The People Issue 2019
Nineteen individuals who make life in D.C. more interesting tell us their stories.
Every year when the City Paper staff comes together to plan The People Issue, we start by talking about themes we’ve seen emerge in the District over the course of the year. This year yielded some obvious topics—displacement, food and health inequalities, violence and homicides. We also felt a desire to celebrate the good things we observed—the books we read, things that made us laugh, or moments that made us feel optimistic about the future.
The 19 people you’ll find in the following pages reflect those themes. They’re teachers and students, advocates who uplift and workers who make changes in our neighborhoods and affect the way we see the world, politicians, doctors, and artists. First and foremost, they’re enthusiastic residents of the region.
Take some time to read their words and examine their faces, captured in color by our longtime staff photographer, Darrow Montgomery. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to know them as much as we did. —Caroline Jones
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Sixteen-year-old Gabriela Orozco is a twin, a first-generation American high school student, and one of the fiercest poets you’ll ever read. Local arts education nonprofit Words Beats & Life named her this year’s youth poet laureate, and a professor once described her poetry as “slam-style Emily Dickinson.” —Kayla Randall
When did you start writing poetry?
My mom would tell you when I was 8, because I went to a Spanish immersion school and we were learning about poetry in Spanish. I was in a yellow dress, went up on a stage and presented my poem about a rainbow—“Arco Iris.” I compared each color of the rainbow to something else. With poetry, the first actual time I did it was in an eighth grade writing class. It was a creative writing class, and I’d always felt like a good writer. I just felt to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. And I consider myself a good reader because I read and therefore I write.
What do you like to read?
I really like to read historical fiction. There was a time when I was obsessed with a very niche genre of historical fiction that was specifically based on World War II and had female perspectives. I actually managed to find a surprising number of books about that. I also like fantasy, and I’m trying to move into nonfiction. I like fiction, mostly. I had to read Moby-Dick for school last year, and I didn’t like all of it but most of it I really enjoyed reading. So, we were reading Moby-Dick and I had the idea that I would write a poem about it. The bones of whales were used to make corsets for women in Nantucket because a lot of New England’s economy was based off whaling. Whale body parts were used for every single thing. The bones were used to make corsets, and I thought that was really interesting because you’re taking bones and you’re literally putting them on your bones. I was thinking, “Wait, this is a really cool metaphor,” because the whale has to be dead—the free thing has to be dead, that’s necessary to chain the woman. [The poem] is about trying to suppress freedom.
What’s it like being a performing poet and a student?
Being D.C. poet laureate, I’m both representing the city and poetry as an art form. But I’m also a 16-year-old high school student and I remember someone told me once when I was performing that I was like a completely different person—but I just feel like I’m the same person. I’m a very outspoken person, I’m always raising my hands in classes if I know the answer or if I don’t know the answer. In Socratic seminars or class discussions, I’m always debating and being like “What about this? What about that?” I feel like that curiosity and that idea of not being afraid to say what you have to say very much propels me and drives my willingness to perform.
How does your upbringing and identity play into your work?
Being Latina and being Jewish aren’t mutually exclusive. My mother, being a Jewish South African woman, and my father being Latino from Nicaragua, and both of them being academics and studying history and politics, that is a core foundation of my identity. I’m also a D.C. kid.
My parents, because they study political systems—my dad studies Latin American policy and my mom studies criminology—I think that having a background in understanding the way society and the world works is really helpful with my poetry. My favorite subject is history, and I like to dream of other worlds with poetry. A lot of the popular poetry right now is very political, and I feel like that’s a good starting point. Having knowledge grounds me and gives me a foundation, not even to say a poetic foundation, just knowing things makes me feel like I’m a better writer.
My writing is about me. It’s about how I feel. Every teenager writes in their journal and has bad love poems, right? But it’s more than that. I write about how I deal with society. I write about identity and not wanting to be boxed in. The many different facets of my identity, each one of them I’m exploring in their own way. I write about the isolation of being so vulnerably vocal, and also being passionate. I write about passion, like my passion for reading, my passion for books.
Do you plan on staying in D.C. after high school?
I don’t know; I don’t know about college yet. If I work hard, if I keep my grades up, and if I do well on the SAT, I think I can do anything. The problem is, there are so many possible places and ideas and people to become and roles to fill. Do I want to be a rabbi or a writer or a historian? Do I want to be an academic? I want to be all these things. I want to be an academic writer rabbi poet.
D.C. theater audiences love Justin Weaks. The talented actor was a standout in this year’s productions of BLKS at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where he made audiences quake with laughter, and Fences at Ford’s Theatre, where he broke hearts. A North Carolina native, Weaks came to D.C. for a job about four years ago, not expecting to stay. But he kept getting cast in shows, and lucky for local theatergoers, he’s still here. —Kayla Randall
How did you end up embedded in the D.C. theater scene?
It was a play called Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea; it was at Theater Alliance in Anacostia. That play really kind of opened me up to seeing what D.C. was about as far as putting people of color onstage and telling our stories. I kept coming back. I did two more shows here before I decided to move here. I haven’t expected to be here this long. I didn’t think that working the way I’ve been working was possible, and it’s really become a home for me as an artist. D.C. will always be a theater home for me.
Did you always want to be a theater actor?
Since I knew I wanted to be an actor, yeah. There’s something about the immediacy of being in a theater, there’s something about being close to the audience and having that energy exchange that is exciting as a performer. It’s exciting to feed off that energy and to feel the change, to feel the tension, to feel the joy and the conversation between actor and audience. I live for that.
What do you have to say through your art as an actor?
I really like seeing and recognizing theater as a catalyst for change. There’s a lot we can say about the climate we’re living in as Americans right now but what I will say is a lot of great art is coming out of that. People are at a place now where they feel like they have a voice. This is the time to use it. My job is not to entertain, my job is to enlighten, my job is to challenge. I want to challenge the way we see black men in the world. I want to challenge the way we view black people. I want to change the amount of agency that actors of color have to be themselves fully in the room, to not feel the need to water themselves down.
For you, what’s the balance between wanting to focus on art but also having your identity wrapped up in it?
I believe my art is my activism. I’m very particular about what I do, when I do it, where I do it. I’m very aware of the body politic, the body politic is very important in my work. What I mean by that is, the politics that come with being in a black body, being in a black male body. When people see me, they have stuff that they put on that, and that has nothing to do with me, but I have to be very aware of that when I say, “Yes, I’m going to do this play here at this theater.” It’s important to me to always be pushing a boundary or challenging a perception that one may have when looking at me and coming to see a story. It’s always my goal to show the full humanity of a character as much as I can—every emotion one can feel. As complicated as we are as humans is how complicated these characters are, and I want that to be shown in my work. It’s important for that to be seen. It’s important for other black people to see themselves in their complexities onstage. We’re not monolithic. And it’s not always clean cut. It’s important for white people to see me in a white space—as uncomfortable as it may make them—being fully human.
Colbert I. “Colby” King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post. Depending on the news and his level of outrage or respect, he writes about local, national, and international issues. But at 80 years old, and nearly three decades on the Post editorial page, the last 20 as a columnist, it is his years of focus on his hometown D.C. that make him a must-read every Saturday. A native Washingtonian, graduate of Dunbar High and Howard University, King worked as a Hill staff member on the District’s 1973 Home Rule Charter. He later was a Treasury and World Bank official and a Riggs Bank executive for Middle East and Africa affairs before joining the Post in 1990. —Tom Sherwood
Why a column on Saturday, the least read newspaper of the week?
