Jeanine Cooper, 16, and Aushann Burroughs, 17, may not be ready yet to take on all the duties of running a big city, but the "dynamic duo," as they call themselves, are getting ready to spend part of their high school senior year shadowing the city's chief administrator as tag-team youth mayors of the District.
"We're ready to meet the challenge," Cooper said.
"We have each other to lean on," Burroughs added. "If one of us is down, I'm sure the other will be there to pick her spirits up."
Beginning this week, Cooper, from Wilson High School, and Burroughs, from Roosevelt, will get a rare chance to see firsthand how the District's political machine works. Cooper and Burroughs were elected by other participants in their respective two-week sessions in Mayor Marion Barry's Youth Leadership Institute conducted at Howard University.
Their first "official" appearance with Barry will be today at the World Conference of Mayors in Chicago, where they will address representives from 40 countries. Once they are back home, Cooper and Burroughs will attend D.C. Council meetings, listen to constituents' complaints and suggest programs to help educate other teen-agers in the city.
Since 1979, the youth program has selected more than 3,000 students who demonstrate leadership potential from all eight wards of the District for one of two two-week sessions. The student body, which includes young people of various income levels and ethnic groups, is coached to develop a positive self-concept, and to become more aware of and responsive to problems in their communities.
From late June through last week, the 250 students who took part in the institute were housed in university dorms. During the days they worked at jobs provided through the Summer Youth Employment Program, and in the evenings they participated in self-awareness and leadership training games.
The incorporation of an election each session, taken seriously by the adult leadership and students alike, is one way the institute tries to instill confidence in participants. Election committees are formed, and campaign managers, public relations staff and volunteers work to get their candidates elected. All aspects of a full-blown city campaign are included.
"Our elections really give you a feel of what adult politicians have to go through," said Wallace Southerland III, one of last year's youth mayors. "As youth mayor, I kissed babies, gave speeches. You work year round. This program has made me consider being a politician."
This year's "serious campaigning" included distributing hats, gum and lollipops.
The nomination of youth mayor and other civic leaders is only one method the institute uses to provide public exposure and self-confidence. A Saturday morning interview program on radio station WUST and "The Youth Leader," the Institute's newspaper, are others.
"The key to the program's success is building the youth's self-esteem," said institute founder Darrell Sabbs, who travels the nation trying to get mayors to start similar programs. "Young people this age rarely take the time to express who they are. When you share those emotions, you get close and take the time to express love."
The program attempted to instill positive self-concepts by having the youths address each other as "winners" and by participating in games such as Lifeline, which encourages the participants to tell personal experiences by highlighting life's peaks and valleys.
"It really acts as an ice breaker," said Gloria Johnson, 20, a program alumnus attending Columbia University. "There was a guy who refused to tell about his life because he felt he had not accomplished anything." But, she added, the others in the group told him that his willingness to reveal that feeling was an accomplishment in itself.
Andre M. Jones, 18, an alumnus who acts as a counselor and who traveled to the Middle East in October as part of the institute's three-week cultural and educational tour, said the program's attempt to develop "If it is to be, it is up to me. Yes I can. Yes I will." -- motto of Youth Leadership Institute self-esteem "can make all the difference in the world."
Even though the institute emphasizes the political aspect of leadership, director Jackie Robinson said youths are also exposed to leaders in nonpolitical areas. Mentors have included television talk-show host Carol Randolph, Commissioner of Human Services Audrey Rowe and local disc jockey Chris Barry.
For some participants, especially the youth mayors, the exposure from the program carries over into everyday life after "graduation."
"I was working at Safeway," said Sean Mack, 17, a former youth mayor. "Someone was getting on my nerves, and I said a bad word. This lady looked at me and said the mayor should not be saying words like that. I didn't know this lady at all.
"The institute taught me that everything is not going to go my way," he said, his voice rising like a seasoned orator. "You have to accept obstacles as a stepping stone to success. No goal is unreachable unless you want it to be."
Mack's words reflect the institute's motto, which is recited at the opening and closing of each day. "If it is to be, it is up to me. Yes I can. Yes I will."