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If you let people talk long enough without interrupting them, they’ll probably tell you something interesting. During a normal week at Washington City Paper, we’re interviewing people to draw out facts or get information on specific issues and controversies. But once a year, our writers intentionally interview people with the hope that they’ll talk on end about their experiences as fellow residents of this region.
The 21 individuals in our fifth annual People Issue didn’t disappoint. Among the things we learned this year: why social media hashtags can lead to tangible societal changes, how one of D.C.’s most popular comedians teaches his kids about Russian expressionist painting, and the story of a legendary local jazz musician’s conversations with birds. Reading their words alongside their portraits, shot in our office by the inimitable Darrow Montgomery, gives you a sense of who these people really are.
This year, for the first time, you’ll also be able to hear our subjects. Over the next several weeks, longer versions of some of these conversations will be presented on the just-launched Washington City Podcast. The interviews in the following pages have been edited for space and clarity, so we recommend absorbing them in both mediums. Even in uncertain times, these activists, artists, scholars, and planners make life in D.C. seem much more exciting. —Caroline Jones
All photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Caitrine Callison opened her elegant consignment store Secondi in Dupont Circle in 1986. When she decided to start her business, she says she was making $7,000 a year as a potter and didn’t even know how to pronounce “Givenchy.” But she put a mannequin and a small sign out on Connecticut Ave. NW, and customers came from the first day. More than 30 years later, they are still coming. —Alexa Mills
How did you get your start?
I had come from Eastern Market Pottery. And in the winter months, when I couldn’t sell my pottery, I went and worked for a store called Clothes Encounters. And finally I was closing in on 30, and I said, “You know, I am really tired of being this poor.” And I went to my sister, and said, “Could I have a loan?” And she gave me, I think it was $14,000. That would be totally ridiculous to try and start a business now with that amount today, but I had a husband who supported me for a couple years before I started making money.
So that was 1986, and I began with 30 consignors. Now I have so many thousands, I don’t know how many thousands. But I’m getting mailed consignments from every state in the Union except South Dakota.
What was your rent when you started?
I would say it was in the $1,200 range. It may have been less than that, but it seemed like all the money in the world, and they had me sign a 10-year lease, which would have put my sister, who was the co-signer, in the position to pay something like $100,000 if I reneged.
So you were really in it.
I was in it, but I was so naive. I didn’t realize how in it I was, and what it would have meant for her if things had gone down. But she never questioned me, she never breathed hard as far as I know. I’ve got a picture of her over there with these big braids from when she was 8 or 9. We’re Irish twins, so she’s always been my best fan.
What has changed over the past 30 plus years?
I remember having a lot of conversations, 10 years ago, about women in business suits walking around in those awful tennis shoes. I used to make most of my money selling suits. Really, that was like number one. Now I don’t sell a suit but maybe once or twice a week. What they’re buying now is dresses. Dresses, dresses, dresses—and designer purses. Which is a great surprise to me, how desirable these purses are, and that young women will spend money on purses.
But the thing I find consistent is that people come here because they want to touch and feel it, they want to try it on, they want to relax. Shopping is still a comfortable, hands-on sport. Stressful day at work? You can come here and browse, and just look around, and it’s nice for people. I think it connects people to a town. And I think instead of sitting at your computer ordering things, people are coming back to shopping. And I don’t care what anybody says, that’s what I’m seeing.
What is the best way to come into a consignment store?
The best way to come in is to think of it as a treasure hunt. If you’re coming in for something specific, that can be difficult, but we’ve had some major successes. One lady came in looking for an evening gown. She tried on something that I thought was a little ordinary on the hanger, but she put it on, and she looked so wonderful. And I said to her, “If I knew that that dress would look that good on someone, I would have charged six times the price.” And she told me she was taking it to a wedding in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was her coming for a specific, and there it was. But more than that, it’s the hunt for treasure.
Have you ever considered expanding?
People have asked me to open stores everywhere. I would never do that. I love my life. Business can gobble you up. I have a big circle of friends, I have a wonderful husband, and I really appreciate my time. And that’s made me love my business.
