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Inner-city youths in D.C. get hands-on training in citizenship. They work with `real life' adult counterparts to learn politics, issues

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Wallace Sutherland is only 17, but already he is a mayor. Actually, he is one of two ``youth'' mayors elected every year by 500 inner-city students here. The students have all been chosen to participate in a city program that tries to give them a strong sense of responsibility for family, community, and the world.

Like thousands of young people in this city, Mayor Sutherland has to cope with the challenges presented by widespread drug use, crime, and other disadvantages. But he and others selected for Washington's Youth Leadership Program work with ``real life'' adult counterparts to learn the political process and the issues.

In Sutherland's own words, it has ``taught me how to deal with fear, feelings, and friends.''

The institute was founded six years ago by District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry and Commissioner of Social Services Audrey Rowe to fill what they perceived as a void of opportunities for young blacks to learn leadership skills.

Against seemingly enormous odds, it has graduated 2,000 youngsters since 1980 from an intensive program aimed at providing them with a strong sense of civic and family responsibility.

Many of those young people have gone on to have excellent college records. One institute graduate became Washington's youngest elected official, winning a delegate seat at the district's statehood convention.

The institute's motto is, ``If it is to be, it is up to me.''

Executive director Jackie Robinson, himself a product of the housing projects of New York City, says transcending harsh circumstances hinges on tapping the young people's inner resources, not ``sticking religion down these kids' throats.''

He explains: ``We don't preach to our kids. ... We use positive examples and downplay the negative.

``We show them they have the power ... to change the situation, and then allow them to experiment on how to make those changes.''

Ms. Rowe says that the momentum of history during the black American civil rights movement forced people like herself and Mayor Barry to learn leadership skills.


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