all they can for themselves. The corporation employs 31 residents full-time to staff an on-site employment office, health center, day-care center, food cooperative, boutique, maintenance shop, and roofing service.

In 1982, 76 percent of Kenilworth's 3,000 residents were on welfare. Today, less than 26 percent remain on the public assistance rolls. Rent collection is up 130 percent, administrative costs have been cut by 64 percent, and teen pregnancy is down 50 percent.

What does this increasing self-sufficiency have to do with tenant management of the complex? Now a grandmother of two, Ms. Gray takes stock of what made the difference: ``Resident management gives people back the responsibility, not only to maintain their homes, but to manage their families.''

Gray encourages people to set goals for themselves. ``A lot of young people don't have goals,'' she says. ``They have a lot of fancies, but no one has explained to them what the real true reality is.''

People need information to help themselves, she says, they need access to ideas, to contrasting ways of doing things. When Gray was raising her children, she exposed them to the possibilities the outside world offers. She was determined to give them as much exposure to that world as she could.

``We'd go to museums and I'd make them explain everything to me,'' she recalls. ``Then we'd go to the airport. Couldn't afford to catch a plane, but once you can expose children to something, then they see something different. Most of our children, the only environment they knew was Kenilworth. So once you take them out of here it's different.''

For many children in public housing, economic isolation stifles creative possibilities.

``That's all they've seen,'' Gray says. ``Their mother's on welfare, their mother's mother's on welfare. So I'm gonna get on welfare, they assume. And my mother didn't finish school, so I don't have to finish school. And if I do finish school, I won't find a job....''

The value Gray places on education has taken tangible form in a program she began in 1974 called College Here We Come. Since then, more than 400 neighborhood youths have graduated from college.

``As these kids began to come home during semester breaks, they'd notice graffiti on the walls -- for the first time. You live with something so long and you don't really see it anymore. So they decided they wanted to change that. They wanted to paint the hallways or lay tile on the walls, things of this nature. That changed some of the standards of the parents. In fact, in 1979 when our first 17 students graduated, our slogan out here was: `We dare to dream, and then for daring to dream we turn our dream into reality.'''

Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today