Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ayehubizu on Big Chair Coffee

"I am from Ethiopia. I came to Washington in 1988 with my little girl. I am a registered nurse and did my training in Ethiopia. For my whole life, I have always worked two jobs. I was working at Birney Elementary School in Anacostia as a nurse. I would usually bring my own food because there was nothing to eat around here. I ended up having to go to the Safeway when I wanted a snack.

"With time, I saw that nothing was being opened, so I thought why not try myself. I heard that the government was giving grants to help businesses in Anacostia, which didn't happen to me. I wasted my time trying to get help from the city. I did it all by myself. I used my savings and had my family help me. We opened in January 2010. Now, my brother is the manager. My son and nephew help out. I come when I can and also still work as a nurse.

"I wanted to open on this side of the river because there are so many people who need coffee and a place to sit around and relax. This is the only place where you can get an espresso around here. Remember, coffee comes from Ethiopia, so this is what we love, too. I also wanted to give the community healthy food. I am also thinking about bringing Ethiopian food in by request.

"Now, a lot of people are thanking me and sending me cards. But I feel I am the one who is blessed. We have people who come by and say, 'We will still come and support you in the bad weather because we want you to succeed.' They want the neighborhood to succeed."

Big Chair Coffee, home of the Marion Barry Latte, is located at 2122 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Jen on Being Miss District of Columbia

"I grew up on Long Island. I wanted to be a music major in college and got a scholarship to go to the Hartt School in Hartford. I accepted and about a week later, I was hysterically crying and told my Mom that I would hate Hartford. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to move to D.C. So, I switched and came to D.C. That one decision has completely changed my entire life.

"I watched Miss America when I was little with my sisters, but never thought about actually competing. I had all of these stereotypes of pageant girls. I was the type of girl who would never wear make up, never go the gym, and never do my hair. I ended up getting into the pageant world because my voice teacher here was the voice teacher of a former Miss D.C. She got an email asking if she had any students who would be interested in auditioning. She came to me one day and said, ‘I decided that this year you are going to be Miss D.C. and then be Miss America!’ I just laughed.

"She kept bugging me and I eventually went to the audition and made the Top 15. It actually turned out to be pretty fun. I got on stage and sang a song, O Mio Babbino Caro, and walked around in a swimsuit and an evening gown and got paid. Plus, the other girls were nothing like I expected. They worked on the Hill or were in college. One girl was even trying to get into the FBI. Many states are very 'pageanty', but not D.C. The girls here are all really smart and professionally driven.

"The experience also taught me some of the beauty tricks for pageant girls. You glue your bathing suit to your butt, so you don’t get a wedgie when you’re on stage. We all bronze our abs and legs to make them look more defined. You also put hemorrhoid cream under your eyes and on your legs the night before, so that it sucks in all of the moisture and makes you more defined. Some girls even wear Vaseline on their teeth to help their smile.

"I ended up competing three years in a row. This year, I came to Miss D.C. to win and go to Miss America. It was my senior year of college and all of my friends were applying for jobs. They asked me where I was applying and I said, 'I am not applying for jobs because I am going to win Miss. D.C.' I just knew it. Walking out on stage at the final crowning, I said to myself, I am not going to make that face and start crying. That is the first thing that I did when they called my name. I can’t believe that I did that. I am still so angry at myself.

"Everything changed after winning Miss D.C. and getting Top 10 at Miss America. I got to meet President Obama. I get to go to all of these fun events. I got to sing the national anthem at a Caps and Nationals game. I am working to promote my platforms of recycling and education all around the city. I mean, who does that? One thing, though, is that as much as I want to be myself as Miss D.C., people have certain expectations of what a pageant girl should be. I try and work to balance my life as Jen Corey and Miss D,C. to have a little of each in both. My friends make fun of me for being in full make up all of the time, but my biggest fear is to introduce myself as Miss D.C. and someone says, ‘Really?’ I still have my friend’s houses where I can go to as a refuge and I am still the sweetheart of one of the fraternities at American. I can go over there with my sweatpants and drink a beer, eat a whole pizza, watch the Superbowl, and just be Jen."

Learn more about Miss District of Columbia here. Hear Jen's rap song "Dream Without Boundaries" with Kokayi here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Raymin on Standing Together

"I’m 33. I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S. in December 1983. My family first came to New York and then we settled in Hyattsville, Maryland. I have been doing construction since I left high school in 1995. I did general labor, demolition, asbestos removal, whatever. Being out there in the field, I was exposed to a lot of the injustices that people in the work force deal with, things like poor or no pay and mistreatment. I am fortunate because I am bilingual, so I could speak up for co-workers who didn't speak the language. There were a few times when I would be let go for speaking up, but the way I look at it, I am not going to let anyone disrespect me or my co-workers.

