For two weeks, nearly a dozen elementary, middle and high school youths formed bonds, increased their financial literacy, and cleaned portions of the Anacostia neighborhood as part of a program coordinated by a local developer and the community organizers who’ve long worked with the adolescents.

In the midst of a pandemic that has confined thousands of young people to their homes, the youngsters who participated in these service-learning projects and online workshops said they thoroughly enjoyed interacting with their peers, and embarking on group walks that helped them see their community in a new light.

“The relationships were cool,” said Isaiah Minder, a ninth grader and one of ten young people recently recognized for their acts of service in the Banneker-Blueprint Ward 8 Outreach Program. “I was one of the older people, [so] I would sit in the back while we picked up trash and tell them if they missed something,” Isaiah added.

On Nov. 28, when they received their award, Isaiah and other young men cleaned portions of Talbert Place, Shannon Place, Good Hope Road, 16th Street, and W Street with the Banneker-Blueprint Ward 8 Outreach Program. In the weeks leading up to that milestone, they engaged their mentors in virtual sessions about life skills and money management, and discussed the harsh realities of life on the streets.

“In the long run, if I see them [out and about] alone, we would have to come together,” Isaiah said in reference to the younger people he befriended over the two weeks. “I don’t want anything to happen to them. I see [a future of] friendships and making bonds to provide the things this community doesn’t have.”

The Banneker-Blueprint Ward 8 Outreach Program coalesced through a community benefits agreement (CBA) for the Clara on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue between local developer Banneker Ventures and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A.

The Clara, onetime home of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, the Clara Muhammad School, and Shabazz Bakery, will soon be the site of 81 affordable housing units and ground floor retail space. Earlier this year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced that nearly a dozen projects, including the Clara, would receive further underwriting from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Omar Karim, president of Banneker Ventures, said that, while the CBA with ANC 8A mandates the hiring of community members on the construction project, the firm has established a relationship with the community well before construction is scheduled to start in 2021.

For example, Banneker Ventures hired an undergraduate student from Ward 8 as a development intern.

Last month, Banneker Ventures sponsored its third annual Thanksgiving turkey drive and giveaway with WKYS 93.9FM, and collaborated with the Office of Ward 8 Council member Trayon White (D) to serve 90 families. Months before the pandemic, it distributed books and school supplies for youths returning to school.

When local schools shuttered, the firm reached out to Warees Majeed and Duane “Cousin Wayne” Cunningham, two community organizers and founders of Blueprint Development Consultants who, along with Andrew Smith El and Larry Bradley, launched more efforts to help District youth and families. “We partnered with a longtime institution [and] that made it easy for us when we went into the community with the development plan,” Karim told The Informer.

“Everyone across the city has been supportive [and] we’re grateful to ANC 8A, the mayor, Council member White and all of the housing agencies in the District, including DHCD, DCHFA and DCHA,” he added. “We came up with a robust community benefits package with the things we would do and we started doing them. Our hope is that this CBA will be an example for other developers to follow.”

In October, protesters gathered on the site of the MLK Gateway Project to contest what they alleged is the developers’ failure to hire D.C. residents. Protesters’ comments about Latino workers on site during the protest later drew the ire of politicos and community organizers in D.C.’s Latino community.

With no end in sight to the pandemic, frustrations about dire economic conditions, public safety and other issues of concern continue to run high. Violent crime has, in part, been attributed to the stress of a prolonged quarantine and uncertainty about what the future holds. Meanwhile, some students and parents continue to reject the isolation of virtual learning.

For some young people like Kiron Andrews who’ve interacted mostly with his elders during virtual learning, Banneker-Blueprint Ward 8 Outreach Program not only reintroduced him to his peer group, but exposed him to progressive ideas.

“Blueprint taught us how to save and invest our money, and I also learned that it’s kind of alright to pick up the trash but you have to pay attention to what’s in it,” said Kiron, a seventh grader. “There were a lot of homeless and high people on the streets sitting down, and [seeing them] taught me a life lesson [about] bettering myself and not wanting to be someone who’s on the streets daily.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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