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A Hunger For More Than Rhetoric

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page C01

A black skullcap rested lightly on the boy's braided hair. He also wore an oversize black jacket, which appeared as if it would swallow him up before he got to devour the hot dog on his plate at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington.

Fresh out of Oak Hill, the District's juvenile detention center, the boy, 15, was one of several guests who joined me Thursday night for a presidential counter-Inauguration Day dinner. Others included Jahar Abraham and Ronald Moten, co-founders of a mentoring group called Peaceaholics, and Ralph Glover, aka Big G, the D.C. native and reformed gangster who plays the gang member Slim Charles on the HBO television series "The Wire."

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Over a variety of chili dishes, we discussed hopes and dreams, along with some of the themes that President Bush had raised in his inaugural address -- -such as ending tyranny and hopelessness by promoting freedom and opportunity.

Unlike Bush, those in my group want to see more of that spread here at home before the United States goes off trying to change the rest of the world.

We also discussed recent remarks by actor Bill Cosby, who criticized low-income parents for allegedly spending hundreds of dollars on clothes instead of books for their children.

In effect, Cosby was talking about the mothers of some of my teenage guests -- and his words did not go over well at all.

"Most of what people like Cosby are saying is not what the people we work with are trying to hear," Moten said. "People are always telling them: Don't do this, and don't do that. But if you tell them, 'Look, if you get a GED and land a job, then there is a program in D.C. that will help you buy a house,' their ears perk up.

"Many of them have never owned a house or known anybody who owned a house. They never thought that was something they could ever have. Help people understand why saving and having an A-1 credit rating is so important, show them how to get a house, and they will start making better decisions."

An 18-year-old guest said of Cosby: "It's easy to talk about somebody's parents. People on the streets do it all the time. But it's harder to get somebody to fund a parenting program or a mentoring program, where you do something about a problem instead of just talking bad about people with the problem."

But it was Bush's vision of endless possibilities that really fired up the group's imagination.

"I want to be an architect and design a home for my family," the 15-year-old told me.

He said he was trying to change his ways after serving time for car theft. Although he enjoyed learning new things, he said, he was having trouble at school and just didn't seem to fit in.

"Sometimes I leave class and go walking in the halls," he said. "What bothers me most is when the teacher puts me on the spot, asks me questions and makes me feel bad about not knowing the answer."

A 17-year-old in our party said he dreams of going to college, getting a good job, maybe even starting his own business. But he expressed concern that maintaining his focus might be too difficult.

"When you don't have any money and your family is about to lose their home and you can't find a job to save your life, then a man's got to do what a man's got to do," he said.

That thinking got him sent to Oak Hill for selling drugs. But when he was released, he said, he still hadn't learned any other way to deal with such desperate problems.

Surely, there exists somewhere in this nation a cadre of educators who know how to help our children break out of the impoverished and violent environments into which they were born.

But we have to get our priorities straight. Abraham and Moten, for instance, shouldn't have to beg or reach into their own pockets to provide basic school supplies to the children they mentor.

Certainly not while this nation is spending a billion dollars a day so Iraqis supposedly can have the same freedoms supposedly enjoyed by all Americans .

Charity, like national security, must begin at home.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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