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Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Lending a hand to hard-luck kids

Special to The Times

Rochelle Williams could have thrown her hands up in despair. After all, her twin brother and father are in jail, and her mother has been in and (mostly) out of her life.

But when Williams, now 18, moved back to Seattle by herself from New Orleans, she got work as a cashier and enrolled at Rainier Beach High School. Though she had no permanent home, she stuck with her studies and graduated last spring.

Now she's one of seven residents of Harder House, a transitional-living facility for homeless young African Americans, located in North Seattle. "I love it here," she says. "I have an opportunity to get set, go out into the world and start doing everything I want to do. And I want to do it all."

Williams is looking for work and plans to continue her schooling. She's aiming to be a pediatrician and psychiatrist, and write her autobiography.

Harder House embodies a long-held goal for Aaron Dixon, who helped found and lead the Seattle branch of the Black Panthers. Dixon's long voyage — which included work for the Panthers in Oakland — brought him back to Seattle in 1986. He has since taken on a series of jobs and projects benefiting minority youth and young adults.

Unfortunately, the media aren't too interested in guys like Dixon, who're hard at work in the trenches, but have left behind 1960s-style protests and confrontation.

To get Harder House going, Dixon worked closely with the late Guy Kurose — another former Seattle Panther, minority youth mentor and black belt karate master and instructor. Dixon says the home will be renamed for Kurose, who lost his life to complications from cancer last year at age 49.

Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle, corralled a big chunk of Harder House funding from county, state, federal and nonprofit sources.

"This model is very innovative and necessary because it teaches young people how to solve problems, handle chores and housework," says Lee. She adds, "It's crucial they take this opportunity to get back in school and get work."

Some Harder House residents have spent years in foster care; one lost both parents to drug-related fatalities.

All must spend at least 30 hours weekly out of the house, at work or school, or looking for work. Several are enrolled in vocational or community colleges; some intend to get four-year and advanced degrees. Their career goals include hairdresser, business executive, family therapist and criminal psychologist.

At a recent Saturday morning house meeting, residents discussed forgotten chores, respecting private property and building unity.

Shakala Tucker, 19, requests that when Dixon talks to residents about problem behavior, he ensures anonymity for those who've expressed concerns: Otherwise, recriminations could ensue.

Dixon, listening carefully, agrees.

Later, Tucker tells me, "We handle conflict poorly because we never had a steady roof over our heads. But we're really trying to build a family here." Plans are afoot for social outings and a Thanksgiving dinner.

Harder House was inspired when Dixon was working with at-risk youth at Sharples Alternative School and living in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood.

He recalls, "So many young people of color I knew were either homeless, or 'couch-surfing.' There was one young man who was always so bright and cheery. I had no idea he was homeless until after I learned he was shot to death under the freeway, in the International District."

Dixon, a father of five, opened up his home to several youths. So did his close friend Kurose. But a more formal setting was necessary, leading to Harder House.

As executive director of Central House, a nonprofit youth-development organization he formed in 2001, Dixon has his finger in several pies. A budding partnership between Central House and Essential Bakeries could provide jobs for Harder House residents.

A Central House media literacy project at the Garfield Teen Life Center has yielded a gritty screenplay about life challenges facing inner-city African-American teens. With help from the Eisenhower Foundation, which funded the effort, the script will be marketed to movie producers.

It's no pipe dream. The foundation believes youth consortiums are vital messengers, and helped the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston develop and finance its own commercially released movie, "Squeeze."

Central House has also garnered capital from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and King County for a special yearlong program. About 10 kids in juvenile detention will learn about leadership, community organizing and critical thinking.

In his quest to help troubled kids of color build self-respect and self-sufficiency, Dixon, 54, now makes no grandstand plays. He says, "This isn't the time for 'leaders.' It's the time for people to just do good things."

There are more Aaron Dixons out there. It's time we heard their stories, too.

Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer and regular contributor to The Times' editorial pages. E-mail him at oudist@nwlink.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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