Meg Greenfield [a legendary Post editorial page editor] said I should write a column. We had tea at her house [to discuss it]. We laughed at it later because that was the last time we ever had tea together. I said, “Meg, let’s do it this way. I’ll write something for Saturday papers. And if the column bombs, nobody will know it.”
Who do you see as your column audience?
It’s a mythical person I have in mind. This individual, sitting at home, the kids are gone off to school. What do I think they ought to know? It’s driven by gut.
Your column can elicit praise ... or [readers] can rip you to shreds.
You like to think you get inoculated from this stuff after years of it. Every now and then somebody can really sting you, but hell, I’ve been getting these blowbacks for a couple of decades now. When you’re really going to take off on somebody, I imagine that evening sitting across from that person at the dinner table. And that’s when you realize, oops, maybe I ought to temper this thing a little bit.
How do you go about writing the column?
Sometimes it’s a struggle. Come Monday, I have to toss it around in my mind: Where am I going on this thing? Wednesday I usually sit down and take a crack at a column. I never file the same day. I make it a point of doing as much as I can on Wednesday, take a break sharply at 5 o’clock for my drink. [Ed. note: He wouldn’t reveal what it is.] The next morning I take a look at it, play with it some more, and then file it by noon.
Retire or what’s next?
This is something I’m debating. Is this the last time? There’s a book there somewhere that needs to be pulled together. I can’t keep putting it off. I need to find the time to turn my attention to it. I’m probably at a point of decision, I just don’t know that I am ready to make it.
Jamilla Okubo’s art can be seen everywhere from Dior bags to O, The Oprah Magazine to The LINE DC hotel. The 26-year-old mixed-media artist, illustrator, and print pattern designer is D.C. born and bred and draws inspiration from both the city and her American, Kenyan, and Trinidadian heritage. Her work is bold and colorful, and prominently features black women figures. Okubo’s creations tell stories, and with her art, she’s putting her own story on a platform. -Kayla Randall
How did you get into art?
I give all thanks to my mom. She always told me that she noticed I had an eye for art and drawing. I also was blessed with having a really good art teacher in elementary school. That’s what really opened my eyes to how passionate I was about art. That’s honestly all I cared about, that was my favorite class. My mom had me signed up for different art programs, like art summer camps. Anything art-related, she had me involved in. She also was a photographer and went to American University for photography. I would always go with her to class when I was in elementary school, and help her with her projects and be in the dark room with her when she was developing her photographs. She really had me immersed in the arts.
How would you describe your art and what it means to you?
I would describe my work as a reflection of my experiences being a black woman and what it is that I really appreciate about our culture, and about just being black, and also wanting to archive the moments that I experience. I think about what my work will look like in 50 to 75 years. Who in the future will see my work and question what I was talking about? It’s like creating memories. For example, since I’ve moved back to D.C. after graduating from Parsons [School of Design], it’s completely different from when I left D.C.: adjusting to the changes, adjusting to gentrification, and people moving and changing the dynamic of the city and its cultural history.
Being a D.C. native, what is the D.C. of your upbringing compared to now?
I grew up in Northwest, in the Petworth area. Communities change over time. Growing up, a lot of the areas were predominantly black, so it’s really interesting to see how transplants integrate with D.C. natives. I see some friction in certain areas because I feel like certain transplants don’t know how to move in a space and be respectful of the people and the communities that have already been here, but also contribute and come together with D.C. natives. In certain spaces, it can feel very standoffish, where it’s like these transplants have come into the city and created their own communities and aren’t thinking about D.C. natives, or specifically low-income black people in certain areas that have been gentrified.
And you’re conscious of the city’s gentrification and transformation when you’re making your art?
In my head, it’s like in a few years, the culture and community that I knew in D.C. growing up won’t be here—or there’ll be very little left of us. I want to be able to archive the last bit of memories and things we have contributed to this city before it’s completely wiped out.
What brought you back to D.C. from New York after you graduated Parsons?
I loved New York, but I was really burned out, honestly. I needed to come back home and regroup. I was also a bit homesick, and I really liked how the arts community has been thriving since I’ve been gone. To be a part of what’s happening in D.C., and the change in the arts scene is really cool. I think because D.C. is known as Chocolate City, there is a space and a need and a want for black artists to create representative art of that culture.
Benjamin Banneker Academic High School will move to a new, bigger space in time for the 2021-2022 school year. The Council voted 7-6 to approve the funds after a heated debate, and the final nudge came from people who can’t even vote.
Ahead of the Council’s final approval of the city’s budget, Banneker students flooded the Wilson Building to make their case for an overdue upgrade that at least some of them won’t even get to see. One of the students leading the charge was 17-year-old senior RuQuan Brown, a standout football player, student government president, and entrepreneur. —Mitch Ryals
You were part of the group who advocated for a new school. Tell me about that experience.
We were juniors at the time. A lot of us were iffy about advocating for a building that we would never experience. I also took the opportunity to express that if we make choices based on only what’s gonna benefit us, we’re in for a rough future. We should be making choices that are going to better the people that are behind us.
What’s the most important thing you learned?
How important it is to vote now. These are the people who make the decisions in our ever-so-changing city, so take it upon yourselves, and take advantage of that. You have the power now to determine who is making your decisions.
Football is a major part of your life, when did you start playing?
Around 7 years old. I always knew I wanted to play ball. My step-dad just taught me the game.
And you play on both sides of the ball for Roosevelt? (Banneker doesn’t have a football team.)
Yep, so I play corner and safety on defense and receiver on offense. I really play everything on offense. I play a little bit of quarterback, little bit of running back, but my primary positions would be receiver and corner.
Do you prefer offense or defense?
I have no preference. I just want to be on a great team and win games and championships.
You have quite a few offers to play college ball.
Do you know where you’ll go next year?
I have an idea. I think I’m more so looking for an experience that’s going to teach and educate me, and to take a degree from there that’s gonna have credit and hold weight in the world. I don’t care how hard it is. I’d actually probably prefer if it weren’t so hard.
I do plan to play in the NFL. I don’t know how that might change in the future, but I’ll focus on finishing senior year and then finishing college football. I know my talent and my dedication will take me there.
You’re also involved in anti-gun violence advocacy through a clothing line you started, Love1, and you’ve promised to donate some of the profits to a gun buy-back organization.
It’s a nod to my teammate who was murdered in September 2017 and will never be forgotten as long as these stickers or T-shirts or whatever are here. He wore number 1.
I started it January 30, 2019. That’s my step-dad’s birthday. He was murdered three months before, on Oct. 26. He really taught me a lot more than I realized. How to treat a woman. How not to treat a woman. [His name is] Arnelius Howell.
Love to me is extremely important because it comes in so many different forms. You can show love by listening to someone. You can show love by being polite to someone. You can show love by taking time and energy out of your day. And you can show love in other fashions, like affection and gift-giving and things of that nature, but it can be also a lot more miniscule.
But it’s about something our community lacks. The communities where gun violence is so prevalent, what they lack is love. Sometimes we don’t feel love. Or there’s no love for the other person. Or I made a decision out of hate instead of love.