Ruth Barnwell, 73, is the tenant association president for a group of buildings on some of the most contested land in D.C. The property is above the Congress Heights Metro station and across from the to-be-built Washington Wizards training facility. Barnwell’s tenant association and their preferred development partner, National Housing Trust-Enterprise, want to redevelop the land to include 180 to 200 units of affordable housing. But for-profit developers want the land, too. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration will effectively decide who wins this contest, as the city controls an adjacent parcel, 3200 13th Street SE, that developers need to complete any major redevelopment.
Landlord Sanford Capital bought the buildings several years ago and they fell into deep disrepair—to the point that D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued Sanford over the conditions. That litigation is ongoing. Meanwhile Barnwell and the remaining tenants are fighting by staying in their homes. Their daily battle is living in intensely bad conditions. —Alexa Mills
What is it like to live in this property that’s nearly empty?
I don’t have a problem. I like the peace and quiet. It’s just me and my family. It’s great for me. I’m sorry it’s like that, and that they’ve taken advantage of people. But I can last as long as I want, until the good Lord says, “Come on.”
When did you move to Congress Heights?
What was Congress Heights like in 1982?
It was beautiful, beautiful. The owner, he was on the property every day. The neighbors, we got along. We had cookouts. Just great neighbors. And whenever you needed repairs, the owner did it. And outside, the surrounding areas always stayed clean. We were never bothered with rodents or the piles of trash there are now.
What is your vision for the complex?
My and the rest of the residents, our vision goes that we have safe, decent, affordable housing.
Why do you stay?
I stay because it’s not right, number one. The other reason I’m staying is for my sisters and my brothers. Yes, I can leave. But after going through all this, and seeing the way that they treat the people, including myself, I just wasn’t having it. I prayed and I asked the Lord just what I was supposed to be doing.
Have you learned anything from this process?
I have learned a lot from this process. I learned that even the government can’t be trusted. They come out into your community to tell you that they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. And it sounds good. And you go ahead and vote. Then turn around, and you’re not getting what they promised. But what you’re doing is letting these slumlords and these developers come in here in these communities, and cheat people out of their rights because the people aren’t sure of their rights. And the developers are placing profit over people.
That’s what I’m learning. It’s like smile in my face, stab me in my back. One thing I’ve learned that is best—very important—is for people to stand up for their rights.
What impact do you think you’re having on D.C.?
I think the impact is going to be very good. They think that they can build that Washington Wizards training facility, and they tell us that now we’ll have entertainment. I don’t need no goddamn entertainment. I need a roof over my head. That’s what people need. We need to get people up off the streets and out from under the bridges.
I’ve spoken out. And I’ll keep on speaking out, and we let the mayor know—because she won’t meet with us—guess what, baby? We’re not going anywhere.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I would like to say that the Congress Heights Tenant Association, our desire is that the mayor and Polly Donaldson at the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development give us the property at 3200 13th Street SE.
We’ve got one missing link that’s stopping us in our path, and that’s 3200 13th Street SE. It’s a vacant building which has a 40-year covenant for affordable housing. Give us that property, and our goal is to build 200 affordable units. These developers build these high rises out on H Street NE and everywhere else, with only 33 affordable units, or 12. We’re going to do 200.
Give us the property. Be for the people, not that profit.
When he was growing up, Eric Shaw dreamed of becoming the first black governor of California. That didn’t happen, but ambition and optimism are valuable traits for an urban planner nonetheless. Perhaps that’s one reason Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed him Director of the D.C. Office of Planning. —Jeffrey Anderson
You dreamed big as a child. What’s your family background?
I was born in Watts, and grew up in Richmond, which is near San Francisco. My dad is a social worker, and my mother is a late-in-life minister. I’m the oldest of three. My sister is a community organizer in Oakland, and my brother works for Fitbit.
Sounds like social consciousness runs in the family.
Richmond has a high murder rate. My dad [who co-wrote the curriculum for black and male empowerment in the local school system] always told me, “You never know how lucky you are,” and, “Always stay conscious.”
How did you become a planner?
I was encouraged to go into planning by Michael Dukakis. I met him while attending UCLA and he was a professor there. He told me, “If you want to do public service, get a degree in something policy or outcome oriented,” like education or public health. He wrote me a letter of recommendation for Harvard [School of Design], where I got a masters in planning.
You worked in numerous cities before you came to D.C.
