How a Song and A Prayer Opened Washington’s Wallet

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No one pries money from the federal government for youth programs like Wintley Phipps.

He sings. He sings to presidents. He sings to senators. He even records songs written by  a senator: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Phipps is a world-renowned gospel singer - which helps explain why the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) awarded $600,000 in noncompetitive grants for him to start a youth program called the U.S. Dream Academy, why Congress plans to earmark another $645,000 for the program in the next federal budget, and why Sens. Hatch and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) - who line up together as often as the sun and the moon - recently co-chaired a gala to raise $1.6 million to expand Phipps' dream nationwide.

In a field where fledgling youth agencies scrape for every dollar, the Dream Academy's fast financial success offers rare insight into how Washington cuts corners to fund ideas that catch the right ears. The question is, does the academy's story show how this process helps kids, or why funds should not be handed out this way?

There is no doubt that the academy does some good: It provides computer-based tutoring for poor kids who appear headed for academic failure and maybe even incarceration. The academy's main site offers a safe, fun place for children in a rough neighborhood.

But while the academy has built support by saying it focuses on children whose parents are in prison, it does not  know how many of its kids have parents in prison, and it's likely that most of them do not. The DOL has no record of assessing Phipps' proposal or his ability to carry it out before awarding the grant, while the academy has never provided the progress reports that the grant requires. And after two years of grants and donations totaling more than $2 million, the academy's direct youth service amounts to a dozen donated computers shoehorned into space provided by other agencies, serving 200 children in Washington, D.C.

 

In a field where fledgling youth agencies scrape for every dollar, the Dream Academy's fast financial success offers rare insight into how Washington cuts corners to fund ideas that catch the right ears.

 

The academy says it has boosted the attitudes and behavior of those youths, that most of its money is for expansion, and that it has done everything the DOL has asked.

The Dream Academy demonstrates, as Phipps (47) puts it, "the power of relationships" in building youth programs - although he realizes that few youth workers' relationships include presidents, Oprah Winfrey and Diana Ross.

 

 

A Voice to Cry For

Phipps' foray into youth work began because he does something annoying: When Phipps walks onto a train and sees someone who has spread his belongings on a neighboring seat so that no one will sit next to him, Phipps sits next to him. He likes to bring people out of their shells. So as he boarded an Amtrak in Washington, D.C., one day around 1985, he sat next to a man who "looked a little low to me."

The man was Charles Colson, the former Nixon administration aide who served time for the Watergate conspiracy, then founded Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) to reach out to prisoners and their families. The seatmates were friends by Philadelphia; soon Phipps went to work for PFM.

By then Phipps was a rising gospel singer; he has recorded more than 15 albums with a gift that is a rarity among soloists: a bass baritone voice. A native of Trinidad, raised mostly in Montreal, Phipps earned a bachelor of arts in theology from Oakwood College (Alabama) and a master's of divinity from Andrews University (Michigan), then served as a minister at Seventh-day Adventist churches in the Washington, D.C., area.

His serendipitous meeting with Colson illustrates a knack for high-level networking that began at least as far back as Oakwood, where he met the Rev. Jessie Jackson during a campus visit in the early '70s. Phipps began working occasionally for Jackson's PUSH. A decade later, enamored of Phipps' singing, Jackson offered him a stunning opportunity: to sing immediately after Jackson's speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

The Washington Post later described the impact of Phipps' rendition of "Ordinary People": "He had a rainbow of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Native Americans holding hands and swaying back and forth like a forest caught up in a forceful but calm tropical storm. Tears flowed freely. Many of those in the crowd were disarmed and numbed by the moment."

Phipps' career took off. Ever since the Reagan administration he has been a regular at the annual National Prayer Breakfasts with the president and Congress. He also met prominent and powerful people through his churches. (He now serves at Seabrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland.) He sung at Diana Ross' wedding and befriended Oprah Winfrey when she was a reporter in Baltimore.

"He has a real gift for maintaining and developing relationships," says C. Diane Booker, a lawyer who met Phipps when she attended his church and is now vice president of the academy.

 One result is that over the past decade, Phipps has essentially been the nation's Gospel Singer Laureate. Aside from the prayer breakfasts every year, his appearances have included the national memorial service for U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to Mother Teresa and the installation ceremony of Attorney General John Ashcroft. After his prayer breakfast performance this year, according to press reports, President Bush shook Phipps' hand  and said, "Man, you sure can sing."

The trick has been turning praise like that into financial support for his dream.

Nice Idea, Good Luck

At PFM headquarters in Virginia, Phipps was in charge of children, youth and family initiatives, recalls Senior Vice President Karen Strong. The agency's primary youth program was Angel Tree, which provided gifts for prisoners to give their children at Christmas. Phipps wanted to do more. He created an advisory board to review the impact of parents' imprisonment on children and what could be done about it, Strong says. He expanded Angel Tree to include other types of outreach to the children and their families, including helping the kids with basics like school supplies. Angel Tree's camp for kids has its roots in Phipps' work, Strong says.