"My whole time in construction, I was never in a union. I don’t have a pension or insurance, none of that. With my health, I always just crossed my fingers. I got hurt a few times and always had to pay out of pocket. Back then, I didn't
know about the unions. It’s not like contractors were telling us about our rights. Their bottom line was making money. The last thing many of them wanted was for us to have the knowledge that if we joined with our co-workers, we could have what they had -- a contract. No job gets done in this city without a contract, yet we never had one. Part of that may be that union density in D.C. is not like New York. Here, there isnt' that mentality where your Dad and Granddad were in the union.

"When I was given the opportunity to be an organizer, I said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ Now I'm able to give back. I spend a lot of my time in the field talking with people. I have been in their shoes, so I know how to relate to them. I think that it's important to even the playing field. If you want your community to thrive, you need to give your community the resources and options. Without options, people unfortunately turn to other means.

"With Small businesses, Minority contractors, and Advocates for Reform Today (SMART DC), we represent workers, whether they are black, Hispanic or white. The problem is usually the contractors who aren't
held accountable. A lot of these construction companies get a contract and claim to want to boost the local economy and hire local labor, but we find that many of them get the contract and pull out the rug from under D.C. workers. Right now, one of our projects is holding Clark Construction accountable for their development of the new Homeland Security building in the old Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Ward 8. Each project and contract is different, but there are terms that discuss the percentage of local workers to be employed. A lot of times, though, these contractors sub the work out to people in Maryland or Virginia instead of hiring directly from here. In the past, part of the reason was that some companies hired undocumented workers and brought them to construction sites. Look, if the contract said hire D.C. residents, hire D.C. residents. There are plenty of folks here who want to work; they just need an opportunity to do so. As a community, we need to stand together on this."

Learn more about SMART DC, including their work to bring more jobs to D.C. residents,

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Michael on Growing Up

"I was born in Hawaii. I came to D.C. when I was three. I am Hawaiian, Egyptian and white. D.C. is a great place, but a bad place to grow up. I would not recommend it. There is too much gang activity and all that jazz. If you grew up somewhere else, I would suggest moving here. I wouldn't raise children here though. I have younger siblings, but they live in Gaithersburg. My parents and siblings couldn't deal with living here, so they moved. I decided to stay because D.C. is pretty much all I know.

"There was this one time when I was minding my own business and walking up 14th Street and got chased by at least twenty people just because I look like I look. People thought I was in the 18th Street gang. They beat my ass pretty bad. Some of the gangs are territorial. You can't walk in certain neighborhoods if you don't belong to that gang. Most gangs are just people who have known each other for a while and they just established a group. Around Columbia Heights, there are so many gangs. There is MS-13, 18th Street, and a bunch of other groups, most just form to go up against MS-13. I learned all of this on the street. You have to.

"For me, this gang stuff has been going on since middle school. I don't fight because I want to, but because I have to. I try to talk my way out of things before I fight when I can. If you don't mind defending yourself once every month or so, D.C. is a great place to live."

D.C. is home to over 130 gangs. The District has an estimated 2,500 active gang members and 5,000 others who are “loosely affiliated.” Read more about them here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ann on Being a Korean Export

"I came to Washington, D.C. in 1969 from Korea. A U.S. Army soldier married me and brought me here. See, I'm a Korean export! I always tell people that I must have been very beautiful, that's how I left. When I was little, I thought America was a paradise because Americans gave us chocolate and blankets after the war. But there was no way for me to visit America because I was not rich. So, my girlfriend and I decided to date American guys.

"When I met my husband, I spoke very little English and he didn't speak Korean. We just used our hands and said, 'Hi' and other little words. My husband is over six feet and I am under five feet. I said, 'I can't marry you. You are too tall!' I wanted to go to America, but I thought that too much of a height gap was not right. He told me that height didn't mean nothing. My husband is from Washington, D.C. After we married, we moved here.

"I thought America was a paradise when I was in Korea, but it was a big mistake. Koreans are short and tall, poor and rich. In America, you have extra ones. Here, you have color and race problems, too. I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' I cried for five or ten years. I told my husband, 'There are so many women here. Why did you have to bring me here!?' I missed my food, my language and culture. Back then, there were not that many Koreans here. But now I have adapted and this is my country. I also took on an American name, Ann. Ann was the name of a character from the comics who I liked. People would always mispronounce my Korean name, Sok, and call me 'Sock.' So, I decided to go by Ann.

"In America, my first jobs were working with hair. In Korea, everyone cleans their hair and wants to make it nice. Here, it was totally different. Doing hair was more like doing laundry! One of my friends told me to go and work in a Korean wig shop. In Korea, wigs were used to help people who were old or losing their hair. I think wigs as fashion was really an American thing. Korean people eat a lot of garlic and that is why their hair grows so long and clean. For a long time, Koreans sold their hair to Americans to make wigs. About ten years ago, there was a hair shortage in Korea and places like India and China started selling hair.