That’s only a very limited scope of some of the things that trigger the decisions to take people’s lives with guns. So it’s about using love to encourage people to make wiser decisions. It’s about using love to form unity to end gun violence.
Mike Thibault didn’t plan to be a professional basketball coach. He grew up in the Bay Area and went to college with aspirations of becoming “a rock ’n’ roll star.” Thibault then decided he would be a high school English teacher and coach prep basketball. But at 29, after spending time as a high school and collegiate basketball coach, Thibault became the NBA’s youngest assistant coach, working with the Magic Johnson-led Lakers. He later joined the Chicago Bulls’ staff in 1982, a few years before they drafted Michael Jordan.
In 2013, after being fired by the Connecticut Sun, he came to D.C. as the Mystics’ head coach and general manager, intending to turn around a team that had finished its previous season 5-29. Thibault is now the winningest coach in WNBA history, and this October, the 69-year-old led the Mystics to the franchise’s first WNBA title. —Kelyn Soong
You’ve told this story before where you were looking at the Mystics from afar, and were like, “Oh, those poor suckers...”
And then that was me.
What was going through your mind then? What did you think of the organization, and what did you think once you got here?
I kind of came into my meeting with [team owner] Ted [Leonsis] and [president and managing partner] Sheila [Johnson] without having a lot of preconceived ideas. What I knew was that I saw a 5-29 team who had lost its spirit and its energy. The building had no energy and the fans were depressed. And so I came in trying to ask them as many questions as they asked me to find out the level of commitment.
And I was very pleasantly surprised—not surprised, but glad to hear that Ted and Sheila wanted this thing to work. I think they were taking hits from the fans as if they didn’t care, and I think they cared, but were looking for a solution. And so, you know, I didn’t make any promises other than they would never be embarrassed by how hard the team played, or the energy that we played with, and that was going to be our starting point.
Then fast forward a couple years, you bring in Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver. How big was that?
That’s huge. We had gotten to a level where we could be a playoff team, but you didn’t want to be one of those teams that make it every year, has a middle-of-the-pack draft pick, and is done in one or two rounds. And circumstances happen. We had a season, the year before we had them, where we struggled with injuries.
We were fortunate enough in the lottery to get the second pick. So then now we had pieces to go get something done. If we had not had that piece of the second pick, we would’ve never been able to get the Elena Delle Donne trade done, I don’t think. And you have to get several great players to win a championship. It’s hard to do it around one player. Any coach that thinks they’re going to coach an average team to a title, they’re delusional. You have to have great players.
You’ve mentioned it a lot throughout the season, and so have a lot of the players: This is a family atmosphere. As a person in charge, how do you actually create that? Is it just the personalities on the team? Is there something that you do that can foster that?
I think there’s a couple things I can do, and I think the rest of it is what you do surrounding it. Players have to know that I’m telling them the truth, whether they want to hear it or not. I think from day one I’ve told our players, “You’re going to hear hard conversations from me or our staff.” And it’s not to demean or anything else, but this is about getting the group better. And I think players have to know that you’re not BS-ing them.
But I think the other part of it is constantly searching for players who want that and who embrace the family culture. Sometimes we’ve had to trade slightly more talented players for players who bought in better. And you need that consistency of emotion and effort every single day. And I think that’s what we finally got.
Rayceen Pendarvis is on a mission to free people. The MC and host of the monthly Ask Rayceen Show works constantly to build community, whether that’s through activism, counseling, or a brief stint as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. Pendarvis, a lifelong Washingtonian and graduate of DC Public Schools, currently lives in a Brentwood home that’s been in the family for generations. —Caroline Jones
How have you seen D.C. change?
Growth is a good thing. It’s a wonderful thing to see. But then there’s a downside. Gentrification is a horrible thing, it destroys neighborhoods. We’re losing culture where gentrification comes in. We lose the richness that makes community.
How do you sustain that sense of community?
You keep it valuable in your home and in your heart. You make sure that even though with gentrification, we lose some things, traditions are important to keep up with your family, your friends, your community. And then you create new traditions which invite everyone to the table. I love going into the store, speaking to folks that live in the community and know me. And I speak to strangers. It doesn’t matter: If you move into community, now you’re a part of it.
Almost every member of the D.C. Council has appeared on the Ask Rayceen Show. Why has that been important?
You cannot live in Washington, D.C. and not understand the power of politics and understand that we are in a political city. It’s important to invite everyone to the table to have their voice heard so they could hear voices above us, too. I allow everyone to come together and let them know this is a safe space. No one will attack you. No one will make you feel uncomfortable. It is a place where no question is right or wrong and we engage it in a way that everyone feels invited, everyone feels welcome, and everyone feels safe.
Has activism always been a central part of your character?
Yes. I believe activism is important, however that may look for you. You know, I feel like there are some people who will write letters, some people who will cook the dinners while others will march. I choose to be visible, because I’m free in every part of my life. I’m out. I’m proud. I walk in who I am, my authentic self, and I’m so glad. Not everybody can be free. Free people free people.
Is it hard to fight for that in a place where people aren’t always receptive?
Everyone wants to be loved, whether it’s for a long time or a short time. I feel like we all want to be loved and I feel like helping folks love themselves better is greater than finding someone to love. Love yourself, love your neighbor, love your community. Love and respect and honor who you are. It’s infectious. That’s why I love to hug people. Hugs are healing and they have the power to disarm. I’ve hugged a lot of people that may not have liked me, and after we sit and have a conversation, we have an understanding and we meet somewhere in the middle and I say “I’d like to hug you.” It’s very disarming to someone who hates you.
Do you think D.C. has done enough to support the LGBTQ community?
We’re still learning. We still have to teach our leaders, our teachers, our preachers, our children, how to respect the LGBT community. There’s still room for everyone to learn and grow, but living in this city, this aggressive, amazing creative city where so many people can talk to politicians and come together we have folks who are out holding office, I celebrate the joy because I look at folks in other countries who can’t be free. We have to educate our leaders, we have to hold them accountable. We have to make sure laws are in place where everyone is free, where everyone is comfortable enough to live their truth and those who commit hate crimes are held accountable.
Kwame Onwuachi has shed his underdog status, but D.C. still loves rooting for the young chef who may be having the biggest year of his life. After a shaky start at the Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi decided to cook the food that shaped him. At Kith/Kin, he draws from his West African, Afro Caribbean, and Southern roots to create a menu that celebrates them all. Now Onwuachi is trying to uplift others who have felt marginalized. —Laura Hayes
What was the moment when you won your 2019 James Beard Award for “Rising Star Chef” of the year like? Were you expecting it?
I was very nervous because I don’t really like to lose. I even remember the days leading up to it, I was very, very quiet and I’m usually not. The day of, my fiancée was like, “You need to write a speech.” I was like, “I don’t want to have this speech that I look at if I don’t win.” I wrote it anyway. When they called my name, I felt my soul leave my body. I’ve been envisioning myself on that stage for so long. As a culinary student, I used to volunteer for the James Beard Awards at Lincoln Center just so I could sit in the stands and envision that voice calling my name.
When your memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, came out, what parts were you most terrified for people to read?
