For the past three years, one of Mayor Marion Barry's pet projects has been the Mayor's Youth Leadership Institute, a program for Washington teenagers that is designed, in the mayor's words, to serve as a "structured and systematic way of developing strong leadership for the future."
Barry, who honed his own leadership skills during a period of social change, black militancy and civil rights activism, called the institute a "training ground for the next generation of leaders." He has given his personal and official support to the city-funded institute, which takes in 400 youths each summer.
"It fills the void that was created after the civl rights movement died down," Barry said. "Most of the current black leadership in this country was developed in the movement. That was our training ground. That's where we learned to work in groups and to organize for political action. The institute teaches our future leaders what we learned."
While Barry said the gaol of the program is to develop future political leaders for the city, he conceded that it also could provide a cadre of youthful supporters and campaign workers who could help give him that "magic 51 percent" in the 1982 mayoral election.
But, Barry said, "That's democracy. If you help people to help themselves and to fulfill their needs, then it's obvious that they will want to see you stay in office. If they go out and work for me, then that is evidence that they get a lot out of the program and that they understand the political process."
In the institute, held at Howard University, the youthful members sometimes refer to themselves as "Junior G-Men." In street parlance, they are part of the "system."
Although the program is widely prasied by youths, parents, teachers, grass-roots politicians and city council members, Barry admits that it lacks the systematic and scientific follow-up that could help measure its effectiveness.
More than 1,000 youths have gone through the program since it began in the summer of 1978. Program sponsors claim the institute training has a positive influence on a youth's school work, community activity, outlook on life, sense of responsibility, family involvement, peer group leadership and self-motivation.
Despite the lack of follow-up, Barry has good reason to maintain high hopes for his $150,000-a-year program, for which more than 2,000 youths applied this year.
For instance, Kemry Hughes, 19, who was elected youth mayor at last year's second session, said the program is popular because "young people have heard about (it) from those who have gone through it; now, a lot of young kids know that the institute is going to give them the knowledge that they need to make the system work for them. They want that power. It turns them on."
Institute Director Darrell Sabbs agreed.
"The whole aim of the program is empowerment," he said. "Each summer, we take a new crop of 400 city youths and give them and opportunity to learn first-hand about the politicl process. They meet the mayor, they talk to him, they talk to their council representatives, they work and they discuss issues. We help a wide variety of young people to realize who they are, to get to know each other, to work and live together and to learn how to take advantage of their leadership skills so they can take control of their destinies."
Of the many participants interviewed, none criticized the program.
The month-long program is divided into two, two-week semesters and the 400 youths are split into two groups of 200. The participants work at summer job sites throughout the city during the day, attend leadership training sessions in the evenings and sleep in dormitory rooms on Howard University's campus as night. There are roughly 50 participants from each ward and the group is composed of low-, moderate- and upper-income youths as well as handicapped youths and blacks, whites and Hispanics. The mayor insists that each session include at least 50 youths from low-income families and that each 200-member group has an equal amount of males and females.
Youths that have been through the program do most of the interviewing of new applicants. One student may be chosen for his enthusiam and another may be chosen for is shyness.
"An enthusiastic youth may have a lot to offer the group and a shy youth may have a lot to gain," said Norm Nixon, 18, who has been with the institute since its inception. "So we may want both of them to be in the program so they can grow together."
The National Center for Economic and Community Development Inc. (NCECD), a personal and career development organization headed by Clarence King, is hired by the institute each year for $70,000 to run the intensive training exercises. The head trainer and co-trainers have backgrounds in, among other fields, education, psychology, politics and sociology. Youths who have been through the program before work as assistant trainers.
During the evening training sessions, the youths gather in groups of eight, sit at round tables and do whatever the co-trainers, assistant trainers and the head trainer direct them to do. For the most part, they play self-discovery games. The training manual consists of chapters entitled "Life-planning," "Self-assessment," "Who Am I?," "Financial Planning," "Career Planning" and "Personal Growth Plan." At the end of every exercise, the participants fill out a "what I learned" form.
