Living in a public housing project, where admired types often tend to be pimps and pushers and success is measured by lengths of cars, how can a young person hope to make it to college, just make it in the outside world?
Most never think about it. Many who hope never get beyond hoping. Some get lost in dreams. But it can be done, and it is, What is required is a little help, sometimes a lot of help, from friends.
What kind of friends can a project youngster have who can help open the doors to college, to success as it is measured outside? In most Washington projects there is no one like that.
Kenilworth Courts is an exception. At this project, a self-styled, self-help group. "College Here We Come," operates not just as friend but as surrogate parents. It urges high school students with doubts about remaining in school to stick it out; it helps those who think they would like to go to college to prepare for entrance examinations; it tutors youngsters poorly prepared by the D.C. public school system in mathematics and spelling, it advises them on what changes to expect when they leave home for the first time. And, whenever possible, it provides the few extra dollars that can make all the differences.
College Here We Come is a no-nonsense organization. And it gets results. Since it was set up in 1974 by four Kenilworth residents, the group has helped 112 high school graduates go to college. Another 12 or so are expected to go in September, according to Kimi Gray, the determined chairman of College Here We Come. Just four have dropped out, she said.
"In the first year we sent 17 of our young black people to college and at least 12 of them are going to graduate next year," said Gray. Her eldest son, James, is a student at Barber Scotia College in Concord, N.C. Another son, Kavin, just graduated from Dunbar High School and has been admitted to Norfolk State College.
The motivation for the group came from other youngsters at Kenilworth Courts, not her own, Gray said. "It was in December 1974," she recalled the other day. "Veronica Pollard, Terry Munford and Yolande Bowman came over to my house and said they had something serious to talk about, Okay I said, shoot."
Pollard, who had graduated that year from high school, and the other two who were high school seniors, said they wanted to go to college, but did not know how to go about it. "Okay, I said, you all come back tomorrow and let me see what I can do about this," Gray related.
"The next day, they came back with three more friends. They kept coming until there was about 25 of them. Meanwhile, I got in touch with a bunch of people and found out about programs and scholarships and all kinds of help."
For the first two years, Gray said, volunteer workers were hard to come by. She and two other women, Joyce Flowers, a program specialist with the District Manpower Administration, and Rebecca Holston, an apartment building manager, "kept the thing going all by ourselves."
Except for the 50 cents-a-week dues collected from members and some small private contributions, the group had no funding. "We really had to scratch to hold things together," Gray said.
Today, College Here We Come has a $43,000 grant recently approved by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. "That grant is like an answer from heaven," Gray said.
But more important, in the view of Gray and a number of group members, are the 13 volunteer counselors, known as "resources." Most of these people are experts in their fields who have the unique ability to bridge the wide gap of understanding between life at Kenilworth Courts and the world beyond it confines.
Kenilworth Courts, where Rte. 50 crosses into Prince George's County, looks pretty much like any other Washington project - graffiti-sprayed walls, littered grounds, dust-blanketed abandoned cars on parking lots that double as basketball courts. And children, a seemingly endless supply of children of all ages.
Officially, there are 422 families at Kenilworth Courts. In fact there are hundreds of illegal residents, "off the lease," and the project's population is thought to be in excess of 3,000. The majority are children, in their teens or younger. Out of this population, according to Gray, "except for those we've helped get into college, only two or three others have made it on their own."
It may be that College Here We Come, the group of youngster, counselors and mothers who meet in a basement room each Tuesday night, is the only distinguishing feature of Kenilworth Courts.
The two dozen young people who sat in that dimly lit room one recent night, in their athletic shoes and cut-off jeans, their t-shirt and sluch hats, looked and spoke little differently from their friends upstairs on the basketball courts and street corners.
But they were different. They had made a commitment to face their conditions, to "deal with it," as some said, to compete and somehow succeed in the world outside Kenilworth Courts.
"This is the only group of its knind in D.C.," exulted Charles Diggs, "the only one anywhere in the world." In fact, according to Kimi Gray, the group has recently launched a branch at a housing project in Norfolk, "but we're the only in D.C."
Diggs, 33, is a commercial art student at the Corcoran School of Art, part of the Corcoran Gallery. He is there, he said, almost entirely because of College Here We Come.
"I guess I knew I wanted to go," he recalled, "but I wasn't sure of how to go about it, you know, the forms, the tests and all. I guess I wasn't sure of myself. So I started coming down to the group. And right off, right from the start, they began helping me, got me ready. I'll tell you, man, it made a big difference."
How much of a difference College Here We Come will make on its ultimate goal - good jobs after graduation - remains to be seen. The first class that left Kenilworth Courts in the fall of 1973 is to graduate next June.
Group members are at once, optimistic and edgy. "We know that you just can't get any job worth a damn without that degree," Gray said. "But we also know the degree isn't a passport to success."
"That's why we take them down to the unemployment office sometimes," she went on. "So they can see and can learn what the reality is."