I worked in Miami, San Jose, and Salt Lake City.
What lessons did you take from those experiences?
Miami’s poorest neighborhood is the poorest large city neighborhood in the country. I thought, “Why is the community not getting the help it needs?” I found out they had [great] plans, but the people were broken. I realized you have to work on people first. That has to be the preface for community work.
How about San Jose and Salt Lake City?
I worked for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in San Jose. I find that all cities do master planning, but most are not coordinated on justice, equity, and affordability issues. In Salt Lake, I saw what happens when landed money interests are involved. They have a different time horizon and make long-term investments. They spent billions on their downtown, with a focus on adaptability to account for change in 20 years.
Does D.C. have a long-range vision?
I will say yes. The developers I’ve met all have expressed long-term commitment to the city. The right kind of commitment matters. Planning matters. Growth is important. But it depends on the right kind of growth, and the right kind of commitment to D.C. values. Not just on the government side, but on the [private] side, to get it right, and right for the long-term. We’re trying to do deep community reflection, and to be honest in how we articulate our mission.
That all sounds good. What needs fixing?
There needs to be an integrated narrative of what serves the common good. A lot of hard work by a lot of good people made the city good. The activist is as important as the tech worker. We are awesome, independent of the federal government. We need to internalize and codify and leverage that awesomeness to be more awesome and to realize a collective vision.
Are you talking about new school vis-a-vis old school D.C.?
We look different in different places. We need to showcase all of it. We look good where we are old, but we want to showcase our newer [features]. The true identity of D.C. places.
Describe a few of those places?
A partnership with the Anacostia Museum to re-build the first house purchased by a freed slave. A disco ball for the funk parade. A public art space outside Whitman-Walker Clinic. Make it the gayest space possible.
Are you openly gay?
I am gay! I’m super gay, aren’t I? [Looks to assistant.] I’m gay and three-quarters.
Do you apply that spirit of openness to planning?
Being planning director, you have to function in an honest space. There are disparities throughout the city. Some [systems] may not function as well as others. A requirement of the job is to accept those realities and work to change them.
Modernizing an institution full of relics from the past might be a daunting job for some, but Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library, thrives on the challenge. Ask not what you can do for your library, but what your library can do for you: Under Reyes-Gavilan, that’s the attitude of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. —Regina Park
What influences your approach to modernizing D.C.’s libraries?
The information landscape is changing so drastically now, it’s critical that libraries think about what relevance means as we move more into a digital age. As it stands, you still have an overwhelming number of people who associate libraries strictly with borrowing books. Which is great—that’s still the core of what we do and none of us can see deep into the future—but you get the feeling that that’s not going to be a sustainable service model. You look at parts of the world, like England, where you see libraries closing because their service model hasn’t evolved to include more of a focus on people.
My perspective is that we’ve got to make sure that libraries have shifted their focus from books to people, and what people need from third spaces. What do people need from a place that’s not work or home in terms of their cultural needs, their information needs, their kids’ needs, their parents’ needs?
Think about what services libraries can provide to our most vulnerable populations. How can libraries be this great equalizer in helping men and women who have gotten out of jail? How can we help parents understand the importance of early childhood literacy? How can we get immigrants the information they need to know about signing up for insurance?
We play a multitude of roles, and it’s my job to make sure that we’re thinking far enough in the future that we’re staying relevant, but also with profound respect with the core service that libraries provide.
Why is the public library so interested in emerging technologies?
For decades now, probably going back to the mid ’90s, digital literacy and readiness have been core concepts for libraries for the simple reason that information has shifted from a print to a digital format. It’s important for people to know how to use these tools in order to make the most of this information.
Fast forward to maybe the last five years or so, and the scope of what digital literacy means is also changing. It wasn’t that hard at first. It was about, “How do I set up an email account? How do I use Microsoft Office?” That would cover 90% of what people needed to do. But now, as technology itself is becoming more diversified and complicated and we’ve got more of a creative class moving to urban areas like D.C., people need to figure out ways to facilitate their success in the city. So if that is providing them a space to use a sewing machine and a laser cutter in a space that’s free of charge—provided they’ve taken a little bit of training—then that’s something that we feel we need to do.