The paragraph about Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and the whole chapter about the Shaw Bijou. Also the stuff dealing with my father. It’s never my intention to hurt someone else even though I’ve been hurt. It’s just my story and it needed to be told. That’s what I was afraid of. People losing their jobs or being targeted. But I had good people around me who said, “At this time, it’s more important to be courageous than afraid.”
What was the best piece of feedback you received about your book?
It validated people of color, women, minorities in general. They felt the same way and people thought they were crazy because they didn’t have concrete evidence that someone was marginalizing them. Even people in restaurants I’ve worked at—a lot of women who worked there were like, “Thank you for speaking up; this issue needed to be talked about.” There weren’t too many other black people there, so they didn’t say thanks. I was giving myself a high five in the mirror.
Your memoir is being turned into a movie. Do you think Lakeith Stanfield will do a better job than Bradley Cooper in Burnt when it comes to playing professional chef?
Hell yeah! I think he’s an incredible actor. He is literally my favorite actor. He’s so weird. He reminds me of myself a little bit. You can tell he gets really into his roles.
After Shaw Bijou you could have skipped town and gone onto performing your second act elsewhere. Why did you choose to stay?
I didn’t want to give up. I don’t give up. I did think about it, don’t get me wrong. There were a lot of people who wanted to see me leave but it’s like I wasn’t done. I had made D.C. my home. This isn’t my first time being in D.C. My grandfather taught at Howard. D.C. is home for me, more than it is for most people. I have actual ties here, family here. I’m going to stay and figure it out.
What advice do you have for young people of color looking to make their mark on the hospitality industry?
Outwork everybody in the room. You have to be the hardest working person, but you need to soak up all the knowledge that you can and work at the hardest restaurant you possibly can. It’s going to suck and be really hard and difficult but do a year, gain all that knowledge, and then apply that to what you want. You can’t shine unless you’re continuously grinding and polishing yourself and sharpening your skills.
Was 2019 the biggest year of your life, or is the best yet to come?
The biggest year of my life is the year I was born. But in my conscious life, yeah, definitely. But there’s more to come. I want every year to be better and better. I got “2019” tattooed on me. It’s a pretty shitty tattoo. It didn’t heal well. But I kind of like it because this year hurt. This tattoo hurt.
Before joining Arcadia in 2013, Pam Hess was a career national security journalist. After a short stint on Capitol Hill, she served as the editor of the former food magazine Flavor and reconnected with her passion for sustainable agriculture, food systems, and the environment. She now serves as the executive director of Arcadia, a nonprofit on the Woodlawn Estate in Alexandria that does everything from growing and distributing fresh, affordable food to food deserts to training veterans to become farmers. —Laura Hayes
What do you see as the biggest threat today?
To quote [Arcadia board chairman] Michael Babin, “We have a food system that is extraordinarily effective at creating lots of calories that are cheap at the point of sale and devastatingly expensive in terms of public health.” You and I operate in a food system where we can make good choices or bad choices, but there’s a whole tranche of this city and whole tranche of this country where people simply don’t have a choice. They’re not making bad choices, they’re making the only choices available to them that are affordable and convenient. If you don’t have much money and you’re surrounded by stores stocking potato chips, Pop-Tarts, and sodas, that is what you’re going to eat. It’s not a failure of character, it’s a failure of the system. We should be washing our cities and towns in healthy food so that it’s the easy thing for people to pick.
What would you say is Arcadia’s biggest accomplishment over the past decade?
Our staff derive real pleasure from our Mobile Market program. Since we started in 2012, we have sold more than $1.35 million worth of food in neighborhoods that grocery stores won’t serve.
Americans have a reflexive faith in the laws of supply and demand. We think if there’s demand for a product, supply will follow. It is true in higher economic strata. But it isn’t when it comes to healthy fresh food in lower income communities. Our prices are 30 to 50 percent lower than farmers markets for the same or better quality food. Selling it is important because our customers want to have the dignity of participating in a market economy. It’s fun to shop and buy stuff. It’s not so fun to stand in line and be handed food. We are supporting a market economy that allows our customers to be partners in their health.
Arcadia Mobile Markets are serving a very real need and measuring it shows there’s so much unmet demand. The first year we sold $44,000, then $66,000, then $145,000, then $182,000, then $185,000, then $240,000, then $237,000, and we’ve already exceeded $255,000 this year in neighborhoods that people told us the reason grocery stores aren’t there is nobody wants that food.
What have you learned about veterans through working with them on Arcadia’s Veteran Farmer Program?
The prevailing narrative we have with vets is that they’re victims and that they need to be protected and taken care of. That’s true for some, but what I’ve found is that they are taking care of us. They are tough, resilient, smart, practical, thoughtful, energetic, entrepreneurial people who like to act on their environment.
There’s also a lot of folks who have come through who have had a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or missing limbs. Farming is offering them stuff, too. It’s inherently therapeutic for anyone. It’s good to have your hands in the dirt. There are compounds in the soil that your body absolutely needs and can only be accessed with your hands in the soil.
We have this national reach. They’re finding us because they want to be farmers and they also want to train with other military veterans because they share a culture. There’s something really marvelous about the fact that our farm used to be owned by the first American veteran—George Washington. They’re learning their trade on this land.
What is one meaningful way Washingtonians can engage in the local food system?
Spend 10 percent more of their food budget, whatever that is, with food directly from local farmers, especially local farmers who are farming in a way that is regenerative of the earth. That 10 percent makes an actual different to those farmers. It’ll require you to be more active in your food purchasing, but it will put more money in the farmers’ pockets, maybe allowing them to buy more land, and certainly support the soil health they’re creating.
Julie Lawson is the director of the Mayor’s Office of the Clean City. The longtime environmental activist makes sure she’s at the table when public works, transportation, environment, and other agencies discuss public health (rats!), trash disposal, and litter. She also serves on a citizens advisory panel trying to save the Chesapeake Bay. She previously ran her own marketing design company. —Tom Sherwood
How did you get involved in environmental issues?
I’m a third-generation native of Sarasota, Florida. My mom was a teacher and my dad a marine biologist, so I grew up on the water watching him rescuing dolphins, manatees, and whales. My dad would take us camping. He believes you leave [a site] better than you found it. We cleaned up others’ trash.
How did you get started in local advocacy?
In 2007, I started running the Surfrider [a national nonprofit dedicated to ocean and beach protection] chapter here. I allowed it to take over my life. The D.C. bag fee campaign was in 2009 and that was when I really figured out that this was my passion. I started Trash Free Maryland in 2010 and then the Anacostia Watershed Society hired me.
You’ve said people may not necessarily see the big picture about environmental clean up, but they do care about their neighborhoods?
The different ways I have to look at trash has been eye-opening. I continue to come back to the idea that people protect the places that they care about. This office was created under Mayor [Anthony] Williams in 1999. Mayor [Muriel] Bowser asked me just to bring the vision I had [for environmental advocacy].
In two years, you’ve more than doubled participation in city’s Adopt-A-Block Program. But trash collection is a chaotic jumble of trash and other trucks rumbling through the city.
Only 30 percent of D.C.’s trash [all residential] is collected by D.C. [public works] trucks. Seventy percent—everything else—is collected by 101 registered haulers, private companies. I have been looking at ways to streamline and zone routes. It’s a very disorganized system. We understand the current system doesn’t work for anybody, residents or businesses, and has a lot of environmental negatives. Whatever we do, we’ll end up working better when trash is picked up, rats are reduced, and residents feel like they are getting fair service. In the next 10 years we could really revolutionize our trash system.