His interest is personal. During his visits to prisons with Colson, the overwhelming percentage of blacks (especially men) behind bars shocked him. Phipps grows almost angry as he rattles off statistics about imprisoned African-Americans, saying that being in the criminal justice system "is a part of almost every African-American family in this country."

Including his. Phipps says his wife's seven brothers and sisters have all been locked up. His wife's oldest sister has six children, five of whom have been incarcerated. During a visit to a Florida prison, he met a pregnant inmate who turned out to be his wife's niece. Phipps says he himself has not been incarcerated.

 

The Washington Post described the impact of Phipps' rendition of "Ordinary People": "He had a rainbow of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Native Americans holding hands and swaying back and forth like a forest caught up in a forceful but calm tropical storm.

 

At PFM, Strong says, Phipps envisioned helping the children of prisoners with a computer-based tutoring and mentoring program. The PFM board loved it, Strong says, but said that "the fellowship is not an education organization ... His vision required a lot more structure and strategic collaboration than were fit for us."

So in the mid-1990s Phipps set out to create the program himself, talking it up at singing performances and "knocking on the doors of all those people who'd heard me sing," Phipps says. "I was trying to leverage everything I could."

'Under the Radar'

Booker and Strong helped Phipps develop his idea and pitch it to businesses and members of Congress. "We went through the regular channels with staff people" on Capitol Hill, Booker recalls. "We had the brush-off meetings."

But they also had meetings like this: Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, asked Phipps to visit his office one day in 1997. "Every time I hear you, you touch my life," Phipps recalls Gingrich saying. Soon the men talked about at-risk kids, and Phipps pitched his idea for an online tutorial academy for "children of prisoners and children falling behind in school." Gingrich mentioned the idea to President Bill Clinton, who briefly discussed it with Phipps when the two of them met (not for the first time) at a subsequent function.

Why would Gingrich ask Phipps about at-risk kids? Phipps shrugs: "I really think it's because I touched his heart. The music moved him. He felt a certain level of openness because he had seen me on many occasions."

Phipps gets the ears of powerful people, Strong says, because they know him first as a singer and minister. "He flies kind of under the radar, because he's not a political animal" pitching an agenda, she notes.

Some of those people steered Phipps to the DOL, which among other things funds programs to improve the job-readiness of youth. Phipps says "there was a sense of affinity with [DOL Secretary] Alexis Herman," whom he had talked with at singing engagements.

The grant application went to the DOL's Office of Policy and Research, which reviews unsolicited proposals and looks for those that appear "unique," as one DOL official put it. The academy proposed to create high-tech tutoring and mentoring centers for youth at risk of "future underemployment, unemployment or incarceration," with "its primary focus on the sons and daughters of our nation's prisoners."

The academy submitted the application in April or May of 1999, Phipps said, and in June the DOL awarded $600,000 in grants for the idea. The DOL's standard process for evaluating unsolicited proposals includes technical reviews by staff to judge the proposal and the applicant's ability to carry it out - but the DOL says it has no staff assessments of the academy proposal. Phipps readily acknowledges the power of connections: He assumes that Clinton or Herman helped to move the proposal along.

 

Aside from the prayer breakfasts every year, Phipps' appearances have included the national memorial service for U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to Mother Teresa and the installation ceremony of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

 

The DOL provided two grants: a three-year grant at $100,000 annually to create and oversee demonstration projects in Washington, D.C., and $50,000 a year for three years to pay the front-line youth workers at each of two sites. (That money goes to the D.C. Office of Child and Family Services, which houses the first site, and The House, a youth-serving nonprofit that houses the second. The host agencies provide the space for free.)

Then President Clinton stepped in more visibly. He hosted Phipps in the Oval Office in January 2000 to discuss the Dream Academy. The academy's website includes a photo of the session, and says, "President Clinton recommended several government aid opportunities, and he also suggested several ways in which his personal involvement could be addressed."

One way was visiting the first site, which opened in March 2000 at the Ferebee-Hope Community Services Center, attached to a southeast Washington elementary school. President Clinton visited in June last year, declaring for the visiting news media that the academy is "a model program. ... This works."

Booker says there has been no evaluation of the academy's impact. She says the academy plans an independent evaluation next year. The "Statement of Work" for the DOL grant says the academy "shall provide monthly progress reports." The grant took effect in July 1999.

The DOL and the academy say no monthly reports have been provided.

So what does the academy do?

 

 

Learning from Games

The Ferebee-Hope Center and the House sit among the poorest and most crime-ridden sections of Washington, neighborhoods where kids routinely hear or witness shootings. To get into the community center at Ferebee-Hope, visitors ring a bell and a guard buzzes open the heavy locked door. In a small back room, 10 computers (donated by Exxon) line the walls.

Throughout the school day, children (grades two through five) walk through the halls from school into this room to play educational games on the computers; many come after school as well. The computers are linked to an interactive online curriculum called The Learning Odyssey, provided under contract with ChildU, a Florida-based company that sells computer-based educational programs. The curriculum covers areas such as math, language, science, social studies and technology. The children also play with educational software, do homework, and do on-line research about potential careers.