Being out to touch with reality is common among the project youth. "That's why, when we start out, we don't ask them what they want to be in 10 years. We ask them what they want to have." Gray explained.
"They almost always say the first thing is to take their momma out of the project and put her in a home of her own. Then they say they want a sports car, nice clothes, good shoes, a 10-speed bike to put on the back of the car and go riding in the park, a nice apartment - not anything luxurious, but nice, with green plants and pillows on the floor. They say they want an eight-hour-a-day job, so they can come to the evening and enjoy all those things.
"Then we ask them what kind of job they think they can get so they can do all these things. That stops them a minute. That's the beginning of reality."
The job problem among project youths, virtually all of whom are black, is by far the most severe in the city. A recent reexamination of figures by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development revealed that "more than 90 percent of public housing youth between the ages of 16 and 21 and out of school are presently unemployed," said department social worker Bill Clark.
This stunning figure, which was confirmed by other department officials, is nearly twice the 48.5 percent unemployment rate for all nonwhite teen-agers in the District of Columbia reported recently by the D.C. Manpower Department. Thus, the unemployment rate among housing project youth in the capital is about nine times greater than unemployed white youngsters.
A few, very few, are motivated by unemployment and other conditions of life in the projects to make their way out. But the overwhelming majority of project youngsters are crushed by the sheer weight of oppressiveness. Ultimately they succumb. And so the dreary cycle of project life goes on.
Clark, who works as a volunteer counselor, or "resources," with College Here We Come, said that "while no precise figures are available, fewer than 2 percent" of project youngsters go to college. And, he added, "more than half of all public housing youth have no concept of a career goal."
According to Roy Priest, director policy and program analysis for the Department of Housing and Community Development, the dismal performance of project youngsters is a result of an "added disability" they suffer from their environment beyond common problems shared by all poor blacks in the city.
"The real disadvantage of the public housing youth is that there aren't enough people around them who are prepared to get ahead in the mainstream of society and who have any idea about how to do it," Priest said. "There are others in Washington who are just as poor, or poorer, it's true. But they're not all jammed together in the same environment with no one but people just like themselves. That's what's deadening about public housing."
Those few project students who might want to study and do well in school frequently complain that they are shunned by friends, not quite understood by family and seldom have a quiet corner in which to get into their books.
"Peer pressure, that's what it's all about" Gray said. "You're a punk if you spend your time studying instead of playing basketball or dancing at a disco. More and more parents do understand the value of education, but most still don't."
And, because contact with middle class people, black and white, is limited, many project youngsters do not believe they have the capability to make the grade.
That is where College Here We Come comes in. With Gray and her seemingly indefatigable energy as impetus, the group has put together an extensive network of "resources." Their purpose, in essence, is to challenge the hustlers and hookers as models.
The "resources" often have to be ingenious in their approach. For instance, Clark related the case of Guy, an electronics computer technician, who joined the group to help improve mathematics abilities.
"Guy began with Chucky, who was unsure of his multiplication tables, by betting with him in a dice game," Clark recalled. "This led to talk on how Chucky usually bet and and theoretically how to win. Chucky ended up memorizing his tables and went on to basic algebra."
"Most of the counselors appeared to the youth much as the pimps and hustlers who normally would be models for the youth to imitate," Clark said. "The difference was that each counselor was well-educated, had a positioned job, and could relate and was able to take care of business, but otherwise did his own thing."
The counselors also try to show the project youngsters that they can make the jump into the middle class. With tickets provided by local government agencies, the group often goes to cultural performances - plays, concerts, opera - as well as participating in outdoor activities rare for ghetto dwellers, like camping and horseback riding.
"It used to be that the only time our young people went outside was to see sports event," Gray said. "Now we try to get them into the Kennedy Center and not just the Capital Centre. We take them to Wolf Trap and they learn that they can sit on their blanket and drink a Coke next to a white family in long gowns and minks drinking champagne.
"And we Don't tell them to just sit there and behave themselves. We tell them to sit there and learn."
Impressed by the group's success on these varied fronts and convinced that only an ad hoc organization could function on this level, the Department of Housing and Community Development approved a $43,000 grant to College Here We Come earlier this year.
The grant is for the coming year only and the group is seeking continuing sponsorship from other agencies. The money is to be used for a variety of expenses that project families normally have difficulty in meeting.
"We'll be able to help parents who can't afford it to cover the $50 or $60 high school graduation class fees," Gray said. "We'll help pay for college application fees, admission tests, a suitcase when the student needs it, transportation to school, plane fare is necessary, even long distance calls."
This year, as in the past, the group will hire a mobile home to take prospective college students on tour of schools. "But with the grant, we'll be able to take many more, and go to more schools," Gray noted.
College Here We Come strongly urges students to spend at least their first year in a school outside Washington. "They're in a totally different environment for the first time in their lives," said Priest. "They can have a place of their own to study and don't have to deal with someone, a friend or someone at home, bothering them for being a bookworm and that sort of thing."