Naseema Shafi has been at Whitman-Walker for 13 years. She was promoted to Chief Executive Officer in 2019 and is the first woman to ever permanently hold the position. Whitman-Walker started as a health center for gay men who needed STI testing in the 1970s. Today, the health center still offers these services, plus many more, and continues to advocate for the LGBTQ community, going so far as to sue the Trump administration for rolling back insurance and provider protections for the community. Shafi finds herself at the helm of Whitman-Walker Health, thinking about its vision for the future. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
You are Whitman-Walker’s first permanent woman CEO, and the first woman of color to hold the position. I’m sure you’re asked about this a lot, but given leadership in the health care industry—4 percent of CEOs are women—I wanted to ask, describe your rise in this male-dominated industry?
I was really lucky in that I’m an attorney and landed in a role as a compliance analyst in my very early stages because it set me up to kind of become an internal consultant for the place. And I learned a lot through that process that really gave me other opportunities along the way—to be in rooms that I wouldn’t have been in if I had different jobs. And the organization itself is LGBTQ-focused and has so many people of color who work for us, but also who are engaged in care with us. It’s a place that really is looking for authenticity and vulnerability and integrity, a lot of values that I think women naturally have and are very good at. We often, I think, are instructed or taught or modeled leadership where you can’t be those things at work, especially as a woman. But [that] has not been my experience. It’s been much better for me to be very authentic than to be guarded.
Describe the last year in this new position. What’s it been like for you?
As a woman, it has been different for me in that I think that I’ve been treated differently in certain rooms than my predecessor, who’s fantastic and I adore. I think that’s something that I’m very conscious of and very aware of. And I notice that other people notice it too. So that’s been a nice reflection of the community’s protection and awareness of me.
Is there anything that you’re looking forward to next year? You’re excited about?
We are excited to expand services east of the river. And we are hyper-focused on how we’re going to do that. We’ve been trying to figure out and addressing our facilities needs my entire time there. It’s a decades-long process. And we have two more facilities left, the Max Robinson Center and Eastern Market need new sites. And so we’re really close on a plan to execute that. And that’ll happen soon, hopefully.
The biggest thing that’s definitely happening for us next year, we are taking advantage of the communication around ending the epidemic, the HIV epidemic… In Wards 7 and 8, the rates are still quite high. And then in sub-populations within the community, [for example] trans women of color or trans folks in general, they’re forgotten often in research and in care. We have huge sets of programs that are going to be launching, including a big social media campaign.
What brought you and keeps you in this line of work?
What brought me to Whitman-Walker was a desire to contribute to community, and that I felt disconnected from what mattered to people, to my neighbors. I just didn’t know—I was in more of a corporate setting. And in some corporate settings the only thing you could talk about is sports, it’s the most controversial thing you ever talk about. And so it was really important to me to be able to be contributing to the community. And what keeps me at Whitman-Walker every day is the opportunity that we have to create within our walls the place that the world should be. And that is a real gift.
Jamila Perritt always knew she would be a doctor. A trained obstetrician and gynecologist, she grew up in D.C., attended DC Public Schools, and has been practicing locally for the last decade. She does clinical work based at Planned Parenthood, serves on D.C.’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee, and makes her voice heard about public policy that impacts her patients. —Kayla Randall
How do you describe your work?
The work that I do now as a professional person bridges medical care and social justice and community change. There are people that I take care of who are impacted by these policies that we’re pushing forward that are killing our communities. It matters whether or not we have safe water to drink, healthy food, and a safe place to stay, and if you can take your kids to the playground. That doesn’t seem to most people to be within the realm of obstetrics and gynecology, but it absolutely influences the health of that pregnant person, the baby they’ll ultimately deliver, and their ability to even survive their pregnancy.
Like living in a food desert makes it a lot harder to maintain the diet and health your doctor would want you to have?
Absolutely. The challenging part about food deserts is that they’re almost always partnered with food swamps. So it’s not just that you don’t have healthy food, it’s replaced by high calorie, low cost, unhealthy food. Those pairings are a perfect storm of poor health for our communities. But then, as somebody who’s lived in all parts of the city—I lived over in Congress Heights in Ward 8 for a number of years, and that was before they put the Giant on Alabama Ave.—there’s always been pockets of poverty in our city. D.C. has always operated in these separate, parallel universes, where folks who have access to care, money, and resources live one way and the folks who are often left out in the cold don’t have those same opportunities. Whether we’re talking about schools or grocery stores, it’s our responsibility as providers of health care, in my opinion, that we advocate for all of the things that impact the health of the community—not just those things that are happening when they show up in our office.
How do you make people open their eyes to racial inequities?
The further you get in terms of your career, the more homogenous the room tends to look. For those of us who are at the table, we have to battle with those inequities, and times and places to speak up and stand up and sometimes, to shout. We cannot underestimate the cost of speaking up. It can’t just be the responsibility of the oppressed to do it. So how we engage our allies that are in the space, whether they’re willing or able to speak up and in what ways they can do so, are important conversations to have. This is a system that so many of us are thriving in, including me in a lot of ways. To be able to say that I’m going to work against a system in which I’m thriving, as a person with these identities, is a big barrier for lots of people to cross. But it’s a necessary one because there is no success for any of us if all of us don’t have an opportunity to be able to participate in that. If you’re disconnected from your community, then you don’t feel it with the same sense of urgency that some of us do.
Being in the D.C. community and treating people from this community, what are you working to address?
There are huge pockets of inequity in this city, and there always have been. We’re seeing folks being pushed out more and more because of gentrification, decreased access to all kinds of parts of the city. We hear a lot about difficulty accessing care for many folks, but also when care exists, it not being culturally responsive or meeting the needs of the community. As a D.C. native, for me it’s always important that we continue to tap into the resources of the folks that have been here all along. What I find in my work is that we’re often bringing in people from other places to speak about what’s happening in our communities. We have the resources we need in the people in our communities to address the issues and the challenges. But if we never ask those affected, there’s no way we’re going to find a solution that works.
My grandma calls it “the come-heres and the from-heres.” There’s this idea that the come-heres have all of the answers. When I’m doing policy work on the Hill and people ask where I’m from and I say from here, they’re like “oh nobody’s from D.C.” We’re here, we exist—people who grew up here, who went to school here, who are invested in the community in a way no one else can be because this is our home.
Talented, smart, and outspoken, go-go artist Michelle Blackwell has emerged in the past few years as one of the genre’s most admired stars. A veteran of Suttle Thoughts and Northeast Groovers, Blackwell now performs with and co-manages What?! Band and describes her style as “urban go-go soul.” Her ambitious 2018 Body of Work album stands as a powerful rebuke to anyone who claims that go-go artists don’t release original music. With the release of that album as well as her debut novel, Love-n-Gogo, in the same year, Blackwell has staked her claim as one of the genre’s best and brightest. —Alona Wartofsky
When did you become absolutely certain that you would pursue a career as a go-go artist?