In some ways it’s just a spin on what the library’s goal has always been: to create an informed citizenry. That’s the fundamental reason why we embrace things like emerging tech labs and other services that might expand upon the traditional definitions of literacy.
Are there any initiatives that you want to tackle in the future, but haven’t gotten to yet?
Creating an as-yet-unnamed center for the study of Washington, D.C. Something that would help residents and visitors to the nation’s capital to learn more about the city, especially within the last 50 years. So it’s working with other local history repositories like the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., making sure we’re not duplicating what they’re doing, but also offering an incredibly rich series of programs, initiatives in schools, even trainings on issues around social justice— this whole center that really leverages Washington, D.C.’s unique place in this country. That’s just one idea that we will hope to implement over the next few years.
Kathy Hollinger has helmed the local trade association representing restaurants and supporting food service businesses throughout the meteoric rise of D.C.’s dining scene. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington helps owners and operators with training, marketing, and navigating the regulatory environment, but many know RAMW best for its annual awards—The RAMMYs. Interfacing with so many restaurant owners and workers provides Hollinger with a bird’s-eye view of dining-related successes and shortcomings in the city. —Laura Hayes
It’s been another huge year for D.C. dining. Can you walk me through some of the major milestones?
We had a busy, exciting year. We’re still benefitting from continued accolades that D.C. and this region received in 2016. We were recognized in so many ways—Bon Appetit, Zagat, and the Michelin Guide. Restaurants have been able to experience the benefits of the buzz. And locally, we are an industry that’s 94 to 96 percent locally owned and operated, and that in itself is such a unique characteristic. You don’t see that really any other place around the country except maybe Austin.
We’ve also seen tremendous development across our neighborhoods including The Wharf. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges, but we’re seeing so many restaurants that have opened. There’s continued excitement and buzz, and that buzz has been sustained even with changes in administration. Any change in administration will take away a group of people and bring in a new group of people, which for a chef or restaurateur is a new opportunity to impress and also challenging because you may be losing four or eight years of your loyal diner group. We’ve sustained all of that.
You mentioned The Wharf. What is your first impression and can you predict whether or not we’ll see the success that seasoned restaurateurs are banking on?
It’s exciting to see locally grown restaurants down at The Wharf. You don’t always see that in a massive development project. Diners and visitors now have additional options in terms of neighborhoods they can visit to add to their overall experience while they’re in D.C. There are a lot of seats, there is some challenge around parking and getting down there. I raise this because it’s no secret, but to really challenge those who have the authority to figure out how to make sure there’s a perfect balance to ensure these developments succeed. The talent down there is so incredibly, wizardly successful that they will be able to pull the audience and the diners to their restaurants. We just have to be mindful of what else is happening around the city to make sure it all levels out again so people are dining throughout our great region.
The talk around the watercooler at every restaurant is staffing. Have any of your members come to you asking for advice?
Easily for the last five years since I’ve been at RAMW that has been the biggest issue. It has come to a head this last year. There’s this impression that this is the industry of opportunity, which it is, and restaurants provide more than 65,000 jobs in the city alone. But the challenge is we’re having a difficult time identifying a qualified workforce to push through the pipeline so that workers are able to benefit from this incredible industry that has opportunity for someone who may have little to no formal skills but who has the passion and hospitality disposition. We have been working with many organizations over the years trying to find what program needs to be put in place and properly funded to train people. Service is critical. Restaurants not only survive but thrive when you go in and your experience is exceptional.
What is the second largest issue?
It’s not the sexy stuff. It’s the minimum wage that keeps increasing. We’ve been happy and proud that this industry has been supportive of any increase, but our big issue is that there are these initiatives that are introduced but no consideration for catching up. We’re still catching up from the Affordable Care Act. Now the debate on tipping versus no tipping is coming back.
Frankie and Sherry Meneses
Frankie and Sherry Meneses first met at a New Year’s Eve party and were immediately drawn to each other’s creative energy. After an impromptu screenprinting party during which their friends and family came over and printed designs on every available surface in the house, they realized the mass appeal of screenprinting and decided to launch Soul & Ink. Now, they bring their printing equipment to live events to let screenprinting neophytes print their own shirts and posters. Their clients include 9:30 Club, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries. —Stephanie Rudig
People don’t think of D.C. as that creative of a town. There’s a burgeoning creative economy, but there’s still a lot of squares here. What’s the reaction when you do these live screenprinting events?
