When Christopher Wiggins, 26, was released from incarceration, he knew it would be difficult to raise his two young children without making some changes himself. That’s where the Smart from the Start program came in.
Upon entering Smart from the Start’s office in Woodland Terrace—a D.C. Housing Authority community that has experienced enough violent crime to merit 24-hour police protection—a clean and colorful living room grabs your attention. Bright red plush couches contrast to the building’s dull exterior. Several play rooms and a closet full of books donated by the First Book foundation make it seem like a daycare at first glance.
However, Smart from the Start is geared toward the whole family. The third floor is dedicated to parents, and includes relaxation area, a computer lab where various classes are offered and even an area where mothers receive prenatal and postpartum counseling.
“[Smart from the Start] works exclusively with low-income families to provide them with the skills, resources and tools they need so we can prevent the academic achievement gap for young children, but also start breaking cycles of poverty and chronic school underachievement,” said Kathleen Chapman, manager of Smart from the Start’s special projects and strategic relationships. “So we do a very holistic approach.”
Chapman called the involvement of parents in child education Smart from the Start’s “secret sauce.” By energizing family units, she said they hoped to bring energy, light, and hope to the Woodland Terrace area.
“While our focus is early education and preparing the children, we know that it’s not sustainable if the family isn’t thriving,” Chapman said. “So we invest a lot in parenting programs too, to really make sure that the parent is accomplishing their short term and long term goals towards self sufficiency.”
A prominent example of their investment in parents is the Leadership, Empowerment, and Advocacy Program (LEAP), the goal of which is to empower young fathers in low-income communities through education and job readiness. This was the door-opener for Wiggins and fellow participant Markel Dinkins, also a formerly incarcerated young father.
Both men participated in a three-week mentorship program called Project Empowerment, where mentor Paul Thomas, hired in partnership with the Office of Returning Citizens and the Department of Employment Services, trained them in eco-friendly cleaning to make the pair more competitive in the job market.
When Wiggins and Dinkins proved their leadership skills through these avenues, the D.C. Children’s Trust, which funds LEAP, provided them with scholarships to attend a conference in New Orleans, Louisiana focused on the empowerment of men of color. They joined a group which consisted of representatives from various D.C. organizations hoping to share their perspectives and bring new strategies back to the District.
Before Dinkins and Wiggins left for the conference, Chapman gave them a piece of advice:
“You have that real experience and that’s irreplaceable and such a big value. So don’t be afraid to speak up,” she told them.
Wiggins and Dinkins reflected on the conference in personal interviews.
“It wasn’t difficult to speak up, because people were so interested in our story.” Wiggins said, “I was trying to be interested in their story!”
Dinkins noted that many of the other conference attendees were interested to hear from them the reality of low-income community life. He was surprised by the attitude of attendees from older generations than him.
“I thought we were going to learn from them, but they were coming to learn from the youth,” he said.
The conference speakers stressed the importance of sharing wisdom across generations. Both Wiggins and Dinkins expressed their eagerness to become leaders within their community in order to prevent younger generations from falling into cycles of low education and achievement, citing mentorship and leadership as key needs in their neighborhood.
“If they could follow you through the wrong times, I know they can follow you through the good times and just make this community a better place,” Wiggins said, confident in Woodland Terrace’s potential.
Wiggins and Dinkins have received many reactions from their friends and family since joining Smart from the Start, especially when they received the opportunity to go to the New Orleans conference. Most were surprised, but ultimately supportive of their strides toward becoming Woodland Terrace leaders.
“If I keep pushing, if all of us keep pushing, we can make a big difference to the youth under us,” Dinkins said.
This month Wiggins and Dinkins will have the opportunity to be the “tour guides” in their own city. In October, the two men will speak as panelists at the National Black Child Development Conference about young fatherhood in this generation. Chapman is confident the conference will be enriched by having them onboard.
“Smart from the Start will be talking about our model and mission, and Markel and Christopher about the vision they see for their communities and for their children,” she said.
Wiggins and Dinkins continue to participate in Smart from the Start programs, as do their children. The conference was a chance for the two to network and open themselves up to future opportunities. They agreed that while the New Orleans trip was their first plane ride, it would not be the last.