Norman Nixon was 11 years old and already street-wise when he wandered into a tenants' meeting at a Northwest public housing complex.
"A lady was saying kids spray paint on the walls, bounce basketballs and play loud music at all times of night," Nixon, now 19, recalled recently. As the only youth in the room, Nixon was asked to respond.
He stood and, without knowing what to say, began. "Kids spray paint on the walls 'cause they got nothing to do but sit outside and talk about their dreams," he answered. It was the beginning of an impromptu speech that started slow, picked up speed and raced through the frustrations of adolescence and inner-city hard knocks. When he finished, the group applauded. Some even cheered, Nixon remembered.
The memory of those events still spreads delight across his face. It was a day of self-realization, he said, that showed him that the scruffy little kid from the Park-Morton public housing projects on Georgia Avenue was good at something, and that there were opportunities to prove it. Nixon has been proving the point ever since.
When 45 delegates meet early next year to draft a statehood charter for the District, Nixon will again represent District youth, as the youngest delegate to the D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention.
He was elected as a Ward 5 convention delegate Nov. 3, three days shy of his 19th birthday and eight years since the public speaking bug first bit him. After nearly a decade of speaking out on local youth issues such as CETA cuts, summer employment and school-bus fares, he is still young enough to use his age as a political tool.
Nixon has represented the teen-age point of view on government advisory boards and at enough civic gatherings to make him one of the most widely known young stars on the District's political horizon. Mayor Marion Barry, his staff, half the D.C. School Board and many of the leaders in Nixon's far-Northeast community know and have worked with him. He is a young mover-and-shaker who thinks District youth should be politically aware and active.
"Other states took 30 or 40 years to get state constitutions passed," explained the part-time freshman at the University of the District of Columbia. "I thought, 'At least I'll be around.' "
Besides, Nixon said, young people need to be involved in the planning and implementation of "anything that's going to affect them in the present or in the future."
His reasoning forms a convenient campaign platform for a young man trying to nudge his way into the circle of big-city politics. He has already made a little elbow room for himself in civic and local government groups.
Nixon is an active member of the District Employment Training Service Advisory Council, the D.C. Rotary Club's Metropolitan Conference of Futuristic Leaders, the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Resources and Budget and the Summer Youth Employment Program Advisory Board. At 16, Nixon organized youth workshops for the Congressional Black Caucus Weekend, and at 17, he testified at City Council hearings on the statehood initiative. This year he headed the youth marshals at the National Young People's Rally for Jobs and coordinated a petition drive against the raising of student bus fares.
Darrell Sabbs, director of the Mayor's Youth Leadership Institute, a program to develop future leaders, met Nixon four years ago when Nixon graduated with the institute's first class. "You could just sense that he was boiling over with energy, sensitivity and compassion," Sabbs said. "Now he understands issues and that complements his reasoning and has produced an individual who is a grass-roots leader."
The son of Len and Ruth Nixon, a cafeteria chef and federal clerk, Nixon is D.C. born and bred. He was 6 years old when the 1968 riots forced his family out of an apartment at 14th and Euclid streets in Northwest. His parents moved the family to the Park-Morton apartments on Georgia Avenue NW where he shied away from drugs and crime.
Nixon is sensitive to the problems of District youth, especially those who, like him, have first-hand knowledge of the social problems plaguing many low-income District residents. "He didn't learn about unemployment, black-on-black crime, the poor quality of schools in textbooks or the six o'clock news," Sabbs said. "He lived it."
But Nixon has chosen to work within the system. Youth unemployment is a primary concern. Nixon believes that private industry should work with schools in helping students learn marketable skills, and he wants a central, year-round employment reference system for youth.
Nixon graduated in the top 10 percent of the Cardozo High School class of 1979 but didn't enter college until this fall because of community commitments and political aspirations. But thanks to the urgings of his family and his friend the mayor, Nixon is back in school.
"I didn't badger him," Barry said, although Nixon credits the mayor's constant reminders of the value of education for his finally entering college. "I told him I was going to get on his case," Barry said.
Last year Nixon and his family moved to a home on Jackson Street in Northeast's Brookland area where Nixon based his statehood convention-delegate campaign. That first election bid was a grass-roots effort, run on a $6.80 budget spent for a rubber stamp to press his name and address on 25 letters to Ward 5 constituents. There were no additional costs, he explained. "The stamps were already in the house."
Nixon was his own one-man campaign staff, going out late at night to post flyers proclaiming him "18 and Concerned" throughout Ward 5. When election day came Nixon's parents didn't cast a ballot for him -- their names were inadvertently ommitted, along with those of several other registered voters, from a computerized Board of Elections voting list.
He won anyway in a tight race among a field of nine candidates seeking five convention seats in Ward 5. The leading Ward 5 candidate, Harry L. Thomas, garnered 3,632 votes. Nixon squeaked in with 2,647, enough to encourage him to continue in politics.
Someday, the city's youngest elected officer said, he would like to represent the District as a U.S. senator "with full voting rights." Nixon relishes the attention and the idea that people appear to take heed when he speaks. Those positive strokes, combined with his concern for the problems facing city youth, he said, make him want to continue along the political path. Nixon, once the scruffy kid from the projects, now says he believes he can make a difference.