"A few years after working at the shop, I opened my own store. At first, we did hair and sold wigs and beauty supplies. Five years later, I started selling homeopathic products because I was using them. They really helped me and I thought I could help my customers by selling them. Now, I have been in this location since September 4, 1995. This wig store paid for my three children to go to college."

Ann's Beauty Supply and Wigs Co. is located at 125 L St. Southeast.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Daniel on Sleeping at the End of the Day

"I came to D.C. in 1996 because of the political situation. I was a member of the Ethiopian Constitutional Assembly. I was active in the Parliament and became a victim of the current government. They threw me in jail. After I was released, I managed to come to this country as a political asylum case. Now, I have all of my family here. I personally believe that Washington is the capital city of the world just like Addis Ababa is the capital city of Africa. 

"Before I came here, my expectation of America was different. I thought things were no hassle and everything was easy. My first shock was seeing the homeless and those struggling to survive. But the longer I stayed, I became familiar with things here. Now if you ask me, I like the system here and the work culture. Many newcomers from Ethiopia have trouble settling in and experience depression, suicide, or end up on the streets. We have very strong family values in Ethiopia. We live with family and friends. When you came here, you miss your family, your neighbor, and your country. 

"I had the idea to open the Ethiopia Community Services and Development Council when I moved here. In 1996, there was a lot of snow and I heard that two Ethiopians died because of the weather. When these two Ethiopians died, it was not a big issue. The next year, a Hispanic guy died in a similar situation and it was a big issue. The newspapers wrote about it and the city opened a shelter after his death. I said, 'This happened because we are not organized. Our voice is not heard by city officials.' Those experiences paved the way to start this center. After I graduated from university, I gathered known people in the community to develop a strong organization to provide our community with what we need. 

"Now, we offer a variety of services for the community. We have a training center that offers pharmacy technician courses, computer training, dental assistant program training, and English as a second language. We also help people find jobs, do counseling, help with immigration issues and offer free health services. Once a month, we have a program about how to live in this country, things like what you can and can’t do. Let me give you one example. There was a guy who was shot by the Virginia police years ago. In Ethiopia, when the police tell you stop, you can either stop or run. Many times, you can outrun the police and they leave you alone. Here, when the police ask you to stop, you should stop whether you do wrong or right. This person did not have the same information. He didn’t stop for the police and tried to outrun them. The police eventually shot him. They thought he had drugs or something, but he was innocent. As a community, we teach people about their rights and the rules and regulations to live in this country. 

"This job helps me to understand people. Here, I meet different people. People who are not rich or successful, but people with situations. Some people come here with a one year old baby and no place to go, no family, and thinking about kill themselves. When they come here, I talk to them and change their mind. I show them a better future than what they see at that moment. Helping people gives me great pleasure. I sleep at the end of the day, nice good sleep."

The Ethiopia Community Services and Development Council is located at 1901 9th Street Northwest. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jim on Doing Something about it

"I grew up in Saint Louis. I came to D.C. for the first time in 2004 as an intern. Then, I moved back to Saint Louis and applied for the Peace Corps. I went to Africa with the Peace Corps and came back to D.C. in November 2007. I was living in Brookland and then moved to Shaw in May 2008.

"Before the snow, I hadn't met any of my neighbors, except for the people above us. Through the snow storm, I have met most of the people on the block. I am from the Mid-West and we know that when it starts to snow, it is best to shovel every few hours. I have probably dug the same stretch three or four times during the first day or two. I knew it wouldn't be dug out because I knew the businesses on our street don't typically dig out their walkways and it would be around for a while. There are a lot of older people in this neighborhood and personally, I wanted to be able to get to the Metro, so I did it. People thanked me. I really confused a lot of the homeless people in the area. They were carrying around shovels and digging people out for money. They couldn't figure out why I was digging out someone else's property and not getting paid. I had a lot of long conversations with them. I don't know if they thought I was stealing their business, but it was clear that these walkways were going to stay covered unless someone did something.

"I went through about 400 lbs of salt during the storms. I have about 40 lbs left and I am just getting the corners. A lot of people walk through here and there is a lot of vacant property. They dig things out eventually, but not fast enough for I don't know what the laws are for digging out your property, but if you have a sidewalk in front of your property, you should be digging it out. Rather than just be angry about it, it is better to just go out and do something about it. I like being active. It is probably part of the volunteer spirit and finding something to do when you are home and stir crazy from all of the snow."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ines on Shining Shoes

"I am from Brasilia, Brazil. I have been in Washington for 12 years now. I love shining shoes. I started shining shoes on Capitol Hill, working in the Congress. I shined shoes for Congressmen and other people who worked there. They were all very nice. My boss was Brazilian and he taught me how to shine shoes. 