Sherry: The great thing about live screenprinting is even if we’re doing something for a corporate client, like a logo, versus doing something for the Smithsonian where we’re getting highly creative, the process of live screenprinting is something that transcends age, income, nationality. So it’s been a positive reaction from most people, just out of curiosity because they don’t know what the hell that machine is.
Frankie: 90 percent have never seen it before, so they’re fascinated by the process. Some people, the squares, they don’t have art, so this is their chance to feel like they’re actually making something.
Sherry: Even me, when I went to a sip and paint night, I was nervous because I didn’t know what I was going to paint in one hour. There’s a lot of pressure in art participation types of environments. With what we do, we try not to make it a pressure thing. People can pick and choose designs, and they don’t really have to get their hands dirty. And then they’re like “I helped make that!”
What are some of the most interesting clients you’ve had or events you’ve done?
Frankie: Just recently we did the Freer-Sackler re-opening, IlluminAsia. There was a street food market at the same time as live painting, a concert. Every time we go out we try to innovate a little bit, change the game up. This time we brought a stencil lab. We brought spray paint and cut stencils so people could add on to their designs with lotuses and stuff like that.
You have a pretty heavy social justice angle to what you do, and you work with a lot of nonprofits. How does that factor into Soul & Ink?
Sherry: It’s just kind of ingrained in our souls. Doing graphic design for causes we believe in was very important to us. Even before we started Soul & Ink, we knew so many art activists, so it’s part of a community that we’re engaged in anyways. With the new administration, things started getting more intense, and instead of feeling helpless about it we would rather put action into the community with our art. The closer we got to the inauguration, we started having more protest-oriented poster making. For the Women’s March, we collaborated with Republic Restoratives, which is an all women-owned distillery. And it was very poignant. People were really loving the idea that they could make these protest posters.
Frankie: It also opened up a dialog about what’s going on in the world. We were really just supervising but it was more like we were leading conversations.
Sherry: We did a big community oriented event at Bump ’n Grind. There were kids, adults, senior citizens, there was a lady with her baby in a carrier and she was screen printing with the baby’s feet dangling. That was really great, because that was during the time when people were just on Facebook being mean to each other, fear mongering. So when we had people out in the community in real life, they were all expressing how relieved they were to be doing something with this energy that they felt so nervous about. We started realizing we’re building this safe space for all ages where we can do something positive together.
Any person or institution in DC that could benefit from a Soul & Ink party?
Sherry: What is that music festival that happens on the mall, Landmark? We’re trying to put a bug in their ear. You hear that?
Frankie: We could do Barack and Michelle, one of their kids’ parties. Sasha’s graduation party.
Sherry: Pleeeease. We’d love that.
It can be hard to keep tabs on Simone Jacobson. The multipotentialite introduced the District to a Burmese dessert called falooda at Toli Moli, but the kitchen is only one planet in Jacobson’s professional orbit. With her hip-hop dance troupe, she opened for The Roots; she’s made yoga more inclusive by leading classes everywhere from libraries to jail; and she’s contributed to massive events like IlluminAsia: A Festival of Asian Art, Food, and Cultures, which drew 50,000 visitors to the National Mall. Her motto is: Be kind, work hard, be excellent. —Laura Hayes
Your work life is a little non-traditional, especially in a city as structured as Washington. Have you found a common thread in all of your entrepreneurial endeavors?
It’s funny you call it a career. I think of it as an “anti-career” or a “counter career.” I’m a Jill of all trades, master of none. I speak multiple languages, I have degrees in dance, French, and arts management. And I’m running a restaurant. It’s funny becase I’ve applied to traditional jobs but had a difficult time being hired. I’d apply to big arts institutions and not get a call back, but then a big project would come along and they’d call me. I’ve built my reputation as a project manager—a person who can take a complex set of problems, find solutions, and bring people together. What clicked for me this year is that I’m a connector. I connect people, ideas, and resources.
It must have felt like a risk to be the first to serve a new kind of cuisine in D.C. Tell me about your Burmese food stall in Union Market that you run with your mom, Jocelyn Law-Yone, and partner, Eric Wang.