One of the most popular self-discovery games is the "star power" game. Stephanie Speed, head trainer, explained:
"In 'star power' games, different colored chips are passed around. Some people start the game with more chips than others -- just like in life, some start out rich, some start out poor; the rule is to trade chips, realizing that in every exchange, somebody will gain and somebody will lose.
"That's the risk. The winner gets $20. In the end of each trading session, a power group is formed among the top winners. They have the most power, so they are free to change the rules and change the values of the chips. That's when they find out what they would do if they had a lot of power -- will they be corrupt, will they redistribute the wealth among the entire group, etc. Things constantly change. The participants either change with the times or they get angry and give up."
Among the subjects that the sessions deal with are adolescence, teen-age sexuality, responsiblity, stereo-types and misconceptions about young people. Evaluation forms filled out by this summer's participants show that the average participant felt that making new friends and developing leadership were the top benefits of the program.
This year, the institute training program ran from June 22 to July 17. John Daniels, 16, a Coolidge High School student from Northwest, was elected mayor by the first 200 participants and Harold "Wookie" Williams, a 16-year-old student at Randall High School and a resident of Northeast, was elected mayor by the second group. Tanya Smith, 16, also from Northeast and a dance student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was elected City Councilmember At-Large.
On the last day of each semester, the inistitute trainers measure their own effectiveness by the level of emotion expressed by the parting participants. The youths are asked to form large circles, clasp hands and listen to a series of poems on love, commitment, struggle and spiritual growth.
If the youths look back over the previous two weeks, said head trainer Speed, they should be able to relate to the words and they usually begin to tell their fellow participants how glad they were to meet them and go through the self-discovery exercises together. Uninhibited expressions of emotion, such as crying and hugging, even by "hard-rock" males, usually occur, he said.
Clarence King said, "When you put someone through the process of refocusing his life and getting involved in things with other people that he wouldn't normally get into, (things) which help him evaluate the different mental, social and spiritual aspects of his life, he gets excited. The self-discovery process helps him release a lot of tension and emotion that he has locked inside himself."
"Wookie" Williams, an enthusiastic youngster, considers his experiences in the institute invaluable. "The program definitely changed me," he said. "It gave me a keen awareness of how to use my leadership abilities. I always knew I had it in me, but now I see how I can use it in my community and amongst my peers. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions anywhere without nervousness or hesitation."
In interview with several of the participants, one concern often repeated was the misunderstanding and insensitivity that they believe adults have about teen-agers. Tanya Smith, usually quiet and serious, said the youths in the institute show that there are many teens in the District who are "progressive and constructive."
She added, "People pay more attention to kids on the corner smoking dope or doing bad in school. In my neighborhood, I've heard parents saying things like, "I don't know what these teen-agers are becoming. They don't want to amount to anything.' They don't think we have anything to offer in terms of dedication and legitimate opinions."
John Daniels, aggressive and mature, said he is proud to be a youth mayor and, along with Williams, he hopes to serve as a voice for Washington youths. "I look forward to serving on committees and commissions and speaking before the school board on any issue that may be on the floor. I'm committed to D.C. And I want to help in the decision-making process of city government. I want to help other youths get politically involved as well."
One grduate of the institute, Derek McCrae, 19, is often mentioned as an example of a youth who found new directions for himself. McCrae organized a group of Southeast youngsters into the highly popular "funk and roll" Junkyard Band, which travels throughout the city making music with tin cans, toy horns, bells and junk drums. Norm Nixon, who went through the program with McCrae, said "When Derek first came in, he was kind of rowdy. He was a rough customer. But I saw him change. He started using his street sense and aggressiveness in a more positive way and started to become interested in working with other people toward common goals."
McCrae, then a resident of Barry Farms public housing development, was one of 100 low-income youths recruited by the institute. "By the middle of the second week, he was looked up to as the leader of the boys' dorm. After the session ended, he was more settled, but he was anxious to do something outstanding."
"Yep, that's right," said McCrae, with a wide smile. "If it wasn't for this institute, I'd still be a wild street niggah. This program made me think. It made me feel confident that I could do something great for the world. Our slogan stays in the back of my mind: 'Yes, I can. Yes, I will. I am the greatest. I am. I am. . . . We Are!"