"I don't really like to talk to people when I shine shoes unless they want to. Sit down and shine, that's it. I have magazines and newspapers so you can read about the world. I have a few customers who speak Portuguese, otherwise it is all English and Spanish. Now, because of the snow, business is pretty good." 

Ines works at the Washington Square Hair Salon at 1050 Connecticut Avenue Northwest. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Damian on Finding Peace

"I have been in D.C. all of my life. D.C. is a busy place, but it has its secrets that some people know about and others don't. Once you experience everything with everybody, it is a very different place than it seems on the surface. I am 16, but I've seen a lot. 

"In this city, I think that everybody is kind of the same. Because of that, I just label myself unique as compared to everyone else. Nobody here is like me. I hang out with people who are also unique. In our group, everybody is a different race and dresses differently, but we still crack jokes and chill. My parents are from El Salvador and my friends are from all over, which is nice about D.C. 

"I think about the world a lot and what is out in space. I think about why are we going through all of this and what is our purpose in life. Sometimes I feel like I have to save the world or do something like that. I talked to this Christian girl one day and she changed my life. Now, Christianity is an important part of my life. I saw the world different after that conversation. Now, I feel like people are looking to me for answers and I have to do something. I really want to, but I am also lazy. 

"Still, I do try to change my life, but I keep getting caught up because of this city and the life here. I think that I would have to make my house in a rain forest to find peace. I would love to do that, but I don't know if it's possible. I don't care about material objects, there's no point. Money is not a thing for me. I don't care about it. I care about what I do have and try not to waste it. I just want to find peace and make change in this world." 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Charles on the Power Center of the Universe

"I've had bad luck all of my life. First off, I got drafted into the military in 1966 at 19. I was First Infantry Division and stationed all around Vietnam, including Danang. I was ducking bullets, evading land mines and shooting up Vietcong. I got released and went to work at Walter Reed Medical Center as a custodian and then the National Institute of Health. After that, I went to the Veterans Affairs hospital to get cured for depression and post traumatic stress disorder. They put me on Prozac. My doctor was a clinical psychologist and I am still mad at him. That Prozac didn't do me no good. I found other ways to self-medicate, if you know what I mean.

"I've had a hell of a life. The love of my life ducked out on me. She got married to someone else. Baby girl, if you hear this, I am still looking for you, hun. I've had racist judges. All of this has been so hard on me because I am so sensitive.

"See, I am country boy. I grew up in Alabama and went to high school in Washington, D.C. For me, D.C. is the power center of the universe. With all due respect to Chicago, New York and L.A., Washington D.C. is the best. Believe me, it's the truth. I mean, with the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, we got it going on big time! Okay, I feel like I am starting to show off a little bit too much about this city."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sandy on Playing a Part in Something Bigger

"I first came to D.C. in 1991. I really just fell in love with the city. Before D.C., I was working in a costume shop in Philadelphia. When I came here, I worked at Backstage when it was still in Dupont Circle. Eventually, we moved to a bigger space in Southeast and then I bought the store from the original owner. Before us, there really wasn't a supply house in the District of Columbia for either theater books or dance wear. We are also one of the few places where you can do custom costume orders. You can come in with a sketch and we will build it. 

"Theater and art are things that I have always loved. I also did a bit of acting, but I stopped because I got too nervous at auditions. My love for costume design really picked up in college where I was able to combine my love of sewing with learning about the historical components of how things were made and the materials that were used at different times in history. 

"In D.C., I have gone in directions I never thought I would go into with costume design, like working with lobby groups. These groups usually do not want the kings, queens, and renaissance style costumes I thought I would do when I first got into this business. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked us to make a broccoli costume. An environmental lobby group had us build smoke stack and tree stump costumes. Another group had me make large hamburgers and huge pill capsules stuffed with styrofoam pellets, as they were picketing places that used meats with antibiotics. Now, a couple of those restaurants say they will not use meats that have antibiotics anymore. I am proud of things like that. I feel like I played a part in something bigger. 

"With costumes, I think that when people wear them, their personality can change. But I also feel that a lot of times, their personality has been there the whole time and they just don't let it loose. In this business, I learn a lot about people and their behaviors. I can usually tell how long a couple has been together when they come in.  A lot of newer couples want matching costumes where even the fabric has to be the same. Whereas couples that have been together for years are okay for one to go as Elvis and the other to go as a clown. They don't have to match because they are more secure in their relationship. It is fun to figure people out through working in this business. There is definitely a psychology behind costumes."

