PHOTO: Students lead a presentation during the closing ceremony for the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute on the evening of May 19th./ Photo courtesy of Jasmine Wilson/MYBLI 

A group of middle and high school students recently wowed an audience of their peers and family members with their problem-solving skills and reflections about their personal and professional journey during a gathering hosted by a District government agency.

During this event, the nearly 20 youngsters, a number of whom will attend the college of their choice this fall, celebrated the completion of another year in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI), a youth development program housed within the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). 

“Being in this program has been overwhelming [at times] but it helped me grow as a leader. I met lifelong friends, learned how to lead, network, and dress professionally,” Ebony Johnson, a youth mayor and a four-year MBYLI participant, told AllEyesOnDC during the Thursday, May 19th program, which fell on what would’ve been martyred activist Malcolm X’s 91st birthday.

Johnson counted among those who received honors during a two-hour program, themed “Malcolm to Marion: The Global Xperience,” at DOES headquarters in Northeast. Organizers named the event for Malcolm and late D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry.

As one of two youth mayors, Johnson represented D.C.’s young people during public events, black-tie functions, and other gatherings, experiences she said pushed her into the spotlight. Hours before the start of the end-of-the-year program, Johnson finished her last day at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland.

This fall, she’ll attend Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. where she plans to take lessons she learned about Malcolm in her political science and Spanish studies.

“I enjoyed learning about Malcolm X because he [created] a legacy [about] being yourself and doing what you have to do even if people won’t like you for it.  Leaders go through so much but they succeed when they surround themselves around successful people,” Johnson eagerly mentioned.

Throughout the 2015-2016 school year, more than 125 youth involved with MBYLI engaged in personal development, civic engagement, and work readiness training. This summer, 300 high school students will sharpen their academic and professional skills on area college campuses including Catholic and Howard universities, located in Northeast and Northwest respectively. 

Some students have also become more globally aware in their involvement with MBYLI. Last year, the program sent 13 young people to South Africa as part of a partnership with Global Kids, a nonprofit that allows students in underserved communities to connect with their peers across the world.

“This program keeps the kids busy and involved in different activities. My son has become more comfortable with public speaking [since joining],” Yolanda Allen told AllEyesOnDC, referring to Anthony David, a freshman at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest. 

Allen, a Southeast resident, said that since enrolling in MBYLI, David has has taken on leadership roles and grown more confident in a society that often limits the career opportunities of young Black men to athletics and entertainment.     

“I want him to be a productive citizen and make our race proud as a Black man,” Allen  added.”I’m not losing my young one to the block. He has to do what he has to do. I highly encourage parents to do the same. It’s about the community. These students come from all walks of life and get along so well.”

Last week’s program served as testament to the sense of community MBYLI fosters. Throughout much of the evening, students answered to greetings of “Hello winners!” Phillip Walker, MBYLI manager, gave opening remarks, reflecting on his experience as a participant and alumnus of the program.

Later, the young winners gave presentations about Malcolm X, the college application process, and their growth in the program. One group outlined a 10-point program modeled after that of the Black Panther Party that would counter spatial mismatching. Plans included a charter bus service that transporting students from McKinley Technology High School in Northeast to their Southeast neighborhoods.

Special guests included D.C. Deputy Mayor of Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden who briefly spoke to students and parents. Veteran developer Ibrahim Mumin gave the keynote address in which he highlighted Barry’s civil rights work and evoked Malcolm X’s nationalistic spirit.

“We should be about institution building. We can train people for years but if they don’t bring their skills back to the village. It doesn’t help the city,” Mumin told the audience. “We have to change the culture in D.C. We can’t be chumps and go along with people who do the illegal stuff. Let’s internationalize our struggle.”

The late Barry, often referred to as “Mayor for Life” during his storied career, launched MBYLI, then called the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, in the late 1970s. The program employed an untold number of young D.C. residents, many of whom went on to work in public service. MBYLI’s alumni association recently became a 501(c)3, a plan put in motion after Barry’s 2014 death.

“This program was nothing short of extraordinary for me. I’m using what I learned there and in college to give back to the young ones,” David Williams, 2011 MBYLI alumnus and current employee, told AllEyesOnDC. After graduating from the University of Maryland College Park in 2015, he took on the responsibility of training MBYLI students as an Omega leader.

Williams said such an opportunity allowed him to impart wisdom on those whose shoes he sat in at one point.

“We have to inspire these kids and impact them in a way that helps them grow. Our biggest challenge this year was finding resources. I used my personal finances to fund activities and it was rewarding to see how that affected them.”