Kimi Gray has an unusual dream. He envisions that one day the city's public-housing developments will be owned and managed by their residents.
"I want to own the plantations," says Gray, repeating for emphasis, "Yes, the planatation. That's what public-housing communities are, aren't they?"
Gray, 35, has lived in public housing communities almost all of her life, setting up her own household in Northwest Washington's Kenilworth Courts in 1965.
"Public housing is my home. It's where my people are," she says. "All I want is for everybody here to live in a decent, safe and sanitary community, not in misery.
"What we need (first) is legislation that would allow us to be reimbursed for the improvements we make to our homes. That would be an incentive for more people to keep their places up."
If her ultimate vision seems unrealistic, Gray isn't fazed. She insists she will pursue it as long as she lives. She has a plan.
She is urging and helping hundreds of poor youths from the projects to go to college. Three of her own children are in college and two are finishing high school.
After the local youths graduate, she encourages them to return to public-housing communities and become government administrators, politicians and community activists who can bring about the legislation and economic change necessary to transform public-housing developments into self-reliant communities.
Her dream began to take shape years ago. When she moved into a three-bedroom apartment at Kenilworth 15 years ago she was only 19 years old, but she already had five children -- three sons and two daughters -- and had been divorced after three years of marriage.
Shortly after moving into the Kenilworth community, Gray decided that her role in life would be to help organize, educate and motivate the thousands of blacks living in the District's 54 low-income public-housing projects.
She explains: "William Shakepeare said, 'The whole world is a stage,' And I feel that what we must learn as children is what role to play. No matter what career I'm in, my role is to help my people."
Gray, who was graduated from Strayer College in 1969 with an associate degree in business administration, has accepted various roles in the theater of community development. In 1979, Mayor Marion Barry appointed her as president of the citywide public housing advisory council and to the board of the D.C. Commission for Women.
In addition to being employed by the D.C. Department of Recreation as a roving leader at $12,000 a year, Gray is a member of the Far East Community Services Board of Directors and, for the past 12 years, has served as president of Kenilworth Courts' resident council.
Gladys Roy, a long-time member of the council, said that, over the years, "Kimi has always been considered the best person for the job."
Gray's neighbors describe her as "a dedicated soul . . . (who) goes all out for anybody in need of help." She had gotten young men out of jail and seen that pregnant girls get proper health care. Every day, she is sought out by several young and old residents of Kenilworth Courts for some sort of help.
A program called "College Here We Come" is the main instrument Gray uses achieve her goal. The counseling program, which Gray says never received any government grant money, helps youths living in public housing enroll in college and find necessary financing.
"'College Here We Come' is my baby," Gray says. "I birthed it, I'm raising it and I don't intend for it to die."
In the six years since the program started, 284 students who live in public housing -- the majority from Kenilworth Courts -- have gone to college. About 20 a year attend school on the full-tuition scholarships Gray has solicited from a few, predominantly black, colleges and universities.
Students without scholarships use local and national financial-aid funds to help pay for their education. Thirty students -- residents of Kenilworth Courts -- were sent to college in 1976; 17 graduated and four of those are now in graduate schools.
Before her program was founded, Gray says, only two or three young people from Kenilworth Courts ever went to college and finished. Now many more are going to college but, even so, some students leave before finishing because of financial reasons.
Gray tries to help these students find jobs so they can save enough money to continue their educations. Some of the students now work on the program's staff as CETA employees, assisting other students in obtaining financing for college.
According to Gray, Virginia Morris, a former DC. school board president who is active in Northwest communities, "got them registered for CETA. Now they can stay employed and act as role models in the community at the same time."
Students in the program recognize Gray as the leader. Her leadership role is enhanced by her physical size and rapid-fire speech. Almost 6 feet tall and weighing around 270 pounds, Gray says, "Whenever I walk into a room, all attention is immediately focused on me because I'm so big.
Gray, the oldest of four children, moved into a public-housing project at the Frederick Douglass Public Housing Development in Southeast D.C. when she was 5. Until then, her family lived in a large house in Northwest D.C., which they shared with two other families.
"Everybody (at the Northwest house) had to use one bathroom and one kitchen," Gray says. "When we moved into public housing, I was happy as I could be. We had a front yard, a back porch and a nice backyard to play in. I thought we had just bought a new house. I didn't know my mother was on public assistance.When I was young, that was none of the children's business."
Gray hopes for the day she can transform her public-housing neighborhood into "a nice community where there are beautiful homes, green grass, good recreation programs, clean property and concerned parents working together."
Gray adds, "The key to proper management of public-housing communities is strong resident council leadership. And in order to be effective, the residents and management have to work together on everything -- social problems, housing problems, everything."
During recent years, Gray has made significant headway in her struggle by organizing community residents against crime. According to the Sixth District police, Kenilworth Courts had one of the highest crime rates in D.C. during the late 1970s.
"In order to fight the hoodlums," Gray says, "the residents had to work together and snitch on them." She succeeded in convincing residents to report crimes and identify suspects. Her efforts have won her praise from neighbors and police.
"She's done a tremendous job," Officer George Thomas said. "Thanks to Kimi Gray, crime in Kenilworth Courts is not below what you find in most public-housing areas in D.C.
"Many times she has found out who was committing the crimes and she's released that information to the police. She's helped us gain a better working relationship with the community."
Gray's vision is slowly but surely being implanted in the hearts of the young people she has helped attend college.
One such student is 24-year-old Casandra Butler. Butler grew up in Kenilworth Courts and was graduated from Shaw University in 1979 with a bachelors degree in business management and accounting.
Now working in the account management department of D.C. General Hospital, Butler said she plans to contribute her skills to the community by "helping people manage their money and prepare their taxes so they can get most of their money back.
"I would like to know all the legal loopholes and use them for the advantage of the people," Butler says, adding, "I really believe we can own the projects."