Backstage is located at 545 8th Street Southeast. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gunnery Sergeant Paulk on the Young Marines

"I've been in the Marine Corps for 17 years and have been working with the Young Marines in this area for 16 years. I was stationed at the 8th and I Marine Barracks and saw the kids there training. I just started volunteering my time and have been helping ever since. I like to describe the Young Marines as being the Boy Scouts with a Marine Corps structure to it. We do a lot of the same things as the Boy Scouts, like camping and community service projects. We also teach the Marine Corps customs and courtesies, without the war fighting. Young Marines are between 8 and 17, or whenever they finish high school, and have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average. The goal of the Young Marines is to provide better citizens in all aspects of their lives: at home, at play, in their communities, at church, and in their families. This is also a drug demand reduction program to make kids aware of the impact of drugs on themselves and their communities. 

"We meet once a week, so we can monitor the kids' progress. The parents also give us a lot of feedback. I like to call this program a triangle evolution. You need to have the instructor, parent, and kid working together to make this an effective program. A lot of these kids haven't developed their morals yet. The Young Marines can provide ethics, but the community and parents need to play a role in developing morals. Ultimately, it is their morals that will carry these kids throughout their entire lives. 

"Our goal is not to put these kids into the military. We aim to teach these kids to play positive roles in their communities. A lot of them go to college. A lot of them take the leadership and discipline and go on to prosper in other aspects of life. Many of them do develop that spirit for the Marine Corps and join.

"My reward is to see that we are helping these kids. If you can volunteer your time and do more than your part to help even one kid, that is important. This is a wonderful program that many people don't know about. There are four units in the D.C. metro area." 

Learn more about the Young Marines here.

GySgt Paulk, right, is pictured with his unit at the D.C. Armory. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Craig on Wheelchair Rugby

"I'm 32 and work for Lockheed Martin in information research. I started using a wheelchair when I was 21. I have a neurological condition where I can't really feel pain. I used to walk, but my legs have been getting weaker and weaker with time. My doctor said that I should start using a wheelchair, as I get really tired from walking. Now, I use the wheelchair 95-98% of the time to save my energy and legs.

"About three years ago, I started playing wheelchair rugby. The team started in about 2006 with support from the National Institute of Health. I started showing up for practices and eventually got my chair, which is custom made out of aircraft aluminum. This chair is only 25 lbs and costs $3,000. The chair is made specifically for wheelchair rugby and designed for a lot of impact. In this sport, you are trying to hunt down people and hit them.

"I tried out wheelchair basketball, but rugby is more active and high contact. It is kill or be killed. It is like football, almost. We have about 12 people on our team. You only need four people on the court at a time. I was born hard of hearing, which makes this sport even more interesting. In wheelchair rugby, everything is about communication and yelling: go left, go right, pick, he's coming up behind you, stuff like that. I can't hear well, so I have to be constantly paying attention to everything.

"Most of the guys on the team have their injuries from car or diving accidents. Fortunately, I'm on the higher end as I can take care of myself, but there are guys on the team who need help getting in-and-out of their chairs. But, we don't really look at each other as being disabled. We are just normal people who get together to play rugby. That's all it is."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hollywood on Being in the Position to Have No Competition

"I came up in Philadelphia. I like that town, it really is the City of Brotherly Love. As kid, my family was not interested in what I was doing. When you are young, you can't say or do anything about that, but as soon as I was old enough to walk away, I did. I was about sixteen when I left home. After that, I went traveling and saw some crazy stuff: Ku Klux Klan members in South Carolina and go-go girls in New Jersey.

"I spent most of my time in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Then, I came to D.C. about 20 years ago. I got tired of people with gold in their mouth in Baltimore. In Philadelphia, they were too busy. In New York, everyone seemed to think they had it all. D.C. has that executive look, you know the monkey suit with the briefcase. That drew me in here because I am a dresser. I wear clothes that make people come to me. The inclination is to keep Hollywood on your mind. I want you to say, 'I got to see him again.' I always look 'sugar sharp' as they say in Detroit. I would be unrecognizable if I put on a regular costume like everyone else. But you can see me from a distance. They know me all over the city. When people see me they go home and change their clothes and say, 'Damn, did you see what Hollywood had on? What we got on ain't gonna work!' See, I'm in the position to have no competition.

"For me, life is about understanding the circumstances of where you're at. I wouldn't live with a bear knowing that bear could attack me at any time. I wouldn't try to fight a shark. I don't need to prove things to people. You gotta be real in life. I'm real about what I do. You can wake me up at 2 a.m. and I'm gonna tell you the same thing I'm telling you now. You can't catch me in a lie because I don't know how to lie. Progress comes when people don't lie to each other and are real.