I’ve been a performing artist for as long as I can remember. It’s my first love, for sure. Whether it was singing, acting, or dancing, I knew it gave me a sense of purpose and happiness unlike anything else I endeavored to do. So when the opportunity arose for me to perform in a band, it fit right into my performing arts niche perfectly since, of course, I already loved go-go music so much. At my first show with Suttle Thoughts in September of 2000, the energy I felt and received from the band and the crowd was so intense, and the energy reverberating through me was so intoxicating, that I can still feel it almost 20 years later. In that moment, I knew that I was here to stay. I was where I belonged.
You are intelligent, you’re a songwriter, singer, band manager, and video director. You also write fiction and have amazing hair. Is there anything that you’re really bad at?
Quite honestly, I can be really bad at all of the above and I have been, until I find ways to weed out what doesn’t work and cultivate what does. And that includes my hair.
I’ve gone through many trial-and-error moments trying to get to the right styles that work for me, and it’s the same method I use for any project I take on. It’s why I think I am “so good” at certain things. I’m just determined and I never give up until I find a way. After you do that enough times in your life, you start to believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind and heart to.
We’re hearing a lot these days about DontMuteDC and Long Live GoGo. Why does go-go matter?
Go-go matters because culture matters. It matters because identity matters, and it matters because the story of African Americans matters. Go-go music is woven into the fabric of African American culture in this country, and like jazz, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and rock ‘n’ roll, it was born out of our struggles and our joy and pain. Go-go tells our specific and unique story here in D.C. It must not only be preserved in every way possible, but maintained and supported so that it is still here 20 years from now, striving and continuing to grow.
You’ve done so much in the last couple of years. What’s next?
I am working on the sequel to Love-n-Gogo, a novel about a leading lady in a go-go band trying to navigate the go-go industry and the dating scene in Washington, D.C. I’m also working on my next album, which I’m hoping will be completed in the next few months. And last but certainly not least, the DontMuteDC movements have thrust us all into fast-forward politically, and a lot of my time will be spent trying to ensure that the culture is protected and preserved for future generations.
Readers may wonder whether the protagonist of Love-n-Gogo, Traci Mason, is a stand-in for you. Can you comment on that?
I get that a lot. The funny thing is, even my closest friends who know my story still ask me if certain parts of the book pertain to me. I have seen and experienced a lot that has influenced some scenarios, but for the most part, the entire book is born out of my imagination. Traci and I have some things in common, though. We both love to swim and make tacos.
In the last week of August, George Washington University associate professor Dave Karpf tweeted an innocuous joke about the New York Times office having bedbugs, saying “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” Hours later, Stephens, a conservative columnist at the paper, emailed Karpf and cc’d his provost with an invitation to call him a bedbug to his face, in front of his family. Karpf, who has tenure, tweeted the exchange, and the internet widely mocked Stephens. But Karpf was squarely inside the Zeitgeist before #Bretbug: He studies digital political communication, and as we come off a historic election year with unprecedented online implications and enter another one, his work is incredibly relevant. —Emma Sarappo
So, about the Bretbug thing. What is the crux here? What did you tell your students?
I think, fundamentally, Bret Stephens believes that we have a social hierarchy that he is around the top of, and that if you’re high up in the social hierarchy, then you shouldn’t be criticized by the masses. And I think if you’re high up in the social hierarchy, you should be criticized by the masses. He went searching for this joke by a random guy, who happened to be me, and then he went after that guy, cc’ing his boss, because he thought that the boss should know that the random professor was saying bad things about a New York Times columnist, and we all know you’re not supposed to do that. I think that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. What he was trying to frame as being about civility, I think was about an exercise in power.
The mistake that Stephens made that set this all up was he had decided he wanted to have a conversation with me and with my provost. And with social media, he doesn’t get to choose those boundaries. I then decided to reframe the conversation and have it be one between him and me and the entire internet, and that went terribly for him. If you could have ensured it was just him, me, and the provost, then what that does is signals to the provost that the important New York Times columnist is taking this very, very seriously. But when I decide I’m going to screenshot this and share this with Twitter, then the entire internet finds it hilarious and absurd that he’s going so over the top about being called a metaphorical bedbug.
How has the internet changed as a tool for political communication in the last few decades?
I will give you a short, short version. If you go back to 2003, wi-fi is just becoming a thing. Starting around that point, the hardline division between being online or offline gets blurrier and blurrier. And in 2007, with the introduction of smartphones, the blur goes further. There was quite a while when being online meant that you were stuck at a desktop, which meant you weren’t doing things offline, like going to a bar or going to a protest. And that starts to blur with wi-fi, where now you can be online while you’re sitting at a laptop in a coffee house. And then it blurs even more—and for the past decade, the internet has always been in our pocket. The internet is always present for us, which means it’s getting layered on top, and it’s then used more to support our offline social behavior rather than being a choice against offline social behavior.
What are you looking at most closely as we go into another election cycle?
The story of this election cycle is not going to be about some new, sparkly technology. This is going to be an election about the decisions that Facebook and Google make, particularly because the Federal Election Commission just doesn’t function anymore. Rather than having government regulators make decisions about how you’re allowed to communicate in the election, instead Facebook and Google kind of have to decide that on their own, and they’re not going to do a great job with it because Facebook and Google were not built to make those decisions. What I’m really focused on is how do campaigns use Facebook and Google, and what are the choices that those two companies make for what they do and don’t support this election? That’s the reason why there’s all the conversation about Facebook allowing candidates to lie in their ads—that legitimately is a really big deal, because without an FEC, the decisions that Facebook makes are effectively law.
Twenty-seven years ago, Howard Yoon took a job as a literary assistant in a law firm in D.C. Nearly three decades and multiple law school deferrals later, he’s a literary agent at Ross Yoon Agency, and this year alone, he’s worked on a number of buzzy titles, including Garrett Graff’s The Only Plane In The Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, and Neal Katyal’s forthcoming Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump. Yoon represents nonfiction books that attempt to explain complex topics and influence the world for the better—and he believes that books can make an impact that, say, tweets can’t. —Emma Sarappo
What does a literary agent do for a book and for an author?
Our job is to represent clients and sell their books to publishers. I do what sports agents do, except my clients, instead of athletes, they’re authors. I don’t work with any one publisher; I work for the client, who’s the author. I’m their advocate throughout the entire book publishing process—that’s conception of idea and launch of the book, and then moving on to the next book, if there is one. My job is to know what the market is and what editors are looking for, and to push the person in the direction where it’s a little bit more marketable, a little bit more commercial, while still maintaining the thing that they’re trying to do, and the thing that they do well. The publishing business is this intersection of art and commerce, and sometimes people focus too heavily on one side or the other. They’re only obsessed with the artistic quality of the book or they’re only concerned with selling something, and when you lose track of the other side of the coin, then you probably end up with a book that you shouldn’t be writing or that won’t work in the market. It’s possible to do both: You can be successful, but also be creative and do good writing.
What are the things that you are trying to publish, especially right now?
I’m looking for stories that haven’t been told, or stories that we think we know about, but haven’t been told in the way that they’re going to be told by the author, so a different take or different twist on something. I’m looking for people who are really passionate and driven by a subject, and who will dig and dig and dig and go deeper into something, and really try to write a definitive book on X, Y, or Z. Or maybe it’s a memoir, and they have a story that really needs to come out. I have to believe in the book. I have to believe in the author, I have to believe in the message. I think it’s easy to be cynical in publishing and to do things just to get the book deal or just to get the book sale. And I think once you start, you know, deciding to take on clients based on those factors, you lose sight of what’s important. I think you can sort of get off track.
In the office, we said you represent “books that are trying to explain the world right now.” Would you agree with that characterization?
I think so—explain the world, but also influence the world in a particular direction. For the better, in my opinion. Either educating, or arguing, or compelling people to consider something in a way that they haven’t before, to be more reflective, to be more thoughtful, to be more conversant about things that are important in our lives. And I think this is why I can’t imagine being in another industry, because I do think that books occupy a certain space in our lives that is seemingly lost or narrower in our lives as we go faster and faster with our phones and our smart devices and stuff—that books can influence ideas over a long term period. If I can use my skills, as an agent and also an editor and a marketer, to help people who I feel whose voices need to be heard, then that’s sort of my cause and my calling, and that’s how I wake up and go to work every morning. It feels good.
Beverly Smith-Brown couldn’t tell you how many funerals or vigils she’s attended this year, nor how many she’s helped plan. “When you’re hit with a boulder like that, the last thing you can think about is planning the last celebration for your loved ones,” she says. She supports the families of homicide victims in whatever way they need as the co-founder of Momma’s Safe Haven.
Through its healing center, Momma’s Safe Haven provides free counseling and safe spaces for anyone who’s experienced trauma. Separating itself from other nonprofits, Momma’s Safe Haven tailors its care to whomever they’re helping. The goal is to help individuals become more self-sufficient, connecting them to the resources they did not know exist. It’s a trusted partner because its members are part of the same Southeast D.C. community they primarily serve. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
You helped the mother of 11-year-old Karon Brown. Can you talk to me about that?
October 2017 is when I was first introduced to trauma on a professional level, because I became a first responder with Alliance of Concerned Men. I’m a part of the trauma recovery team, and what we do is we respond to crime scenes in the zip code of 20032. Last year, my nephews were gunned down, which made it personal for me. So with that and my sister hurting, it made me want to reach out to other grieving mothers and provide a space for them to come together.
Meeting Ms. Kathren Brown really hit home for me again because I met a person who is just living a nightmare. What we began to do was build a relationship just through text messages because I knew there was a lot of people around her. So eventually I would go over and give her flowers or something like that—anything to try to brighten her day. We took Karon Brown’s family, 10 members of his family, to Massanutten, Virginia, for a healing retreat. We were there for two nights and three days and had an opportunity to do a nature walk and just really get to know each other in an organic kind of way. Not a “I’m a provider, you’re a victim” but just as people. So we just really connected on that level.
I attended a Momma’s Safe Haven comedy show for grieving mothers and saw Kathren there. How does Momma’s Safe Haven connect with the community and create that trust?
One of the biggest mandates for our community is unity. And that there is really no separation between us and that we are all connected. If one is hurting, then we’re all hurting.
One of the things for me that helps me is laughter. And in tough times, sometimes that’s all you can do is just laugh, you know? And I know it sounds a little crazy, but sometimes that is a coping method.
One of the main things with Momma’s Safe Haven is we’ve been through so much personally. We’re from the community and understand the wall that’s put up, as it relates to services pouring into the community. One of the things that we try to do at Momma’s Safe Haven is those real tangible things that can create transformation right then and there, like a grieving mother at a comedy show, laughing. When before, they couldn’t find no reason to laugh.
Why did you decide to do this work? You were a teacher before Momma’s Safe Haven.
I want to say it started when I was younger with my mom because my mom was a stay-at-home mom. And she would watch people’s children when they came home from school. She always helped other people out.
Fast forward to me as a mom. My son was having some difficulties in school. He was basically being a terror in the community, and I never condoned it. The first thing they want to do is blame the mom. So my first meeting was in 2007. It was actually called Sisters United. And I put [up our flyer] and I posed three questions: Do you have a child in the juvenile system? Are you tired of being blamed? Do you need support? We had about 25 people show up. And that’s when I realized that I’m not the only one who sees this epidemic with our children. [Before] I really felt like it was me against my community.
But then you built bridges and realized it wasn’t you against your community, but you standing with your community.
Exactly. Our mission statement is Momma’s Safe Haven was founded on the need of support from the community. We want the community to support mothers. It takes a village. Where I’m weak, you’re stronger. So let’s fill in the gaps.
Hannah Oliver Depp has roots throughout the mid-Atlantic, but spent many memorable summers shopping at Politics and Prose. She joined the staff of the legendary bookstore while attending graduate school at American University and decided to make bookselling her career soon after. Her new store, Loyalty Bookstore, opened in February in the former home of Upshur Street Books in Petworth, and a holiday pop-up in downtown Silver Spring is bringing the joy of books to Marylanders for the second year in a row. —Caroline Jones
What made you decide to open bookstores for a living?
I was able to have such an impact on my community and publishing by being a bookseller. It was incredible to see what happened when you confronted publishing about their lack of representation or thinking critically about what they were putting their weight behind. Bookselling is an oddly physically engaging, creative, crafty job, and it engages all the different parts of my history and my brain. There’s rarely a time your sci-fi nerdiness and your appreciation of Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Woolf can come together in one place and be useful, and this is that place.
Why do you think D.C. has become the center of this indie bookstore boom?
One, which is a negative that we can try to turn into a positive, is gentrification. It’s a change in who is living where and what their expectations for their neighborhood are. There was a really hard adjustment period that independent bookstores had to go through to understand what makes us important and essential in the space of first, the chain bookstores, and then Amazon. It was leaning into what made us weird and special and becoming very smart business owners and not ignoring that this is, at its core, a retail establishment that needs to function as a retail establishment. It’s a lot of work going into the past 10 years of people having those conversations and talking about taxes and where they’re going that’s allowed indie bookstores to bloom again in Washington, D.C. This is a city that reads, this is a black city that reads and that is really really proud of its literacy and that cares a lot about books and letters. It’s a city that likes to be seen reading. We like to have books on the Metro! A lot of it is also to do with a younger, aggressive generation of entrepreneurs who grew up in independent bookstores that were able to hang on, like Politics and Prose and Kramers, who are now opening their own stores.
How would you describe D.C. readers?
D.C. readers are a microcosm of readers all around the nation because a good chunk of our readers are from other places and they bring those reading tastes with them, and your O.G. D.C.ers are some of the most curious people I have ever served. They don’t take anything at face value, they are going to ask you a bazillion questions about the book that you’re recommending for them, and they expect you to know your stock. They don’t play, even if the book they’re asking for is a humorous book.
What excites you about living and working in D.C. in 2019
One of the reasons I wanted to move back is that I felt like my hometown was being occupied, which is a very dramatic way of talking about Trump’s party moving into town and interacting with a place full of real people who live here and work here every day and are real citizens of America and are weirdly at the mercy of the federal government. That felt like a very exaggerated version of what’s been happening in D.C. for a long time. What’s exciting is building a community that’s opposite to that, that is here to listen and here to have educated conversations, who believe in facts and that there is something to talking about things that are difficult and complicated, not searching for the easiest answer or the person to blame.
Do you have a favorite book that’s either by a person from D.C. or is set in D.C.?
