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Group trains neighbors to become leaders

(Published June 28, 1999)


Staff Writer

Perry Elementary School, one of the oldest black schools in the District, sat boarded up for years at M Street and New York Avenue NW. Today, Perry is a working community center that provides computer classes, dance classes, childcare and a health center to residents of Ward 5.

The rebirth of Perry School, something many residents had long dreamed about, could not have happened without Empowering Neighborhood People, a program that trains local residents to become leaders in their community, said ANC commissioner Joyce Robinson-Paul, who worked on the project.

"By recognizing our neighborhood resources and getting to know who’s in our community, we were able to get it done," Robinson-Paul said.

ENP is a six-year-old training program that takes participants in selected neighborhoods through a year-long series of five workshops focusing on leadership development, strategic planning and group dynamics.

The program is facilitated by Johns Hopkins University’s Social Change and Development Department of the School of Advanced Studies in partnership with the Heartland Center for Community Development.

Robinson-Paul, who completed the program in 1995, said though she believes it is important for people in the neighborhood to plan their own community, ENP trainers offered the groups a format and ways they could map out their neighborhood.

"We had some really good trainers -- they went on tours of our neighborhoods, attended meetings," she said. "We were able to pull each other together and brainstorm on how to use businesses in our community."

Each year three neighborhood groups of 20 to 30 members are selected to attend a series of five weekend workshops covering recruitment of leaders and activists, identification of community assets, methods for developing action plans in a six-step strategic planning process, conflict management, and proposal writing. At the end participants receive a graduation certificate.

The program has been completed by residents of Columbia Heights, Frederick Douglass Dwellings, and Bloomingdale. The Columbia Heights neighborhood group created an action plan to improve the Clifton Terrace housing complex. ENP participants in the Frederick Douglass group started a regular neighborhood cleanup and broke ground for a community vegetable garden. Bloomingdale Civic Association revived its organization.

Program Coordinator Abena Disroe -- a former teacher, playwright and storyteller -- said she was hired because of her long relationship with many of the community activists and neighborhood leaders. Her main responsibility is recruiting.

"I try to recruit people who show membership diversity and have already organized short-term projects," she said. "I want to see who’s going to make the commitment to stay as a group. We get people that don’t know how to work as a group and bring them together for a vision."

This year’s participating groups include the 16th Street NW neighborhood, South Washington West of the River Group, and the Marshall Heights ENP Collaborative. So far residents of the Bloomingdale, Carver Langston, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, North Capitol, North Lincoln Park-Kingman Park, Shaw, Edgewood, Congress Heights and Brookland neighborhoods have completed the program.

Disroe said participants identify neighborhood trends and assets, analyze the trends, visualize goals for neighborhoods, develop strategies to implement goals, target who does what, when and how, and evaluate how well the process is working.

Tyrone Alvin of the Marshall Heights group said his group is working on their vision and goals.

"We spent more of our time teambuilding because our group is very diverse," he said.

Alvin said his group is a microcosm of the community. He said the group, the only one among current program participants that has young members, may create an arts and technical center in the neighborhood as its major project.

Disroe said all the groups are progressing well and the 16th Street group has begun a newsletter.

Empowering Neighborhood People is now recruiting participants for next year’s program. Applications are being accepted until Aug. 16.

Training is every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Childcare, transportation and meals are available. For more information, call 663-5652.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator