When Rumbidzai Mangwende decided to apply for the Elijah Cummings Youth Program she didn’t know what to expect.
But much to the now 20-year-old’s surprise, she gained lifelong friends, mentors and invaluable experience that prepared her for life.
“There were so many milestones the program provided me with that I wouldn’t have had access to because of my social or economical background,” Mangwende said. “This program gave me the empowerment that people do want to hear my voice.”
Nearly 25 years ago, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings worked with the Baltimore Jewish Council to create the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, a two-year fellowship program offered to rising juniors in high school who live or go to school in Maryland’s 7th congressional district, which encompasses just over half of Baltimore City and parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. The fellowship aims to help the teens become leaders and promote greater religious and ethnic understanding.
Every spring, about 60 kids apply for about a dozen openings, said Kathleen St. Villier Hill, the program’s executive director. The application process is rigorous, requiring letters of recommendation and an interview with the board of directors. Before Cummings died in 2019, he met every interviewee, Hill said, and if they were accepted into the program, he also wrote each student a letter of recommendation for college. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who succeeded Cummings in the 7th District in 2020, has since stepped into the role.
Once accepted, students attend twice a week meetings where they learn skills such as storytelling, to help them land jobs, and how to podcast. They also give back to the community by doing neighborhood clean-up events or preparing for their 3 1/2-week trip to Israel where students get to meet with another group of youths from that country. And although the program is supported by the Baltimore Jewish Council, Villier Hill said most youths who apply do not come from a Jewish background.
“We are trying to build bridges between different communities,” Villier Hill said. “The whole idea is how can you build relationships with people who are different from yourself?”
Prior to joining the Baltimore Jewish Council as the fellowship’s executive director five years ago, Villier Hill spent nine years at For Love of Children in Washington D.C. While there, she managed a college access and success program for 200 students and helped enhance program offerings for middle school, high school and postsecondary students.
Villier Hill, originally from Montgomery County, had moved to Howard County and was looking for a shorter commute than her trek to DC every day. When she found the job posting for the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, she knew it was perfect.
“I believe strongly in the power of using out-of-school time spaces, like ECYP, to enrich and empower the lives of young people,” she said. “And at ECYP, I get to work alongside the kids. I don’t just work with or for them.”
Mangwende, who is now a junior at Cornell University, said she still remembers her interview for the program. The Randallstown native said her stomach was in knots, knowing that Cummings’ was sitting at the other end of the table. But she said that interview was the start of her understanding the importance of cultivating her story and being able to use her voice to tell it.
Now studying finance, Mangwende said the fellowship — thanks to trips to Congress, the Annapolis State House and Baltimore city hall — gave her the ability to be confident in unfamiliar situations. She also absorbed the importance of not being afraid to ask questions or lean on others for support.
“I learned so much about how to work with people who are different from you,” she said. “I was taught how to take a problem and try to solve it but also be open to other solutions.”
In addition to the life skills Mangwende learned during her participation in the program from 2017 to 2019, she also gained lifelong friends. One fellow from her class recently asked her to be a godmother. Another she talks with on an almost daily basis. And then there’s a group of them who are talking about taking another trip abroad together. She even refers to Villier Hill as “auntie.”
“These are people I hope to see at my wedding and that I want at big life events,” she said. “They have actually become family over time.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at firstname.lastname@example.org.