Shortly after the establishment of a federal holiday honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1986, Kimi Gray was among the first to urge that he be honored by celebrating a “day on” rather than a day off. She felt that a day aptly commemorating Dr. King’s legacy would be one in which all the engines of community investment and service are moving with full force.
At that time, Kimi was a young single mother with five children living in D.C.’s Kenilworth-Parkside public housing projects. She took Dr. King’s dream to heart, because she herself was a dreamer. Like Dr. King, her vision of liberation encompassed not only establishing equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, but also of developing a strategy to overcome roadblocks to upward mobility and individuals’ fulfillment of their God-given capacities and potential.
In the late 1980s, Kimi was in the vanguard of a band of intrepid community leaders in public housing developments throughout the nation who committed themselves to revitalizing conditions in their neighborhoods and creating avenues for the next generation to pursue their dreams. With the support of Bob Woodson and his National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and then-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who shared their vision, the Resident Management Movement blazed a trail for community empowerment.
Under the management of the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Council, Kimi’s neighborhood experienced a dramatic change. Crime and drug trafficking plummeted, rental payment improved, and problems with plumbing, heating, and trash removal were solved. In addition, services not previously available—a co-op food store, a barber and beauty shop, a snack bar, and a recreation center—were opened in the community and playground equipment was set up. A College Here We Come program was launched to prepare and shepherd youths through the application process toward higher education and scholarship opportunities. The stage was set for the next step, in which resident groups would attain ownership of their properties.
Kemp declared it as a time to jettison a failed poverty agenda and “roll back its boundaries everywhere in our lives and expand the frontiers of freedom and opportunity for all,” saying, “We need an anti-poverty agenda based on democratic capitalism, not socialism and on private ownership, not government control. Our definition of compassion is not how many people live on the government welfare plantation, but how many of our people are liberated from government dependence.”
Though Dr. King would be proud of the headway that had been accomplished during that era, much remains to be done in embracing a strategy to address poverty that focuses on upward mobility and self-sufficiency. May his dream continue to provide a beacon in this quest.