"Last thing I want to say is that I wish black people would stick together. Other nationalities do it consistently no matter what the issue is. I'm sorry that we have to get so much money from the government and we still don't stick together. If I had money and was in charge, everybody would eat, have a place to sleep and have jobs. I'd be like Leon Sullivan and help black people learn trades. I guess my problem is that I help too many people. That's why I don't get a woman or a horse or a cow. You can't get anything when you're a good guy. Because of that, I stick to myself. I eat by myself. I drink by myself. That is the safest way for me to live."

Adam Ross and I conducted this interview.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Councilmember Muriel Bowser on Being Fifth Generation D.C.

"I am fifth-generation D.C.  People from this town are in a special club and are very proud. You always know when someone is from D.C. because that is one of the first things they tell you. My family has been here for generations and has seen this city change. I am the youngest of five kids. Our parents raised us to really love this city and give back. My parents both worked for the city government for almost forty years. They taught us that if we want to change this city, we need to stay here and work to make that change. Up until last year, all of my siblings lived in D.C.  Now one of my brothers lives in North Carolina , but the rest of us are here. 


"I grew up in a time when D.C. was the murder capital. This city was really struck by the crack epidemic and some neighborhoods were just completely ravaged. One of the biggest things that impressed me about my father was how he waged a campaign against drugs at the time. He was a leader of the orange hats in our neighborhood. They were a community watch group that established a presence in the neighborhood. At the time, there was open-air drug dealing in the District and this was a way of taking our corners back. My father was fearless.


"That's just how it was in my household. Everyone did something in the neighborhood. That was what we all enjoyed doing.  Now I see it as an obligation to bring along people in my age group, as well as women, to get involved in politics.  In our city, we don't have a lot of elected offices, but there are so many opportunities to be in leadership, whether on the Parent Teacher Association or an Advisory Neighborhood Commission.


"I always knew that I would be in the government. I started off after college in the private sector and hated it.  I knew that it wasn't where my best talents would be used.  I went to grad school in policy and worked in local government for a number of years. But there is a point when you know that if you want to change a bureaucracy, it’s best not to be in it. Elected office is really the best way to make change. 


"In this position, I am more optimistic about where we’re going as a city than I was before the Council.  I see the changes we are making and how quickly reform can take root. I also see that focusing on grassroots views of how to change a community is important. You can't go from the top down. Ward 4 residents want investment, improvements and options, but don't want to wake up and say, 'Where are we?” We want to keep growing, and it is so important that in my Ward development is community-agitated. People are fearful of change unless they have a hand in it. So, we are working with them to focus on neighborhood development and schools. With time, our neighborhoods are getting safer and better looking, but we still have work to do."


Councilmember Bowser was first elected to the City Council in 2007. She chairs the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs. She is also a member of the Committee on Economic Development, the Committee on Human Services, and the Committee on Public World and Transportation. Learn more about Councilmember Bowser here


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Maestro Berard on the DC Youth Orchestra

"I grew up in a house where my Dad was a phenomenal music freak. He had a massive record collection and music was always on at home. My first instrument was voice. I was lucky enough to attend a choir school in New York and was a soprano soloist at a very young age. After that, I studied piano and violin, and played rock guitar in a band. I entered the New England Conservatory of Music as a composition student. I went through a creative crisis in my second year, as I was more interested in studying the music of the masters than in composing my own. That's what drew me into analysis and theory and, ultimately, conducting. 

"I first came to D.C. in 2004 to be the Director of Orchestral Activities and conductor of the 
American University Symphony Orchestra. The Dean of Academic Affairs at American called my attention to the DC Youth Orchestra. It so happened that the DC Youth Orchestra was looking for a conductor for their top orchestra. I applied. Now, here I am. This is my first experience working with kids this young, but it's been a nice adjustment. They're very serious about what they're doing. 

"We have over 600 students from 4 1/2 to 21 years old. The orchestra is diverse geographically, and we have kids of all ethnicities, races and religions. It's a rainbow organization. The mission of this organization is that we turn no one away. The student has to have interest and a sense of responsibility. We do the rest. We even provide instruments if they can't afford them. The DC Youth Orchestra is a twelve-level program. Every year, we start with a petting zoo of kids who are all two feet tall. They pick an instrument that speaks to them and, usually, they stick with it. We have a lot of kids who are lifers. They come in early and stick with it all the way through high school. This program becomes a very meaningful and essential part of their lives. 

"We can boast that 100 percent of our 
students graduate from high school and most of them go to college. Some even go on to the great musical conservatories. One of the things we take great pride in is the values our students learn by being exposed to the great musical idea, rehearsing as an ensemble, and taking responsibility for themselves. All of these things serve them well in life. There are a number of studies which demonstrate that kids who grow up doing music really wind up excelling in life. Music teaches fundamental values that apply across all disciplines." 