Eric and I met on OkCupid, but we weren’t a love match. I was like, “Oh, I have this crazy idea.” He was like, “Whatever you do it’s going to be successful, I want in.” Last year in October, we took him to Burma with us. It bonded the three of us. We’re trying something that most people in D.C. have never heard of. We still struggle with that. Now it’s a question of patience. Filipino food is having its moment. Many generations ago, it was Chinese food and Japanese food. I don’t know if in my lifetime Burmese food will be like that, but I do think we can be like Bobby Pradachith and his mom with Lao food. We’re part of a Burmese food movement that starts with making Burmese food accessible and also authentic to our multi-ethnic family experience.
You are outspoken about issues you are invested in. If you had all of the resources in the world, what would you champion?
I fantasize about having enough money and influence to have influence over systemic changes. Jay-Z and Beyoncé for Father’s Day helped post bail for a group of men. That’s extraordinarily impactful, but it’s not getting to the root cause. The things I feel most passionate about are women and free education. This structure of credit and loans can impact us for the rest of our lives just because we’re trying to learn something is problematic. There are so many interconnected challenges. The U.S. needs national reconciliation around race. Is that reparations? Is that getting rid of all of the textbooks and starting over? I’d like to be a part of connecting and empowering groups of people to get to the root. It’s bigger than black and white, as a mixed race person. That’s why I write, and think, and act, and really care a lot about race, culture, and the arts as a means to elucidate those things.
How about locally, what do we need in D.C.?
There’s this idea of criticize by creating. I noticed as a student of yoga that there weren’t enough spaces where I felt comfortable and included. So instead of poking holes and criticizing others, I made this space. I lead the teacher training at Yoga District where there’s a module on diversity and community inclusion. I feel confident that the group will be better teachers because they have inclusivity at the front of their minds. I saw a Taoist quote recently: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interfere with those doing the work.” That has always been my driving force. If it doesn’t exist, I will create it or find people and bring them together to create it.
A D.C. native whose stamp is seemingly everywhere in the local arts scene, Jamal Gray lives at the intersection of D.C.’s jazz, hip-hop, and activist communities. As a musician, Gray leads The Nag Champa Arts Ensemble and performs in Raygunomics and CMPVTR CLVB. His biggest contribution to the local arts community came this spring, when he helped open the Uptown Art House, a DIY community arts space in Cleveland Park. —Matt Cohen
You’re kind of a product of the D.C. music scene. Your parents worked at WPFW, right?
They met there. My dad was a music programmer. My mom was doing mostly news and editorial stuff. At the time WPFW had a paper that I actually just found a copy of. I’m not sure how often it came out. It could’ve been a monthly thing, but it was like a ’PFW periodical. It had interviews with different cultural figures. It was no more than, like, a four-pager. So, she was doing that, and that’s where they met, both working at WPFW.
How has growing up surrounded by all that music influenced you?
Honestly, I think I took it for granted when I was young. It wasn’t until I was older when people started talking about Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders when I was traveling and going to college and I’m like “Yeah, I met them cats before.” But then I’d sound far-fetched, because I never really talked about that part of myself before. I took it for granted really, but it was naturally and innately around me. It’s not like I could escape it even if I wanted to.
That shows in the collaborative nature of your art and music. What draws you to these different collaborations and what do they mean to you as an artist?
I think part of it is knowing that I feel a responsibility to work in the same style as the groups I grew up listening to. Those great groups were big, and I want to pull from that. These artists were great because they could translate their work through multiple people. You could be a great soloist—that’s a whole thing—but to be able to move an ensemble. That can be translated different ways.
I think Sun Ra wanted to translate that in ways outside of music, but it was so far-fetched. And it still is far-fetched, the stuff he was talking about. It was kind of hard. But most of the people that I guess I studied, or was brought up on—that diet of artists and thinkers—were people that were thinking community minded. So, that’s just naturally how I would approach it.
This year you also helped open the Uptown Art House. How did that come about?
I got recommended for this position with the People’s Climate Movement. This was in the last week of March. They were like “We need a music coordinator for this march.” I had an interview maybe the day after I sent in my resume. It turned out to be a really impactful thing.
