Let us cast our minds back to January, when President Obama boldly declared during his seventh State of the Union Address that “[w]ith a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth… the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
Alas, the outlook isn’t nearly so strong for many able-bodied young males just a short walk from the U.S. Capitol where the president delivered those words to rousing applause. In fact, in one of the few remaining public housing developments in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, poverty is endemic. Job prospects are scarce. And the temptation to make easy money selling drugs is abundant.
There is hope, however. Little Lights Urban Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit working with low-income families in the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins public housing communities around Capitol Hill, has been creating employment opportunities for this neighborhood through an innovative and entrepreneurial program.
“The Clean Green Team” is a full-service landscaping business met to offer gainful employment to men in the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins public housing communities.
Men like Henry, the Clean Green Team’s assistant manager, grew up in the projects with few role models and no clear direction in life. But thanks to Little Lights Urban Ministries, Henry says that, “I’m not the person I used to be.” Henry is learning valuable work experience, including how to take criticism so that he can be a better worker.
And as a father, Henry says that his daughter beams with pride and boasts to her friends in school: “My Daddy cuts the grass.”
In a city where the African-American unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, the Clean Green Team is contributing in a small way to improve these numbers.
As a nonprofit mostly relying primarily on the generosity of donors, churches and charitable foundations, Little Lights is an example of the positive contributions faith-based organizations are making in places where government aid has kept generations stuck in a cycle of poverty.
The Clean Green Team is providing men with valuable job experience that they can use to apply for jobs elsewhere. This is precisely what happened to Gary, a former Clean Green Team employee who now works full time for the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority.
Gary’s story is at the core of what the Clean Green Team is all about, says Little Lights Executive Director Steve Park. He says he believes the Clean Green Team is giving people in the community hope. The enterprise also gives young men like Antonio a second chance. After getting caught up with the wrong crowd and serving some time in jail, Antonio is now gainfully employed by the Clean Green Team.
Little Lights’ approach underscores what Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise says about the best anti-poverty programs: it’s those enterprises embedded within neighborhoods, not top-down federal programs, that best respond to a community’s unique needs.
“I believe low-income people must become agents of their own uplift instead of being assigned the role of a client of professional service providers,” said Woodson. “People are motivated to change and improve when they are shown victories that are possible, not injuries to be avoided.”