Change They Want to Believe In
Battered D.C. Awaits Arrival Of a Presidential 'Partner'

By Richard Leiby and DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On the campaign trail, he was all about changing Washington. But for the most part, Barack Obama was using the symbolic shorthand that "Washington" has come to evoke: a place where powerbrokers prevail, lousy laws are made and the little people don't really stand a chance.

What about the Washington where schools fester, the cops erect checkpoints worthy of war zones, young men gun each other down and where the bodies of four girls were found in a rowhouse guarded by their mother? An Obama administration can't work miracles, but local activists are optimistic; they see Obama as one of their own, given his background as a community organizer.

"The last eight years, in terms of engagement, D.C. has just been a photo op for the president, or a foil," says Tommy Wells, a social worker turned D.C. Council member. "I really do believe that I have a partner in the new president, someone who understands what it means to change a city to a safe, healthy place to grow up and grow old in."

The president-elect has signaled that he will engage more forcefully than his predecessors on the city's obvious disparities of class, color and income. "We stand not 10 miles from the seat of power in the most affluent nation on Earth," Obama said in a speech in Southeast Washington in July 2007. ". . . And yet here, on the other side of the river, every other child in Anacostia lives below the poverty line."

The then-senator made his campaign stop at a gleaming, $27 million showcase in Ward 8 called THEARC (for Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus), whose community services range from dance classes to dental care. There, Obama laid out proposals to "change the odds" for families mired in intergenerational poverty, an alternative to just hoping that some kids will "beat the odds" and emerge as miracles.

"He went to Anacostia for a reason," a presidential transition aide said last week. "He wanted to highlight the fact that he felt the federal government could play a role, specifically on intractable urban issues. . . . He and Michelle intend to be citizens of Washington, D.C." Obama's team has not entertained "specific requests" for help, according to the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized transition representative. But the president-elect has heard from Mayor Adrian Fenty on the city's needs, among them jobs and repairs to bridges, roads and school buildings.

Obama couldn't ask for a better test laboratory, a city where nearly 19 percent of the 588,000 residents struggle below the poverty line. If he were to walk the streets well beyond the inaugural route, Obama would find no shortage of people presenting petitions for what they think he must do for their Washington.

* * *

A mile and a half from the theater where Obama spoke, two old friends sit upstairs in a drug-and-alcohol rehab center, talking about problems that no amount of money or political rhetoric has ever banished from this corner of Anacostia. Crime, AIDS, addiction, guns, gangs. No president alone can solve them, they agree.

"Go right back to basics, brother," says Sam Foster, 69, leaning forward in his chair. "You have to go back to the parents. It's the family environment we're missing."

"These young folks having babies today," says Roscoe Jackson-El, 52, with a head shake.

"You've got a woman raising kids -- no man in the house!" Foster says.

Foster's office walls display too many awards and certificates to count: from the U.S. probation office, the United Black Fund, the D.C. Council. For three decades, as leader of Concerned Citizens on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, he has been working to keep people from the bottle, off dope, out of prison. He rescued Jackson-El, an ex-con and former cokehead, 20-some years ago.

Today Jackson-El is a counselor here in the clinic's humble headquarters on Martin Luther King Avenue SE.

"You've got to see your weakness and face it," he says. "It takes the mind. That's what changed me."

"Ain't nobody going to give you something on a silver platter," Foster says, folding his fingers across his chest. "Support yourself. Build something."

But look around, Jackson-El says later, smoking a Newport, walking the avenue. "You see what's out here. A whole lot of nothing."

The jobless and homeless gather in a park, panhandling and clutching flimsy black plastic sacks fresh from the nearby liquor store. "That's the liquor store that feeds the disease," he says.

At one corner, Barack Obama and MLK are painted larger than life on a mural that proclaims "Yes We Can and We Did." The swale is littered with empty half-pint bottles.

"No hoods, no masks," warns a sign on the front door of the only nearby store that sells hot coffee.

With the inauguration but weeks away, "I'm trying to figure out what's so spectacular to celebrate," says Jackson-El, whose name reflects his membership in the Moorish Science Temple religion. "This man Obama, he's talking about jobs, but those jobs are for educated people. What about uneducated people?"

He himself is a seventh-grade dropout. "All I'm worried about is what is he going to do for the inner city, not Capitol Hill."

Development in the form of baseball stadiums or new condos won't solve the underlying problems here, Foster says: "These people are just surviving. Why do you want to build something on top of a keg of termites? Because eventually they are going to eat right through it."

* * *

Obama pushes responsibility. Fathers need to man up. Parents should turn off the video games and read to their kids. Government can't do it all. The poor need a hand up, not just a handout.

"If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation," he said in Anacostia that day. "We have to heal that entire community."

He pitched solutions including "Promise Neighborhoods" based on the Harlem Children's Zone that he would replicate in 20 cities. It provides early childhood support, medical care, charter schools and after-school programs.

But inner-city problems are so vast, so tangled in webs of poverty, neglect and oppression, that social workers in the trenches have no delusions. For 20 years, for example, the District's Child and Family Services Agency has been subject to court-ordered monitoring for its failures to protect children from being abused, abandoned or even killed by their parents.