The march happened April 29th. After that, they had this huge storage space in Cleveland Park. So we kind of took it over, myself and another organizer, Sebastian Tayac—he worked more on the side of logistics, but he had background in working with Standing Rock and indigenous rights and immigrant rights. It was like this big national movement passing the torch to us.
How have you seen the music scenes in D.C. evolve over the years?
I think, if I was to look back to my first introduction to that world, it was WPFW. Jazz and justice was their thing. So for me, it was always like “We’re doing this for a purpose, it’s not necessarily for the money.”
But we’re all kind of in the space of creative entrepreneurship and you gotta think about that. It’s gotta be functional. D.C. is a place where our main industry is the bureaucracy. So as an artist, if you want to exist, you’d be wise to realize that you’re in service, and figure out who you’re going to serve, and figure out where the resources are that you need to serve those people. And then you can build purpose and purposeful art out of there.
Yesim Taylor was recently engaged and living in Istanbul in 1994 when Turkey hit hard economic times. So she and her soon-to-be-husband came to the United States to get master’s degrees. Before they knew it, they had doctorates, children, and a mortgage. Twenty-three years later, Taylor, an economist, is executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, a business-minded think tank that is livening civic debate. —Jeffrey Anderson
What were your first impressions of the United States?
I went from Istanbul to Fairfax and I wanted to die. People ate dinner at six o’clock. This is when you are getting your nails done in Istanbul to [go] out. I was amazed by how suburban the place looked. Even in D.C., the low density surprised me.
What surprised you about American culture?
How easily people can say no. In Turkey you always say yes, even though you have no intention of doing something. Here it is more action-oriented.
What did you do after your Ph.D. in economics?
The path out of a Ph.D. program is academia, a think tank, or a nonprofit. My then husband said, “Yesim, get some experience in the private sector, go to the government, then do the think tank.” I followed his advice, and I fell in love with government.
You went to D.C.’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Doing what?
Preparing fiscal impact statements, looking at legislation, making a determination of how much it will cost, and whether we can pay for it.
Was it difficult working with the D.C. Council?
Oh yeah. You are saying no to people. They did not like me. There were times when we were rude with each other. Then the next day you have to work together. In the private sector there is no obligation to work together. You’ve got to be nice.
How did you come to the D.C. Policy Center?
I was approached by the Federal City Council. I had done analysis for the D.C. Tax Revision Commission under Mayor Anthony Williams. The idea was to create a policy center, incubate it, and make it independent over time. My children were growing up, and I thought, I’m old enough now to take a new job.
What is the prevailing policy goal?
We care deeply about inclusive growth. A vibrant, strong economy is the only way to support the most vulnerable residents.
How do you advance that?
We have published 85 studies. We’re networking with research organizations and advocates to change policy. We talk with the Council, the agency people. I joke that for 10 years I had to say no to the Council, but it’ll take them three years to figure out that they don’t have to listen to anything I have to say.
How’s your relationship with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute?
We’re friends. We agree on homelessness and funding for our most vulnerable residents. So there are common grounds. But our worldview is there is a limit to how much you can tax people.
What about the progressive movement?
We can work with, say, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, on workforce development. She cares about this issue, and returning citizens. We agree you cannot ignore returning citizens. The center is pragmatic. If you work with us on an issue, a small change may lead to big change.
Are there entrenched ideological differences?
Let’s say you believe minimum wage is a great thing. I can throw at you 55 studies showing how many low income people lost their jobs because of minimum wage and you would not change your opinion. Ultimately this is a city where we want to make change. So I don’t care much about ideological differences. It’s the messenger that counts, not the message.
Is there a spirit of optimism in your work?
Yes! If you’re a pessimist, you close shop and go work for somebody else. Look, I’m an economist, and we are optimistic people. Look at how far this city has come. We’ve added 61,000 housing units and 60 million square feet of office space since 2000. We can expand and attract talent. By every metric things have improved. I think it’s just going to get better.
From #OscarsSoWhite to #NoConfederate to #WOCAffirmation, April Reign is a movement-making machine. As the creator or co-creator of these viral Twitter hashtags, which led to tangible change, she’s spoken up and spoken out, making her voice known. After working for nearly 20 years as a lawyer, she’s now a public speaker and, in her words, “agitator and facilitator.” —Kayla Randall
How have you dealt with the reaction to #OscarsSoWhite and how it’s changed your life?