Learn more about the DC Youth Orchestra here. See more of my photos of the DC Youth Orchestra here

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scarlet O'Snap on the D.C. Rollergirls

"I grew up in Baltimore. Every Saturday, I used to skate at the Putty Hill Skateland, where the Charm City Roller Girls started. When I was younger, I was really athletic and then, in college, I basically did absolutely nothing until I joined the derby four years ago. That was around the same time that the league got started. One of my good friends lives in Chicago, where I went to undergrad, and started the Windy City Rollers. She said, 'When D.C. gets a roller league, you need to join.' I finally saw something on Craigslist and joined the derby because I wanted a different social scene. I really stuck with it because I liked the athletic part.

"D.C. used to have a derby league called the Washington Jets, which was a co-ed, banked-track derby league in the 70's. I don't know what happened to them, but what we do is obviously very different. Our league started after the
Rollergirls TV series on A&E, but the whole movement began well before that. The Texas Roller Girls were really the first modern derby league. It was very theatrical and wrestling-like. Rather than a penalty box, they had a spank alley where you would get spanked. Now, it draws more athletic people who don't want an alter ego on the track or all the theatrics. I am the same on and off the track. I do have a derby name, Scarlet O'Snap, but I'm kind of over it now. I wanted something recognizable and sassy, and thought it was really funny four years ago when I picked it. 

"The thing that makes D.C. really different from other leagues is how transient of a city this is. It is hard to keep people on for more than one season. We have three home teams: Scare Force One, The Cherry Blossom Bombshells and the D.C. Demoncats. We did have a fourth team, the Secretaries of Hate, which we had to fold because we didn't have enough people. We are also known as a conservative league around the country because we're not all covered in tattoos, and we all have 9-5 jobs as lawyers and teachers, or work for non-profits. I don't think there's one person in this league who does not have a 9-5 career, whereas in other leagues, it's more the counterculture: bartenders and artists. But that is not what D.C. is like at all.

"I don't think a lot of people recognize how much of a time commitment this is. We practice four-to-five times a week. We have nine bouts a season, plus a championship. We also all have responsibilities off the track. We're all required to do stuff to support the league. It is very D.C.-ish that we have a highly structured board and everyone knows how to run non-profits. It's also a very D.C. thing that we have people who work from 9-6, have kids and do this, too. D.C. is actually a bit of an older league, with most people being in their late 20s and 30's. The league has no coaches and we are all self-taught. We run our own practices and have our own trainers. The refs are mostly people's boyfriends, husbands, or fans who want to get more involved. All of this creates a well-oiled machine of awesomeness!"

Read more about the D.C. Rollergirls here

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jan on the Vietnam Memorial

"I was born in Washington, D.C and spent my childhood in Bowie, Maryland. When I got out of high school, I volunteered for the draft. There were certain advantages to the draft at the time. It got your military commitment over with sooner and you could choose the time you went in as opposed to the Army just picking you up. I went in at age 18 and ended up in Vietnam at 19. I was trained as an infantrymen with a speciality in heavy weapons, the 81mm mortar, and a couple of other weapons. My unit was first placed in charge of the defense of Saigon in 1969. There wasn't much enemy activity, so they moved us Northeast to a place called Swan Loc. In May, we had our first encounter with the enemy and I had twelve friends die at the same time. I was there when it happened. High explosives just scatter body parts. I was not prepared for that experience, which took place in January 1970. 

"Shortly after that, I was wounded. I was behind a tree and we were firing our rifles. The guys around me got hit. One of the guys panicked and ran. Another guy went after him and left me by myself for ten minutes; it seemed like an eternity. I remember praying and it just seemed to me so unfair that I would have to die after my 19th birthday in this mud hole, next to a tree in the middle of forest, miles from the closest road in Vietnam. I remember praying that I would not die. I survived and felt I owed some kind of payback. 

"After the Army, I received my degrees in counseling and psychology. During that time, I worked to better understand post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and published a couple of articles and testified in front of the Senate. I became an authority on the subject. PTSD is a normal response to experiencing trauma and violence. One day, I went to see a movie called the Deer Hunter, which was about the war and PTSD. I had thought about building a memorial before, but just decided that I was going to do it after seeing the movie. It became my mission in life. Before the memorial, we had a commemorative stamp and a couple of local memorials. But, by and large, there was nothing tangible to recognize Vietnam. 

"For me, the primary purpose of the memorial was to have a place were the veterans of Vietnam would be recognized for the honorable service they rendered for the country. The site near the Lincoln memorial was perfect because of the symbolism. The Lincoln Memorial was built after and because of the Civil War. There was also a deeper meaning to me, which was rooted in the thinking of Carl Jung, who was a student of Sigmund Freud. Jung wrote about the collective psyche we have as a nation. The hope was that displaying the names of the casualties would have a positive healing effect on the nation, as well. 

"There was a lot of controversy with the memorial because what is the appropriate monument for the Vietnam War. The rallying cry against us was that this was black and below ground. All of the other monuments were white and above ground. Immediately, people had this image that it was an insult to military service. People said, 'They are hiding it and painting it black.' We were temporarily stopped by Congress from building it. They made us find a compromise with our opponents, which we did with the addition of the three servicemen statue. In November 1982, the Vietnam Memorial was built and dedicated. We had the largest architectural competition in the history of western civilization, which has been recently eclipsed by the competition for the World Trade Center. Maya Lin was the winning design. 

"Now, when I go to the memorial, I like to listen to people talk. What I find as an overwhelming comment, and I hear it all the time, is 'Isn't it wonderful that the government built this for these guys'. Everyone thinks the government built the Vietnam Memorial. But, in fact, we did it in spite of the government. We had to raise the money and seek permission from the government to do this. 

"The message of this whole thing is that people are capable of doing far more than they think they are capable of doing. If someone has a real passion to do something in life, they should. If you put together the right team, you can accomplish anything."  

Jan Scruggs is the Founder and President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Monday, February 8, 2010

Evelyn on Talking about the Future

"In my country, Nigeria, my father was a deputy in the police force and my mother sold things in the market. I used to help my Mom sell bread in the market. My family lived in the police barracks with my father. But things happened that I don't want to talk about and I came to the United States alone, and as a refugee. It was very tough. When I came here, I realized that America was a crazy place. It was totally different than Nigeria. 

"When I came off of the plane in Washington, I met somebody who took me in as a friend to help me start my life afresh. The woman let me stay with her for some time. During that time, I had a daughter and spent a lot of time watching the TV to learn how white men and women act so I would know how to behave in America. I could not work during that time. Like I said, it was really difficult on me. My daughter really encouraged me and held my hand. Then, the woman threw me out because she said that I should be able to stand on my feet and not depend on anyone. That showed me how crazy this place is because in Nigeria we all look out for each other. 

"When the woman kicked me out, I slept in the street. Then, we went to shelters, which was tough. I couldn't handle the smell. I can't even breath there. One day, I was looking at the television when Obama was talking about how we need to employ more people. I was in the kitchen mopping a floor and thought that I needed something better for me and my daughter. He was saying that it was not going to be easy, but if we worked together, we could make change. After that speech, I went to get a job at Street Sense. With Street Sense, at least I have something to do and a way to make some money. My daughter is nine and in the fourth grade. She inspires me to be out here everyday selling papers. With this job, I can also get experience to help me find another job and get on my feet. The hard thing is that many people believe that Nigerians are thieves and liars. Look at the guy who tried to bomb the airplane. Now, who is going to try and help me? 

"But I don't want to talk about the past. I want to talk about the future. The future is my job and my daughter. I want my daughter to be the best. What I don't have, I want her to have. I like to work for Street Sense, but I want my daughter to have a job that she is really passionate about. The future is in my daughter and God's hands. God knows the best for us. Even though it is difficult, God has the best intentions for us."

Read more profiles of Street Sense vendors Andrew and Paul. Learn more about Street Sense here

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Michael on Keeping Your Eyes Open

"I have been working for the Downtown BID for three years. I'm always learning about this city. One of the important things to know is that there is no J Street in D.C.. That is because the 'j' and the 'i' look similar in old English. They didn't want to confuse people, so they eliminated J Street. I've also learned that people ask you all kinds of weird questions out here. I had one gentleman ask me where to buy coke. I said, 'Are you serious!?' The guy said, 'Well, you seem to know everything else about this city.' 

"Otherwise, most tourists ask about the usual stuff. People don't come over and ask me about Southeast or Northeast, it is usually the sites in Northwest and where the celebrities go, like Ben's Chili Bowl. Even during July 4th, everyone rushes down to the Mall to see the fireworks, but the best views are from Southeast because of all the hills there. Everyone comes here and strains their necks looking up when they could could just sit atop one of the hills in Southeast and look out. But, Southeast has a bad rap and many people don't want to go there. It's a shame because it is so beautiful. 

"The best thing about working for the BID is that they always tell us about stuff in this city before it happens. I knew about the H Street trolley before my friends did. Those are the little things about this job that make it interesting. My own prediction is that downtown will have a big shopping area soon. People complain about the lack of shopping opportunities in this city and I think that there will be lots of retail, restaurants and places to spend your money downtown soon. I mean, who likes going to indoor malls when you could do your shopping outdoors. 

"Overall, my experience in D.C. has been a good one. People always talk about how expensive this city is, but you could entertain yourself for days for free here. I think that the more you get out in D.C., the more you realize all of these great things that you didn't know existed. Just walk around with your eyes open and you'll see how amazing this place is. And the people are friendly here. People from out of town always tell me how friendly D.C. is. We get a bad rap, but we really are friendly people."