They sat listening to one of President Carter's special assistants talk about the administration's major concerns-energy and inflation-when 16-year-old Michelle Lewis raised her hand and asked: "If the president is so concerned about energy, why is the window open when the air conditioner is running"
Lewis' question was not frivolous. The answer was as simple as someone forgetting to close the window when the central air-conditioning system was turned on.
But the question-asked during a meeting with White House aide Jack Watson-did show that Lewis, an 11th grader at McKinley High School in the city, was listening critically to what was being said and judging whether words were being followed by actions. It was exactly the kind of analytical thinking encouraged under a pilot program here to determine why so few black youths vote and participate in community affairs and what could be done to reach an untapped resource in the black electorate.
What program officials were told by 28 students chosen from 13 city public high schools was that black youths of voting age have lost faith in the political process as a way to correct social ills in their communities. Students also said that in poorer black communities the problems of everyday survival are often considered more important than political involvement.
"The community lacks the ability to hold itself together and to do something to improve things through politics," said Henry Taylor, 19, a senior at Bell Vocational School, who works part time at a local McDonald's restaurant.
"Young people say politics is dirty because they hear that from other people," Taylor said. "There's only crooks in office, some say. You hear about those guys who worked for [former president Richard] Nixon going to luxury prisons rather than the jails that a lot of other people have to go to."
Tanina Franklin, 18, a Northeast Washington resident who attends Martha M. Washington career center, said, "There's a breakdown of the family and the community because of the cost of living and inflation.
"A lot of people are shooting other people because of financial problems," she said. "Just look at 11th Street (NW). Young people are dope addicts and some die from overdoses. It's an escape. It's the one they use the most."
Students interviewed cited a variety of factors they believe cause the alienation of black youth from political and community involvment:
A disenchantment with traditional authority figures in the churches, schools and homes.
A disappointment in the commitment of some teachers in the public schools.
A lack of general knowledge about the importance of voting and community involvement and what that process can do for them.
Zechariah Williams, 18, is a senior at Dunbar High School and the son of a bricklayer who works two jobs. Williams, who has a part-time job at a local drugstore, said he believes many young blacks have problems because they never learned about responsibility.
"I see a lack of responsibility that comes from the D.C. public schools," he said. "It's not all the school's fault. The blame is shared by peers and parents. But you come through the school system and it's 'hi' and 'bye'.
"If your family is struggling, they don't have time to spend with you and you wind up in the streets where everybody wants to be the next (Al) Capone," he said.
"Young people out in the streets believe that you can always go against those in power, those in authority, and they're not looking at working within the system," Williams said.
The pilot program was sponsored and partly funded by the Joint Center for Political Studies, a nonpartisan, nonprofit "think tank" that studies issues of concern to minorities. Students in the 15-week Youth Leadership Development Workshop, chosen from social studies and government classes in city public high schools, participated in seminars explaining the political process. They also analyzed voting trends, held mock government elections and discussed politics with city and federal officials.
The students met once a week, all day, and were encouraged to take what they learned black to their classrooms. Program officials hope that parts of the pilot study can be used throughout the country.
Lynette Middleton, 18, a Northeast Washington resident and McKinley High student, said she recently began to understand how important politics is.
"Politics govern us," Middleton said. "Not understanding politics hurts [young] people more than they realize," she said. "They don't know that you can change things by becoming involved and voting. Somehow, we've got to get them to realize that."
The students' comments come at a time when black leaders, fearful of losing civil rights won during the 1960s while also seeking other advances, are stressing the power of the vote as the only way to influence government officials and policies.
At a recent assembly of mostly public high school seniors here, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told about 3,000 students to become politically active. Jackson is the head of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).
According to recent statistics of the Census Bureau, the number of blacks 18 to 24 years of age in this country has increased at almost twice the rate of whites in that age group. While the white population overall has increased by 5.5 percent, the study said, the black population increased by 12.6 percent. Blacks make up about 10 percent of the country's electorate.
"Political participation by black youth is critical not only because they comprise 23 percent of the black electorate, but because they are our future," said Eddie Williams, president of the joint center.
"In 1976, only 38 percent of the 3.4 million black youth were registered and only 29 percent actually voted," Williams said.
"Blacks are at least 10 percent of the voting age population in 18 states, at least 20 percent of the voting age population in 64 congressional districts, at least 20 percent of the eligible voters in 89 medium and large cities and 50 percent or more of the eligible voters in 103 counties, mainly in the South," Williams said.
"Blacks, as a group, cannot afford the luxury of dropping out of the political process," he said. "Politics and political participation are basic tools, which, despite their obvious limitations, can influence what this society does or does not do to us, for us, and with us," he said.
Williams said that while blacks have made some inroads into the American political mainstream, politics is still something in which many blacks have little experience.
Traditionally, before integration and before the voting rights act passed by Congress in 1964, blacks turned to community institutions such as churches to organize and work collectively to improve conditions. In the past couple of years, however, those local institutions have had less effect in communities.
"Lately, I had decided to go back to church," said William Conyers, 18, a student at Calvin Coolidge High School. Conyers said his mother relies on religion to cope with everyday problems, and he decided to try religion as well.
"I went to one service where the evangelist put down everything and said the only way was through God," he said. "Young people want to listen, but it's God versus the government, and people are confused. They don't know who to turn to-God, the government, or what."
Zechariah Williams of Dunbar High, said, "It's come to the point where you do whatever you want.
"It's like being caught in the middle," he said. "Choices are so hard sometimes. The pressure gets so hard.
"There are some things we can do as young people to improve things, and I think most of the people in this group are sincere about registering and voting and trying to get other young people out to vote.
"You have to do this on a one-to-one basis," he said. "It will get to the point where that guy who's been hanging out on the street corner will say, 'Well, it's like this-the only way we can change things is to get out and vote and put people into office who will do something for us.'" CAPTION: Picture, Students listened intently at the meeting. By James Mr. Thresher-The Washington Post