Going out of town can be more expensive than going to a local college," Gray noted, "if you think only of dollars and cents. But it's very rich in exposure. And that's something most of our children just don't get when they stay home."
Project students away from home must learn self discipline and sacrifice, she added. "They have to get themselves out of bed and go to class every day. They have to get by on the few dollars and food stamps momma sends them. And it matures them in a big hurry. The boys and girls who went away in 1975 are grown men and women now."
Veronica Pollard, 22, who was one of the originators of the College Here We Come idea, was in the first class.Now she is a senior at Delaware State College, majoring in economics and business administration.
"What this group does, what it's done for me and others, is to make us aware of facilities already exist in the system and how we can use them," Pollard said after a meeting recently. "And it makes us aware of what we can do for ourselves.
"There are guidance counselor in the high schools who are supposed to give this kind of help, but they don't know how to motivate the kids. What we do is go out and get the kids. With our resources, we know how to reach them."
A major part of what the group does is keep those who have already gone away to college to touch with those still in high school. Those who have made the break with the projects come to occasional Tuesday night meetings and pass on their new knowledge and sophistication to younger members.
"And it works the other way, too." Gray said. "When one of our students isn't doing well in some course, we all get after him and pin him down. Most times they go back and do better."
Clark agreed that it was important to keep the two halves of the group in contact. "But," he said, "it's hard. It requires a certain amount of schizophrenia once you've changed your pattern of speech and behavior, your style of life, of dressing, to move up and out. They find they're different from their former peers and and it's often very painful to return."
But most of the students do return. Among other things, they continue to look to College Here We Come for summer jobs. This year, Gray said, the group found work for 200 of the 220 members.
"I learned a trick from a white lady I met in a federal government office," she said. "Now we make our summer job applications in December. White people have known about that for a long time. But we just found out about it."
Many project students need the summer work in order to make it through the coming school year, though a considerable number receive full or partial scholarships.
"In fact," Pollard claimed, "in some ways, once we get into college, it's easier for us than it is for people who come from families where they earn, say $20,000 a year. That's not enough to send six kids through college, but it's too much to qualify for a scholarship."
The schools where most of the students end up tend to be all-black or heavily black institutions. "They want to feel comfortable and that's why no more than five have gone to white schools," said Gray, who professed to prefer things that way.
"I've seen too many black youngsters come back from white colleges like 'Oreos,' white inside and black only on the outside." she said. "We don't want our black children losing their black identity."
But Gray conceded that admission qualifications for predominantly white colleges were "too high" for most project students. Low standards in many D.C. public high schools and poor performance by students from backgrounds in which studying is discouraged keep all but a tiny number out of the more demanding colleges.
This poor preparation is evident at the Tuesday night meetings. At one recent session, Joyce Flowers, a volunteer counselor, administered the following spelling test to about two dozen youngsters, including several already in college:
Utilization, stereotype, bias, philanthropist, condominium, bureaucrat, enlightening, longitudinal, immobilize, justification.
As she carefully sounded out the words, Flowers asked for their use in sentences or for definitions. In only one case did anyone make a try. A young man said "justification" was "the act of checking out."
Drilling like this to prepare youngsters for standardized testing is a preoccupation of College Here We Come Meetings. Counselors also work on such college essentials as library use, not-taking, scientific logic, debating and writing techniques and even dictionary use. At one point, according to Clark, in order to encourage reading a counselor give a group of boys dictionaries and pornographic magazines - "with the pictures removed."
Since the early days, when counselors determined that virtually all group members were poorly prepared in mathematics and reading and had a limited sense of logix, heavy emphasis has been placed on helping the youngsters relate the facts of their own lives to the demands of college.
To help determine intelligence levels, Bill Clark devised the "chitling test," which is heavily biased toward black culture. Sessions in debate and public speaking often turn on project concerns like gun control, rape and public assistance.
Benjamin Hawkins, 24, a sophomore at Central State University in Ohio, said that when he began there he did not meet basic requirements in mathematics or foreign languages. "It was really rough at first," he said, "but I caught up and it's okay now."
An outsider attending a College Here We Come meeting gets the impression that these students have come to terms with the mainstream of society. They seem intent on succeeding in a way of life in which most of the rules are generally rejected by project people.
Yet there is a faint suggestion that, somehow, maybe, they'll eventually play their own role in setting the rules. Twahn-rie Mills, an 18-year-old graduate of Cardozo High School who has applied to George Washington University, put it this way:
"You read in the papers how people say, 'Well, they're black, so they have to be into crime.' Well, I'd like to be one of those to prove them wrong.
"We know that 70 percent of the blacks are unemployed and we know what the white statistics are. And we know why.
"We know in the capitalistic system that there always has to be a poor class. And you can bet that if I ever make it, I'm going to change that."