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Judie Ponds freely admits that she takes an uncharacteristic approach to moving people from welfare to work. Ponds directs the Walker Johnson Transportation Training Institute, which received a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services beginning in October 1997 to “create job opportunities for low income individuals” living in

the District.

Her program targets a group of workers often overlooked by other federally sponsored job training programs: chronically unemployed men in their late 30s to early 40s. Tough cases, to a man. Ponds says that they eagerly attend her classes. “[The program] has removed the myth that unemployed men don’t want to work,” Ponds notes. She says her students mostly self-select by gender because of the nature of the job. “Women don’t want to do this [work] as much as men,” Ponds adds. “But the women who do it really like it.”

High-tech work? Construction? Nope. Ponds focuses on another sector of Washington’s booming economy—the service industry. And all you have to know to step into a bright future as a gainfully employed member of society is the fastest route from North Dakota Avenue NW to Maine Avenue SW. Walker Johnson, you see, places formerly unemployed, unproductive citizens back out on city streets as income-generating

D.C. cabbies.

Or, at least, that’s what the grant proposal promises. Ponds is less informative about her program when questioned about specifics such as curriculum or students. This much is known: Walker Johnson has agreed to train 100 low-income workers to become licensed taxi drivers in exchange for almost half a million dollars in federal funding. Yet almost halfway through the three-year grant period, industry sources say, less than a handful of hacks have hit the streets.

A rickety elevator transports students and visitors up to the Walker Johnson Transportation Training Institute, which is located on the third floor of 2146 Georgia Ave. NW. The floor below hosts offices for the Peoples Involvement Corp., a local community-development nonprofit that officially sponsors the Walker Johnson program. It’s hardly a sprawling campus: The instructional classroom consists of one conference table, 11 swivel chairs, a dry-eraser board, a coffee pot, and an empty water cooler. Ponds has her office—complete with phone and Dell computer—in a corner of the room.

The program is named after Walker Johnson, the businessman who founded D.C.-based Coastline Cab Co. in 1946. “This training institute and its skilled personnel will revitalize my company and help it to continue when I am gone,” Johnson said in a statement last spring. Johnson, then 81, passed away in the fall.

Ponds believes that her program carries on Johnson’s legacy by encouraging unemployed and sometimes homeless African-American men and women to become entrepreneurs. “This could be a self-sufficient business…an opportunity to pay rent, own a home,” Ponds argues. “The average cab driver makes over $30,000 per year.”

“The new drivers will make over $100.00 a day net income,” Ponds guarantees in her federal grant proposal. “This will immediately change their cycle of joblessness and no income to financial independence.”

Ponds enrolled Curtis Chevrolet to provide a fleet of cabs for Walker Johnson students at a reasonable price. “We were happy to supply the cars. We wrote to General Motors to get a fleet price,” says Dudley Dworken, president of Curtis Chevrolet. On the strength of the institute’s interest, Dworken received 30 Chevrolet Luminas specially designed for taxi service last fall; he has sold 13, none to Walker Johnson students.

That’s because Walker Johnson has launched few new entrepreneurs on wheels. “What she says she’s doing is black capitalism—I call it black exploitation,” says Nathan Price, chair of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association. Price argues that Ponds wants to build her own taxicab business through the job-training program and profit by paying her drivers a low hourly wage instead of taking a standard percentage of fares. “She’s taking them off welfare and putting a sharecropping system in place,” Price says.

Ponds refuses to answer further questions about payment to drivers. “We’re just the trainers, and we pay for the overall costs of training,” Ponds responds in an interview.

D.C. law requires all cab drivers to complete 24 hours of instruction at a University of the District of Columbia (UDC) extension course and pass a hacker’s license exam before they can hit the streets. The UDC course may be taken in a two- or seven-week curriculum.

On a recent Saturday in Room 305 of Building 52 at UDC, 23 students sit on the edges of their seats as they listen to instructor Richard Brooks lecture on topics such as group rates, personal service, and stops en route. Brooks conducts his class Paper Chase style, with students eagerly jumping in to answer questions. He drives home business skills to his students at every turn.

“You get a lot of passengers who think they can control a cab by themselves,” Brooks later warns. “They cannot. It’s your business.”

The level of interest Brooks receives that Saturday would make any professor jealous. Students jockey to answer his questions and shoot back their own as well. “Why charge the rush-hour rate during the snow emergency?” one student inquires. (The rush hour rate adds an extra dollar to the fare.)

Brooks shakes his head. “You never lose rush hour other than weekends and holidays,” Brooks lectures. “Even if there is nobody on the streets.” Many of the students write down this critical fact in their notebooks. “Remember, this is your business, people,” he reiterates. “You’re out there to earn a living.”

Brooks says that no Walker Johnson students are currently enrolled in the UDC course. He has had some students from the program, he says, but only a handful have passed. Even fewer, he notes, have actually passed the hacker’s exam and received their taxicab driver’s license.

Walker Johnson adds four weeks of supplementary training to help students prepare to become cabbies. Ponds says that the program provides crucial instruction in a wide range of topics including money management, “life skills,” drug counseling, and even D.C. history.

“It may be one week of life skills, three days of history, two days taking a city tour,” Ponds says, when asked about the progression of topics. But when asked to produce a copy of the Walker Johnson curriculum, she balks. “I don’t have them here,” Ponds says, while sitting in the Walker Johnson classroom. Ponds promises to have the curriculum available the next day, but then retracts. “I’m not able to give that to you,” she says. “Those are proprietary materials.”

How about names of trainers? Ponds says she’ll get back to me about that as well. Meanwhile, she brags about the quality of Walker Johnson’s D.C. history instructor. “He’s a very fascinating man, very informed about the city and historical perspective,” says Ponds. “He’s extremely fascinating….He’s probably a renowned Ph.D.”

Perhaps I could talk to a few students? “I’ll have to check when they’re not working,” Ponds says. A half-dozen phone calls to Ponds failed to produce any names. One Walker Johnson student reached by other means first agreed to talk and then refused comment.

Ponds claims that Walker Johnson has placed about 15 students in jobs. She says the company has relationships with cab companies including Coastline and Delta Cab in D.C.

Those students might not want to rely on call-in service for their fares. An answering machine greeted callers eager to receive a pick-up from Delta Cab on repeated calls. Meanwhile, over at Walker Johnson’s business, Coastline, the phone went unanswered all last week.CP