Supervising the scene is site Director Wayne Harris and assistant Wolde Phillpotts, a computer specialist. Harris says he, Phillpotts and various volunteers serve as tutors and mentors to the kids. An intense man whom the youths seem to like and respect, Harris admits that finding adults to commit time to youths in this neighborhood is tough; the youth/mentor ratio is about five-to-one, higher than he'd like.

Robert Graves, Sr., the principal at Ferebee Hope Elementary, says the academy "is really helping. It allows the kids access to technology. The kids are becoming more focused in the classroom."

Plus, the two academy staffers "do cafeteria duty. They supervise the halls. They really help me out."

At the House, run by a nonprofit that provides sports, arts and academic activities for youth, about 40 youngsters come after elementary school each day to use computers and work with tutors, says House co-founder Ricky Bolden. The computers belong to the House; the academy provides the programs.

 

Phipps gets the ears of powerful people, Strong says, because they know him first as a singer and minister.

 

There is no doubt that the academy is doing something good for disadvantaged kids. But site visits raise two questions:

If the space and computers are donated, and the DOL funds the on-site staff, what do the $100,000-a-year DOL grant and the corporate donations go for? (See story at left).

And are these really the children of prisoners?

 

 

Who are the youths?

Harris says he once asked a group of 10 youths at Ferebee-Hope how many of them have had a relative in prison, and nine hands went up. Thus the academy's promotional material about Ferebee- Hope says, "More than 90 percent of these students have experienced the incarceration of a parent or other close relatives."

No one really knows. The principal estimates that more than half have had a relative locked up.

Isn't the academy supposed to focus on the children of prisoners? Phipps says helping those youths is his motive, but "we didn't want to stigmatize the kids. ... We are not trying to build a program that focuses only on those kids." The focus, he says, is preventing kids from entering prison in the first place.

The academy's promotional materials say:

"The U.S. Dream Academy's mission is to reach a population that receives far too little attention in our society - under privileged children of inmates."

"A high-touch, high-tech approach to helping children or prisoners succeed."

"Our target is a unique set of at risk children and youth - the children of prisoners."

The DOL grant says the program will serve "children with a familial history of incarceration," but also identifies other targets so broadly - "young children from disadvantaged backgrounds" and youth "in communities with few high-achievement role models" - that it could include any poor child in America. A DOL official says the agency sees the academy primarily as a program for the children of incarcerated parents.

Some academy materials say it also serves "other at-risk youth" or youth "struggling in school." But that message can be obscured by the children of prisoners theme that is stressed to reporters and at fund-raisers, like the recent gala hosted by Sen. Hatch.

 

 

He Writes the Songs

"A year ago, if you asked me to name somebody I'd like to work with in Congress on the Dream Academy, I probably would not have chosen Orrin Hatch," Phipps says. "My picture of him was law and order, very conservative, thick-skinned."   

But when Phipps visited the senator's office one day to pitch his academy idea, the senator wanted to talk. "You know," he told Phipps, "I write music."  Sen. Hatch, a Mormon, has written some 300 songs, and has had many of them recorded (by Gladys Knight and Donny Osmond, among others). The senator played some CDs for Phipps."I was amazed" by the quality and quantity, Phipps says. "He sent me home with 10 CDs of his recorded music." Phipps later recorded some of Sen. Hatch's songs, and this year the senator launched a fundraiser to expand the Dream Academy. Phipps suggested Sen. Hilary Clinton (whom Phipps knew) as co-chair; she accepted. (The offices of Sens. Hatch and Clinton did not return several calls to discuss the fundraiser.)

 

The U.S. Dream Academy's mission is to reach a population that receives far too little attention in our society - under privileged children of inmates.

 

Held in May at a Washington, D.C., hotel, the event included several members of Congress. Tickets for the reception and dinner started at $1,000. Delta Airlines paid $200,000 to sponsor the event, while pharmaceutical interests (including Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Pharmacia Corp. and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) kicked in $50,000-100,000 each.

"We're going to Labor, Justice and we're going to HHS [Health and Human Services] and ask them to help move this around the country," Sen. Hatch told reporters. Based on comments at the fund-raiser, the next day's news accounts described the academy essentially the same way as the Associated Press did: as a program "that mentors and tutors children of prisoners." Booker says the event raised $1.6 million.

The money keeps coming. The Fiscal Year 2002 federal budget being worked on in Congress includes a $645,000 earmark for the academy, Booker says. The budget also includes a $67 million request from President Bush for programs that mentor the children of prisoners - a potential funding source for the academy and other programs that target such youth.

In June, Phipps appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to receive an award from her "Angel Network," which honors people "who are using their lives to improve the lives of others." The award includes a $100,000 check.

 It also includes 50 "top of the line" computers from Gateway. Booker says they will go to new sites that the academy opens over the next 18 months, including Los Angeles.

Amy Bracken, John Kelly and Chelsea Badeau contributed to this report.