In the gruesome case of Banita Jacks, charged with murdering her four daughters, the agency failed to investigate claims of child abuse. "This was a woman who obviously needed help . . . but there just isn't much help out there," says Judy Meltzer, a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which monitors the agency.

"How do you deal with the enormous inequity issues in the city?" she says. "In the child welfare system, you can't have much progress before the District deals with poverty, housing and providing very basic supports for new mothers."

Big picture: "We think you need a two- or three-generation strategy."

* * *

On "Meet the Press" on Dec. 7, Obama talked of promoting education from his bully pulpit in the White House, bringing in poetry, classical music and jazz, making it "the people's house" once more. He also said, "We want to invite kids from local schools into the White House."

There are District educators who would pose the invitation the other way: The occupants of the White House ought to visit the local schools. Some parents and teachers say the Obamas passed up a teachable moment, as it were, when they did not at least visit public schools when deliberating where to send their daughters, instead picking a private one.

"It will be harder for him to engage with the public school system if his kids are in private schools," says Sally Greenberg, PTA co-president at Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest Washington. "We feel it was a missed opportunity."

Interviewed on "60 Minutes" in November with her husband, Michelle Obama said, "I care about education. . . . Both Barack and I believe that we can have an impact in the D.C. area, you know, in terms of making sure we're contributing to the community that we immediately live in. That's always been something that we try to do, whether it's in our own neighborhoods or in the schools that we've attended. So there's plenty to do."

Linda Little, principal of John Burroughs Elementary School in Northeast Washington, has a simple request: "The Obamas need to come in and see. Visit. There are good schools in D.C. . . . We get a bad rap, but they have to come in because there are diamonds here."

In the lobby, a sign written in bright orange marker greets those coming through the school's doors: "A young child, a fresh uncluttered mind, a world behind him -- to what treasures will you lead him?"

Little is talking in the hallway after giving yet another child a hug. The floors are well-shined. Pupils in blue and yellow uniforms walk by in single-file lines. Quietly.

"You walk through the building, you will see high expectations," she says.

The school has met its No Child Left Behind benchmarks. It has a literacy coach, a librarian, a nurse, a P.E. teacher, a French teacher.

Once when snow was predicted, a student told her, "I hope it snows so that we can stay here," the principal recalls. "We don't want to go home."

Yes, there are needs, Little says, mainly because the school's equipment is "antiquated." Some learning software that teachers want to use in their classrooms is not compatible with the computers. Servers are overloaded. TVs in the classrooms are not connected to cable. The school's library just opened after many years.

"All schools did not have them. We are fortunate to have one now, but it is lacking," Little says.

By the standards of the District, this qualifies as a success story.

* * *

A renewed focus on the public schools may be yielding modest improvement, but after-school programs for poor kids are gasping for funding.

"Public schools aren't equipped to deal with at-risk kids. They can't deal with the kid whose mother is not home at 5 p.m.," says Gerry Stevens-Kittner, deputy director of Beacon House, an after-school program that sits in the middle of Edgewood Terrace public housing complex in Northeast Washington.

Beacon House provides a safety net as well as a shield from the influences of the street. Each weekday it serves 200 students from kindergarten through 12 grade. They come mainly from single-family homes with average incomes of $20,000.

"Some of them don't have a parent to give them a nutritious breakfast, help them with their homework, make sure they brush their teeth. Some mothers are just hanging on," says Stevens-Kittner, 56, who previously worked as an attorney in the Superior Court's Child Abuse and Neglect Branch. "We are surrogate parents."

The children are fed and mentored. Tutors help them with homework. "We had an eighth-grade girl who all of a sudden proclaimed one day, 'Oh, that is what odd and even numbers mean.' "

The citywide budget for such services has dropped dramatically: from $11.1 million in 2007 to $7.4 million for 2009, to a projected $4.4 million in 2010. His message to Obama: "We have a terrible struggle getting the funding to continue. If it weren't for these programs, who knows what would happen to these children?"

The Rev. Donald E. Robinson, founder and president of Beacon House, says he knows: "Some kids would be dead, into drugs, or in jail if we weren't here."

Commuting from Arlington, Stevens-Kittner sees the two Washingtons every day. "I come down Rhode Island. I pass First Street Northwest. It's mostly African American. . . . You see people waiting at bus stops in the bitter cold. You see people walking with shopping carts. You see people tired and hungry and struggling."

While his charges enjoy their turkey sandwiches and cartons of milk in the cafeteria, Stevens-Kittner says: "These children are invisible to the other Washington. They are not seen. They are not heard. It's probably not all that different from Chicago."

Perhaps that is, in a way, a blessing for the District.

"I was just two years out of college when I first moved to the South Side of Chicago to become a community organizer," Obama said in Anacostia. ". . . Everywhere you looked, businesses were boarded up and schools were crumbling and teenagers were standing aimlessly on street corners, without jobs and without hope."

It looked a lot like parts of the city he will soon call home.

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