Is it cheating to say Edward P. Jones? That was probably the first author I was conscious of being from D.C. and who I felt like was talking to me and talking to my family. My new favorite, very much in that vein, is Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls. It deals with what’s going on, it’s a complicated look at gentrification, a complicated look at race relations, a complicated look at what it’s like to be a normal person who’s walking around D.C. right now.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh doesn’t even belong in politics—or so she said when we asked her to be in this year’s People Issue. The four-term politician and professor at The George Washington University Law School says she’s a bit uncomfortable in the limelight and isn’t much for self-promotion.
Despite her stage fright, Cheh, who has led several investigations into D.C. government shenanigans, once again finds herself in the middle of a Council scandal as the chair of the committee that will recommend what to do about Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ alleged ethical violations. —Mitch Ryals
The Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 is sprawling. It requires all electricity sold in D.C. to come from renewable sources by 2032, improves energy efficiency in existing buildings, gives low-income residents help with energy bills, and funds the so-called Green Bank to attract investment in clean energy projects. Can you talk about its conception?
What unlocked it for me was the realization that 75 percent of our energy use is in buildings, so if we could really get control of that, which is a prime aspect of this omnibus bill, we could make a real dent [and] get to our clean energy goals.
It means a quality of life for people now, but it means a quality of life for people in the future. I now have a grandchild. And I’m thinking about that. I never want my grandchild to say to me “You were in a position to do something, and you didn’t do it.”
What climate change legislation can we expect in the future?
We’ve done a lot of good cleaning up the rivers and the air and the energy stuff. We have lagged in the area of waste and what we do with all of our garbage.
You send stuff to a landfill, it produces a lot of methane gas. If you burn it in the incinerator there are a lot of issues about pollution there. We need to have curbside composting. I want the top 30 businesses that deal with food to compost, and if we get those, we will get about 50 percent of the food waste just with those 30 entities.
And we have these things called anaerobic digesters. You take the poop that comes in, and put them in there, and these little bugs, bacteria, they eat them. It produces methane, [which can be used to] produce electricity. Talk about sustainable. The poop comes in, you gotta deal with it, right? You don’t wanna dump it in the water. You get the electricity, and what’s leftover can be used for fertilizer. It’s a perfect system.
What’s a non-environmental project you’re working on?
Here’s an intersection between law teaching and the Council. I have enlisted students in a pro bono project. They’re not getting credit. I wanted to look at all of the misdemeanors [in the D.C. Code] and see which ones shouldn’t be a crime. Maybe they should be a citation or maybe they should be nothing because all of the byproducts of a criminal conviction.
You’re leading the Council committee that will likely recommend discipline for Jack Evans. Did you request that role?
No, I certainly didn’t request it. This is something where you really want the cup to pass to somebody else.
Some were surprised to hear your call for Evans’ resignation, given your role as chair. What do you take away from the report on his ethical violations?
I’m quite happy to ask for his resignation now. I think the chairman made this point, which is a good point: What we see in that report is patterns and practices of behavior that are unacceptable and have been going on for many years.
In the everyday, in talking to him now, I realize I may not have been talking to him as another councilmember. I was talking to him on behalf of a client that he may have had.
Does the report reveal any deeper issues that extend beyond Evans?
It’s not just ethics violations, not just people who have clients, but the coziness and the special favors that go on all the time. I’ve been here a while, so I should have realized this before. A lot of what goes on, in a kind of shenanigans way, is through subcontractors, and we don’t regulate subcontractors.
We give the award to a prime contractor, they then partner with a subcontractor, but then we don’t look at that. So I’m going to introduce legislation, I think, to address that.
I was told that you out-planked everyone in your office.
[Laughs] Yes, I did.
How long can you do a plank?
I don’t know. How long was it?
(Cheh’s spokesperson says her boss planked for four minutes and 30 seconds.)
I could have gone on, actually. I do push ups. I used to do 200 [a day]. Not all at once, but look what I’m reduced to now. I do 40.
When artist Tsedaye Makonnen visited the Venice Biennale, a global exhibition of contemporary art, she was moved to respond to one artwork by making something of her own. For “Barca Nostra,” artist Christoph Büchel displayed the remains of a shipwreck off the coast of Libya in which between 700 and 1,100 people, most of them migrants, were lost. With the support of the artist—and against the wishes of festival authorities—Makonnen staged a performance with the rusted hull of the ship as her backdrop. Locally, the D.C. native is exhibiting a solo show through Dec. 6 at Carroll Square Gallery, featuring a series of light-box columns—picture illuminated crystal totem poles—named after 50 black women, trans women, girls, and nonbinary people. Through her engaging textiles, sculptures, and performances, Makonnen is giving voice to the experience of migrants and women pushed out of view. —Kriston Capps
Tell me about the title of your Carroll Square show [“Senait & Nahom | ሰናይት :: እና :: ናሆም | The Peacemaker & The Comforter”] and what it means.
“Senait and Nahom” is named after a 19-year-old, Senait Tadesse, who committed suicide [in April 2018 in a German asylum center] and also killed her child, Nahom [Tadesse]. Her name means “the peacemaker,” and her son Nahom’s name means “the comforter.” As a mother, I can only imagine what lengths she was pushed to [in order] to have to do that. The meaning of names is really important in Ethiopian and Eritrean and African culture in general. Usually when you’re given a name, it’s for a very specific reason. Your family or community is envisioning something for you in the future and that’s why they give you that name.
Why are these mirrored towers named after women?
If you look at a lot of the stories that are being tracked, specifically in the migratory patterns that are happening right now, it’s very male-centric. Culturally, it’s easier to get ahold of the men. A lot of women migrate in groups whereas men will migrate on their own. Like anything else, it’s patriarchy. The stories that are being told are the men’s stories. For me, as a woman, and knowing what it’s like to operate in the world in a black woman’s body, it’s way more dangerous. There’s so much more shit you have to deal with. Desperation. For me it was important to focus on women in this piece.
When did you decide you were going to do an unauthorized performance at the Venice Biennale?
It wasn’t until I got there and had sat in front of the boat for a few hours and had observed how people were interacting with it that I decided, alright, I have to do this. For me it was a memorialization and also an intervention. It was cathartic, in an upsetting way, for the other black people who were there. It was mostly African migrants who died on that boat. My friend’s friend found out that one of her relatives was on that boat. It was being presented as an object in the Biennale by Christoph Büchel, who is a white European, titled “Barca Nostra:” our boat.
What was your performance?
I had put some netelas [scarves] on different people in the audience. I was marching back and forth while wearing an Ethiopian kaba, which is the cape that monarchy used to wear. I was playing a song—this is what pissed them off—called “Faccetta Nera.” It was created in the Mussolini era. It’s about the carnal union between Italian men and little Ethiopian girls. It was used as propaganda to get Italy to support the colonization of Ethiopia. Mussolini didn’t like it—he was a [racial] purist.
This is a wild song.
What is even wilder is it is sung to this day. It’s a song that [Italians] are ashamed of. Even though they’re ashamed and don’t want people to know it, everyone knows it. I was in Munich in February at a bar and an Italian man came up to me and sang that song.
What happened with the police in Venice?
About 30 to 45 minutes in, they start putting up a type of barricade around the boat. That reiterated that they view the boat as an object. Eventually, once I wrapped it up, these plainclothes cops came and started racially profiling the crowd, asking the black people in the audience for their documents. Non-black people were speaking up, like what the hell?
Interviews by Washington City Paper staff and contributors
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery