Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Amid the frenetic bustle of the gymnasium, a tiny boy falls on the floor. 

Trayon Antonio White Sr. turns from a couple of acquaintances to make sure the child is unharmed. At 5 feet 2 inches, White is short relative to the men he’s with, and even some of the teens on the basketball court.

The boy gets up and goes on his way, like nothing occurred. White looks relieved. Well-dressed, he wears a light blue shirt, a darker blue tie, and a silver tie clip. Thick dreadlocks hang down to his shoulder blades. 

Around him, about three dozen black youth fill the gym. Some shoot hoops on both sides of the floor, while others throw a football through the air. A few launch themselves like missiles from the bleachers, yelling and laughing and zigzagging through the room.

Several minutes later, another boy approaches White. The kid shows a faint look of recognition on his face, as if he knows who White is, but doesn’t want to say the wrong answer.

“My name’s Trayon,” White says, dipping. “How you doing?” 

The boy smiles and skedaddles. For a moment, White watches him run free through this Boys & Girls Club branch, located a block away from the D.C.–Maryland border in Southeast.

A handful of other children pass and greet White. Some mistakenly call him “Trayvon.” Then he joins his 9-year-old son, Trayon White Jr., who stands quietly nearby, and exits the gym.

***

White, 33, is currently the youngest person on the D.C. Council, the 13-member legislature that passes local laws and budgets, and has oversight of the city’s agencies. 

The area he represents, Ward 8, is the District’s most economically disadvantaged ward and predominately African-American. 

A year into his tenure as Ward 8 councilmember, White is still learning the spoken and unspoken rules of politics. He toils in the shadow of the late Marion Barry, who championed the ward—both as mayor and councilmember—and those he called “the lost, the last, and the least.” 

Today their voice is Trayon White.

Even a few of his former rivals admit this. “Trayon brings a voice to a constituency that in many cases has been faceless and voiceless and not at the table of decision-making,” says veteran activist Philip Pannell, who lost to White in two school board elections.

“He comes across with unabashed realness,” Pannell continues. “There’s no pretense with him. His sincerity is spontaneous. It’s not fake. And that is clearly refreshing.”

White keeps an extremely active—and transparent—presence on social media. He tends to post on Facebook and Instagram at least once a day, mostly while he’s out in the community. He has 19,400 Instagram followers and 5,000 Facebook friends, which is the maximum number the network allows. 

One is as likely to find videos of White mentoring kids and photos of him visiting schools as one is to see event flyers and screenshots of news reports on his channels. 

“He’s the heart and soul of Ward 8,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. “They look at him and see themselves, they see the promise and hope of Ward 8. … I see him as representing his ward in a way that allows people a window into the work, in a way that’s unique and special.”

But White is not a creature of the John A. Wilson Building or a zealous legislator like other pols, according to Council watchers and staff. As a newer member, he also lacks the cachet that comes with chairing a committee. This means he must rely on senior members for support.

Beyond the Wilson Building, though, these dynamics only matter so much. White walks around like a mayor in some Ward 8 neighborhoods. People of all ages wave hello and open up about their lives to him.

Much of the time, in fact, it seems that White can’t go more than half a block without someone stopping him. 

Standing near a pickup truck outside of the Boys & Girls Club on a recent evening, he and a woman in a car across the street shout in conversation. “I’m dropping off Christmas trees!” he jokes, as if the truck belongs to him. 

Farther down Mississippi Avenue SE, White and his son get into a silver BMW. He starts driving toward the Malcolm X Opportunity Center, where one of his sisters is taking a business class. “She invited me to speak,” White says. “I have no clue what I’m speaking about.”

There’s a lighter and some junk below the passenger seat. A warning sensor on the dashboard beeps every four seconds, indicating the brakes need to be checked. 

At one point, White rolls down the driver’s side window and hawks a loogie into the night. The car glides by Malcolm X Elementary School on 15th Street SE.

“We got a meeting down here tomorrow morning at 9:30 ‘cuz they got a lot of issues in that school,” White says. “Like the back of the building ’bout to fall out. It got an intercom system that’s like from the ’80s. … It’s terrible. They got the water problems. … It’s a lot going on.”

***

White knows that Ward 8, with around 70,000 residents, is on the cusp of significant changes. Last month, he attended a ceremony for the future Wizards practice facility at the St. Elizabeths East Campus that Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city leaders hosted. Expected to open in September, the $65 million arena will also host concerts and community events. 

On Instagram, White posted a selfie with Wizards owner and entertainment mogul Ted Leonsis. (Bowser makes a candid cameo.) “I’m all for development of buildings but we welcome good partners that believe in not just physical buildings but building people,” White wrote in the caption.

That statement of values reflects community fears about gentrification. Although many Ward 8 residents are excited for the improvements and jobs promised for their neighborhoods, others worry that economic development will push them out.

The median family income in Ward 8 is about $30,000 a year. Half of its children live in poverty. And despite citywide decreases, violent crime persists in the ward. So does fear.

Given those numbers, White says he shares concerns about displacement, but also wants Ward 8 residents to be able to work on new developments. “I don’t want to see billions of dollars spent in the ward and people are in a worse condition 10 years from now,” says White. “A lot of people need a hand up, not a handout.”

“We got a lot of potential—but it’s that fragment of our people that feel so hopeless,” he adds. “Feel like there’s nowhere for them to go because the price of living going up in D.C. and they can’t afford to live here no more.”

White’s idea of “building people” is rooted in his upbringing. Born to Sherita White-Kennedy, he is the second of seven siblings. The family lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment on First Street SE. White didn’t have his own bed until college. “We came from nothing,” he says.

White’s grandmother, Jean Ann Roberts, was the matriarch of the family and a community pillar. “She was so strong, she was strong enough for everybody,” White remembers. Roberts fed and babysat White’s cousins and other kids in the neighborhood.

Gunfire was common. White recalls that during summers, the children in his family couldn’t play outside for weeks because of neighborhood beefs. He says bullets came through a window in their apartment, and some of his cousins ended up in jail.

“It was always somebody getting shot, it was always somebody getting locked up,” White says. “It was just a lot of violence and drama going on every day.”

“The bus used to be 35 cent,” he notes. “We didn’t have 35 cent to get on the bus back in the day.” Instead, White and his companions would board through the rear doors.

White’s siblings ate according to birth order, so when Tiny—his older sister—had cereal, he had to wait. The family wrung out their clothes in towels, then placed their items on the stove to dry them. And whoever was the last to take a shower might not get hot water.

“I’m so blessed,” White says, using a word he repeats six times in an interview. “I had to tell my son that. Like you complaining. You got a room at my house, a room at your mom house—with two of your own beds. Like you don’t even understand! You got a whole row of your own shoes!” 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

In middle school, White saw a fellow student get robbed at gunpoint in class. “It changed my life,” he says.

He bought a gun and began carrying it. White says this was a matter of “protection.” His family lived on a street that had a “small crew” compared to other streets with larger crews.

“If I woulda got caught, it’d probably alter my life,” he admits. “If I did something to somebody, I probably wouldn’t be the councilmember today. But it’s by the grace of God that I never used it, never got in no trouble with it.”

The first book White remembers finishing is Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys by Jawanza Kunjufu. It was a gift from his uncle Ronell White, a father figure to him. 

White had just gotten through eighth grade at Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Centerlong since closed. He missed over 50 days of class that year, but the school promoted him anyway.

Violence plagued P.R. Harris, as the school was known. In 1993, a 14-year-old shot a security guard in the stomach. At other times, a teacher was shot and a police helicopter landed on the playground during recess, White recalls.

He says Kunjufu’s book opened his eyes. “Genocide (jen’ ə sid’)n.,” the first chapter starts. “The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.” 

“My goal was to get a 4.0 GPA after I read the book,” White says. 

White and his sister, Tiny, used to go to church of their own volition. Tiny says her brother “found Jesus” while he was in junior high school. “That was his turning point,” says Tiny, who is a year and a half older than Trayon. “When he became a Christian, it changed his whole life.”

Today he doesn’t identify with a particular denomination. “I’m spiritual,” White states. “I believe in ’em all. The ultimate power is God that really transformed and saved me.”

He went to Ballou Senior High School where he started a group called “Ballou Soldiers” that brought in community leaders to speak with students. Beginning in the 12th grade, he coached younger students in football. 

White graduated from Ballou with honors and attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to study business administration. Each week, he drove back to D.C., where he continued to coach.

Death followed White. During his freshman year, his grandmother died. “I used to come home from college and still think she in the house,” White recounts. Five high school football players he knew—including James Richardson, Devin Fowlkes, and Michael Simms—were killed during his first two years in college.

He largely ascribes the kind of violence he’s witnessed in Ward 8 to “lack of knowledge of self.” “I done buried about 97 people,” he points out. “I tried to count one day.”

White says his faith reassures him in the face of destruction. “I just know that, man, God can do anything with anybody,” he says. “I could have just been another statistic. … I know at any given moment, I can be lying in that casket.”

His eyes widen, his voice loudens. “But that sparked something in me,” adds White. “I gotta be more than a football coach. I gotta become a life coach—an example for this generation. Because they love me so much, and I love them.”

So he doubled down in school, even as his debt piled up. He says he almost got sent home for unpaid bills twice. “I had no food,” White says. “So it was a sacrifice, man. I was hungry. I was dedicated. I wasn’t leaving school until I graduated.”

He did—magna cum laude—in 2006, and went on to get a masters at Southeastern University, now shuttered. He founded a nonprofit dubbed Helping Inner City Kids Succeed, Inc.

But struggle came first.

“I used to always have to take my last little bit of money and overdraft out of my bank account, just to fill my gas tank up to get the kids back and forth to practice,” White recalls. “I remember that because I never knew where my next check was going to come from. If you got a dollar on your bank card, you can fill your whole tank up and just have to pay the overdraft fee whenever it comes.”

Over time his finances stabilized. Then he met two mentors who would help put him on the path to power.

***

In 2010, White had a close call with death. He dropped his cousins off near the site of what would soon become a scene of mayhem: the infamous drive-by shooting called the South Capitol Street Massacre, which killed four and injured several in late March.

Two of White’s cousins were shot, in the back and the head. They survived.

“If I had stayed there on South Capitol, I would have got shot with an AK-47,” says White. “I just dropped them off!”

Eventually, he realized he was much luckier than that. On the night of the massacre, White met longtime Ward 8 community activist William Lockridge, who also arrived at the scene.

The pair developed a student-teacher relationship. They met at Lockridge’s house every Thursday at 11 a.m. to discuss city politics in D.C. and elsewhere.

“He was teaching me about Chicago,” White says. “He was telling me about how Chicago was real politics, D.C. was watered-down politics. I was like wow, I don’t know. He was talking about Richard Daley and all that. … Always had me reading.”

White confesses that he “used to despise politics.” But Lockridge taught him that’s how cities work.

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White says he was with Lockridge a couple of days before his mentor fell into a coma. During a phone call on the day after that get-together, Lockridge told White he wanted him to run for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education—which Lockridge himself held. It was 2011, and White was 26. 

Although the board has less authority now than it did before the mayoral takeover of schools in 2007, SBOE members often end up running for higher positions.

“I was like, I’mma pray about it, man … I’ll think about it,” White recounts. “I was brushing it off.” 

White soon received a call from Nate Bennett-Fleming, an associate who informed him that Lockridge had suffered a stroke. They went to The George Washington University Hospital, where Lockridge was being treated

“It was like thousands of people outside, man,” White says. “And he didn’t make it out. So his wife, Wanda, told me she talked to her husband that morning, and he told her that he wanted me to run for his seat.”

“Like dang, how can I say no to Ms. Wanda?” recalls White. “So I ran, and I won.” He beat eight other candidates, capturing almost a third of the vote. “I was in awe,” White says. “The people voted for me, so I went to work.”

Tiny, for one, never suspected her brother would become a politician. “No way, José!” she says. “Politics and right things don’t always line up,” and she knows Trayon to be someone who doesn’t compromise what he believes is right.

But Ruth Barnwell, a tenant leader in Congress Heights who worked at P.R. Harris while White was a student there, wasn’t entirely surprised. “Came from a great family, great kid,” she states. “He’s in it for the right reasons. He’s in it for the people. He’s not no shady character. Big spirit.”

The first few months of his SBOE term went without a hitch. But in September, D.C. Housing Authority police arrested White at the Woodland Terrace complex in Southeast for allegedly violating a barring notice. He said he was doing an organizing “ride-through” of the property.

White also denied receiving a stay-away order from the police, calling it a “lie.” He disputed the charge. The case was later dismissed.

White ran again for the Ward 8 SBOE seat in 2012 and won with about three-quarters of the vote. He stayed in the position until 2014, when he stepped down to take a job with the city’s parks department. 

White’s initial victory continues to shape him. Bennett-Fleming, who became D.C.’s shadow representative and eventually ran for Council roles, now serves as White’s legislative director. And Wanda Lockridge, his mentor’s widow and a previous chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, is White’s chief of staff. 

***

D.C.’s beloved and dramatic former mayor, Marion Barry, was White’s second political mentor. During the time White held a seat on the school board, Barry served as Ward 8 councilmember.

Like William Lockridge, Barry stoked White’s growing interest in public life. But if Lockridge taught White history, Barry gave him a glimpse into the future.

“See, Marion Barry had transitioned from being a activist to a politician,” White recollects. “And William Lockridge was still a activist. … The worlds clashed. Because in politics, you gotta be able to negotiate, cut deals. … Activist—you just want to see it happen.”

Their personalities clashed, too. “It was awkward because they feuded a lot, and I was close to both of them,” White says.

So which is White, now that he occupies Barry’s old seat: activist or politician? “I’m just trying to find self, man,” he replies. “It’s all new to me. I’m living, man, and learning and taking the constructive criticism … and I embrace it.”

White didn’t work for Barry as a staffer, but he partnered with him on projects and frequently sat behind him on the Council dais. He maintains that Barry took to him, not the other way around.

The appearances led some observers to call White Barry’s “protégé.” “Yeah, the newspapers say that, but you know, I don’t know,” the councilmember says.

“He’s managed to carve out a space for himself,” says McDuffie, the Ward 5 councilmember. “He’s not trying to be Marion Barry.”

White learned from Barry, though. And few can say they received a call from the city’s “Mayor for Life” on the night he died

“This is 10:17 p.m.,” White says in an interview. He holds out his iPhone and plays a recording on the speaker.

A scratchy voice comes to life. “Uh, Trayon,” it begins. “M.B. I’m leaving the hospital. I’m feeling a whole lot better than I went in. So, uh, we’ll get together some time tomorrow. I’m going home now and relax, watch television. So, alright. Thanks.” 

Barry died roughly three and a half hours after he called White. “Tomorrow never came,” White says. “He wanted to meet with me on Sunday.”

Late on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, the 78-year-old Barry was released from Howard University Hospital before he collapsed on the steps of his home in Ward 8. His driver rushed him to United Medical Center in Southeast, where he was pronounced dead. 

“How ironic is that?” says White, alluding to the current ongoing financial and medical crisis at UMC, a public hospital. “It was kind of crazy I missed his call.”

At first, White couldn’t believe Barry died. He’d come to see the ex-mayor as “a brave heart,” in part because Barry had survived many other hospitalizations. White says he saw Barry go from zombie-like to Energizer Bunny in the space of a day when he was visiting him during an earlier hospital stint. He rises from his chair to demonstrate.

“I came back—Marion Barry was walking through the hallway like this!” says White, slapping his hands on his thighs. “‘I’m feeling better than ever!’ That’s why they say ‘the nine lives of Marion Barry,’ slim, that is real! This man was up! I mean, gown open, he got his balls—I’m like, M.B., come on, man.”

Barry gave White advice that the councilmember still uses. “‘There’s no permanent enemies, only permanent interests,’” he recalls. “He said you always gotta find what you got in common.”

White admires Barry’s self-determination most of all. “He wanted to tell his own story of triumph and overcoming and being a champion and what that looked like,” says White. “He done been through from the bottom to the top to the bottom and back to the top again. And the people loved him for that because they could identify themselves in him.”

***

White already has a major comeback story on his resume—largely thanks to grassroots support.

In the 2015 special election to fill Barry’s Ward 8 Council seat, White lost by less than 100 votes to LaRuby May, an attorney and Florida native who had a flush campaign war chest plus the political backing of Mayor Bowser. She outspent White 16 to 1. 

The race was particularly contentious, with a parade in Congress Heights at one point almost turning into a brawl between May and White partisans. At an event before the election, White encouraged his supporters to chant the slogan “we will not be bought.”

It wasn’t enough. But White attracted attention. A Washington Post headline on May 2—four days after the polls closed—read: “In Ward 8, a new face claims Marion Barry’s legacy.

After losing, White commissioned a recount and earned a $2,276 bill. He set up a fundraising campaign on PayPal to help cover the cost.

White bided his time, knowing that May’s support in the ward was thin and that another election would be held in 2016. He took a job doing community outreach for the D.C. Attorney General’s office, headed by Karl Racine. 

Racine says he was familiar with White’s reputation as a youth advocate before he hired White. “I saw it in real time, the magic that he has in terms of his special ability to garner the trust of young folks,” he notes in an interview. “Trayon right then and there was identifying the issues and the problems and the needs.”

In the months he worked for Racine, White got to know another up-and-coming White: At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who directed outreach for the attorney general’s office.

In other words, Robert supervised Trayon. He says his first impression of Trayon was that “he was frequently pulled in many directions.” But that made sense to Robert—who is also a rare millennial on the current Council—because Trayon “speaks to a larger number of disconnected and non-political people than any other official in this city.”

“You’re not going to reign that guy in,” Robert says. “I can tell you that.”

Trayon ran for the Ward 8 seat again. The second time around, he vanquished May in the Democratic primary with over half of the vote and secured his spot in the Wilson Building.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

White’s first year on the Council has been both a learning experience and reality check for him. 

Aimed at relieving burdens on low-income residents, his splashiest proposals thus far have been provocative bills to reduce penalties for Metro fare evasion and to waive late fees for parking tickets.

As a practical matter, White must rely on senior colleagues to advance his proposals and form alliances to promote his agenda because he doesn’t chair a committee.

As a political matter, he’s run up against roadblocks on issues where Ward 8 residents stand to gain or lose. His maverick tendencies and unconventional style have surprised and sometimes displeased his peers.

Pinning down White can be like a game of cat and mouse. His schedule changes, he shifts locations, he shows up impromptu to the scene of a crime or fire. He also doesn’t stand on ceremony and tends not to engage in small talk, especially if he feels someone isn’t being honest. As one Council staffer puts it: “He thinks about the outside game so much more. As long as he can say he fought for this in his ward, that’s the important thing for him, as opposed to learning all the goddamn arcane rules of the Council.”

A staffer in the Bowser administration notes that on several occasions White has sent mass group texts late at night to local officials, demanding action on violence in Ward 8 and support for his legislation.

White’s unbridled spirit both attracts the masses and manages to irk a fair number of his colleagues some days. But most of the dozen-plus people who spoke with City Paper about White praised his authenticity and commitment to the people he represents, even if they’d suffered flashes of frustration while working with him.

White’s modus operandi in the Wilson Building was on display as he fought to expand D.C.’s “rapid rehousing” program for homeless families in 2017. He introduced an amendment to a suite of controversial reforms to the city’s homeless services. In limited circumstances, it would have extended rent subsidies for families. The current policy creates a financial cliff: Families in the program typically get housing for at least a year, but in many cases they find themselves facing eviction or even homelessness again when their rent subsidies expire.

The chair of the human services committee, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, opposed White’s measure, and convinced six of her colleagues to join her in voting it down. The underlying bill passed—as did a $82 million tax subsidy to Union Market developers the Council considered on the same day.

White says it was important for him to put up a fight “because we gotta make sure in the same breath we saying we’re spending $36 million on a parking lot that we can invest in housing.” 

So he lost by the slimmest of margins. He says he learned that “to get things accomplished, you gotta get to seven votes”—a simple majority.

Some still have doubts about White’s process and willingness to make compromises when he’s vulnerable. “Honestly, does he do all the legwork he needs to do?” one Wilson Building source wonders. “If he’s not interested in talking to you, he just won’t engage.”

Others criticize White on constituent services and the company he keeps, no matter his popularity in Ward 8. Last June he drew scrutiny for bailing out Kendall Simmons, a close friend of his and a neighborhood commissioner who had allegedly attacked his girlfriend at a Wegmans in Maryland. At the time, White said he didn’t “condone abuse by anyone,” but that Simmons (who didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment) deserved a chance to be heard in court. Per public records, the case was dropped in September.

“I don’t think he’s above water yet,” says former neighborhood commissioner Sandra Seegers, who ran against White in the special election for the Ward 8 seat. “I think he’s realizing this is not an easy ward.”

White keeps chipper. “I don’t bury shit, man,” he says. “It come with the territory. So I take it all with a grain of salt. I do my best. And I try to use other people to help me get there.”

***

Jauhar Abraham, a close associate of White’s who co-founded Peaceoholics—a defunct anti-gang violence group that D.C. successfully sued for misusing city grants—says White brings a well of experience from living in low-income communities in Southeast to his job as a councilmember.

“This stuff is real to him, where the average person on the Council don’t have a clue about just surviving in this city,” Abraham contends.

Bread for the City Advocacy Director Aja Taylor notes that she’s seen White don a kufi and a dashiki. “He never tried to make his image less black or less Ward 8,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like he has to take himself off at the end of the night.”

If that assessment is true, will it harm White’s chances of progressing to higher office in D.C., no longer the Chocolate City it was under Barry?

Racine, the attorney general, doesn’t seem to think so. “He’s got a good recipe for success in politics in the District of Columbia,” Racine says. “I’m not going to opine on whether he could be an at-large councilmember, a chair, or a mayor, other than to say that the more people get to know Trayon throughout the city, the more they’re really going to like him a lot.”

That’s already the case among the children and adults who come up to White at community meetings or message him on social media—some of the lost, the last, and the least.

“See, people put you in this grand light, as this person,” says White. “But at the end of the day, I’m a servant. And the moment I forget that, the moment I start declining.”