Shanice McKinley stands outside a Panda Express in Compton with a small circle of supporters, hands joined in prayer.
Her brother Erv, a former college basketball player, towers above the group. The woman on his left is a friend and longtime community activist; on his right is a new acquaintance, who met them for the first time when she walked out of the restaurant minutes before.
"I pray that you make me strong, Father God, for this community," McKinley says. "I pray that not only are you changing this community but that you are bringing us together."
McKinley, 25, is praying for the chance to represent Compton as Miss California USA.
This weekend, she will be among more than 200 contestants competing for the 2011 California title in Rancho Mirage. Pageant officials say she will be the first from Compton in at least 20 years.
She's spent months stumping for sponsors to help her cover the $1,695 entrance fee, as well as the gown, the swimsuit, the walking and twirling lessons, the makeup and the hairstyling for the big day.
She possesses the qualities of a beauty queen: slender figure, golden-brown eyes, ever-present smile. And she's done a little modeling. But she's never been a pageant girl.
She said she decided to become one after a talent scout sent her the Miss California USA application packet because she wants to serve as a positive role model for young people in her city.
Too often, McKinley said, Compton people who succeed move away.
"They don't come back to the community to show the rest of the people that if I can do it, you can do it," she said.
She also wants to use the pageant platform to give outsiders a new view of this city of 100,000, whose reputation has long been marred by gang violence, public corruption and high unemployment (currently topping 20%).
"Compton has so many negative stereotypes, but we have come such a long way," McKinley said.
McKinley came to Compton at 12 from another city with an image problem: Bell. The Compton she remembers from that time was full of vacant lots and devoid of hangout spots. Kids called her alma mater, Dominguez High School, "The Dirty D" because the campus was covered in trash.
If she wasn't at track practice after school, there wasn't much for her to do besides watch her brother play basketball at the Salvation Army gym. To go shopping or see a movie, she had to leave. It was a treat when her mother would let her take the train to the Long Beach Towne Center.
Now, where there used to be dirt lots or buildings with peeling paint, she sees new shopping centers springing up. Target, Starbucks and T.G.I. Fridays are joining the mom-and-pop hamburger stands and one-hour photo shops of her teenage years. Even her old high school recently got a face-lift, with student-painted murals and a fresh paint job from volunteers.
There's still no movie theater or bowling alley, but teenagers have a skate park where they can hang out after school, and the Salvation Army has built a recording studio where they can lay down their own tracks.
"The way I kind of see Compton, because everything's not complete and finished and done, I really see it as the land of opportunity," McKinley said.
She chose for her pageant title "Miss Birthing a New Compton," borrowing the city's official slogan.
Since deciding over the summer to compete, she has pitched her vision to local business owners, city and school officials, and strangers — people coming out of church or sitting on park benches or leaving fast food restaurants.
On the afternoon of the impromptu prayer circle, McKinley had her sales pitch down:
"Hi, how are you? My name is Shanice McKinley. I'm running for Miss California USA and my whole campaign is really to change the image of what people think about the city of Compton and our youth."
She had experienced her city's bad reputation firsthand when she headed to college at Cal State San Bernardino. Her roommate didn't show up for orientation week or the first week of classes because she was afraid to share a dorm room with a Compton girl.
"I thought she was going to be crazy and rude and loud and stuff," said Andrea Rex-Campbell, now a nurse in Virginia.
When she finally tired of commuting from her family's home in Riverside, Rex-Campbell said, the girl she met in the dorm room was sweet-natured, bubbly, even a bit naive. They became inseparable.
When McKinley tells this story to Compton people, they nod knowingly. They have their own tales — of friends in other cities who refuse to visit, of potential employers who raise their eyebrows at a Compton address, of people who hear where they're from and ask if they know Dr. Dre.
"I think the consensus has been that the mainstream media hasn't been painting a fair picture of what goes on in Compton," said Maurice Harrington, who runs a Compton-centric social networking site called Hub City Livin' and calls Compton "the greatest little city on earth."
Compton people know it's better than it's billed, he said.
"The violence, they know it's there, they know it's been there; but when you talk to them, you hear more about the individual success stories that make up the city."
Harrington has never met McKinley but counts himself among her many cheerleaders. On the street, people hug and thank her. A woman who's just heard her pitch yells out a car window, "Good luck, girl!"
McKinley's mother, Daisy White, is supportive but circumspect.
"I don't mind her running for that, but she still needs a job," White said.
A single mother, she worked the night shift as a janitor in the Long Beach School District, determined that her four children would get a good education and then good jobs. When McKinley was offered a contract as a shampoo model in high school, White made her turn it down. She wanted her daughter to go to college.
"I was so mad," McKinley recalled, laughing.
Apart from her mother, McKinley grew up under the protective eyes of her aunt and uncle whose house they shared and two older brothers who kept the boys at bay. In high school, she ran track and cross-country and stayed busy with the yearbook, school newspaper and college-prep programs like Upward Bound.
"She was a seeker. She was looking for change, she wanted something better in her life," said Dominguez High counselor Moyofune Shabazz.
At Cal State, McKinley earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. And as she preps for the pageant, practicing her walk and twirl and making final adjustments to her gown, she is finishing the last class for an MBA at the University of Redlands.
One day she hopes to use her training to open a nonprofit youth center for Compton teens, offering college guidance by day and an underage dance club at night. It's the type of place she would have loved to have had in her community when she was growing up.
Along with a shot at the Miss USA title, the California winner will get a variety of sponsored prizes — diamond necklaces, clothing and vintage boots, a film-school scholarship and a $1,000 doll patterned after her in an evening gown.
Keith Lewis, the California pageant's executive director, is blunt about its aims. It is unlike the rival Miss America pageant, which bills itself as a scholarship competition and includes a talent contest. A franchise of Donald Trump and NBC's Miss Universe Organization, Miss USA is unapologetically about beauty.
Contestants parade in evening gowns and swimsuits. Still, he said, they do get an interview — which gives them a chance to be heard. "We give the girls a platform. They'll get out of it exactly what they put into it."
When asked about the pageant's focus, McKinley shrugs.
"If it's the beauty that's going to help change the community," she said, "I'll play that beauty role."