I take it one day at a time. I don’t really get the high-level view of what’s going on, and I think part of that is because I live here on the East Coast as opposed to the West Coast. From anecdotes from people who actually live in L.A., it’s like a huge thing all the time. The studios and networks are taking these issues into account, which they always should have been doing. Now, I just attempt to work on that work-life balance. The overwhelming response to #OscarsSoWhite has been positive. There’s been some negative, but it’s not anything I dwell on because I’ve got more work to do.
What are your thoughts on pushing forward with the movement?
It’s funny because 2018 is not going to be a good year for marginalized communities, so I definitely see it becoming #OscarsSoWhite 3.0. People think that because Moonlight won Best Picture that now we’re living in this post-racial society. Like when Obama was elected, “oh, everything’s over.” I think the distinction here is we still haven’t had a whole bunch of Latinx movies, or Asian-American and Pacific Islander movies, or movies that really focus on the LGBT+ community, or movies that focus on First Nations folks, or those with a disability. So until, not just during awards season, but all year long, you can see a rom-com not starring Reese Witherspoon but an LGBT+ couple, until we get not just Patrick Stewart playing Professor Xavier—a disabled superhero—but we get an actual disabled actor or actress playing a superhero, there’s still a lot more work to be done. One movie or one year is not going to solve that.
You have this wide-scoping knowledge of the industry. Do you feel like you have to become a student of the intersection of politics and race and pop culture?
Absolutely, and I’m happy to do that. I am still learning. And the best way to deal with negativity from folks who say, “oh, well #BET AwardsSoBlack or #NBASoBlack,” trying to counter my #OscarsSoWhite narrative is to deal with them from a very factual standpoint. So, if someone says to me, “What’s your problem, you have the BET Awards,” I say, “Well, do you know that Eminem was a featured artist on the most recent BET Awards, and that Sam Smith actually won Best New Artist at the BET Awards?” When you just provide facts, without emotion, it makes it a lot easier to have conversations with people who are truly interested. The folks who just want to be negative, that’s one thing, and they can be easily dispensed with. But having the factual background is important for me to be able to speak intelligently on these issues.
What is your opinion of the power of the hashtag? Do you feel like it wields power outside of social media?
The power is enormous. I don’t think it can be properly quantified. For #OscarsSoWhite, people have come up to me and said, “I would not have gotten into the Academy if it wasn’t for you or the hashtag.” In the last two years, the Academy has brought in the largest and most diverse classes ever. There’s a bazillion different hashtags that have made tangible, structural change. I think people are like, well you did this thing online but you’re not out there marching in the streets. For me, I know things are happening. I know that there are fellowships and grants and internships available in Hollywood that were not available pre-January of 2015. I use the platform that I have, and that happens to be on social media, to create change, to make the world a slightly better place. If you want to denigrate what it is that I do, that’s fine, but the receipts speak for themselves.
Tony Cibel is the kind of guy who meets you and tells you that he’s got socks older than you. The patriarch of one of D.C.’s old school restaurant families consisting of his two sons, Nick and Dean Cibel, and his nephews, Greg and Glenn Casten, recently turned 80 and survived a heart attack. His namesake restaurant, Tony & Joe’s, opened in Georgetown’s Washington Harbor 30 years ago, but Cibel’s been operating businesses in D.C. even longer than that. He’s had his hand in a Shell station, Barrel House Liquors (where he befriended Marion Barry), a carryout in Northeast called Soul Palace, and The Dancing Crab (a 40-year institution popular with the Washington football team). Cibel was even Fight Night’s original boxing ring announcer before passing the torch to Discombobulating Jones and Michael Buffer. Through all of his jobs, Cibel has gained an understanding of what it takes to keep a restaurant going for three decades. —Laura Hayes
How did you decide to open Tony & Joe’s in Georgetown?
Joe Rinaldi, my business partner, and I bought The Dancing Crab in 1981. We put in the upstairs malt shop. All the football players hung out there. Then Herb Miller, who bought Washington Harbor, came to me and said when they first built the harbor, “I want you to put a Dancing Crab in here.” I said, “With multi-million-dollar condos, it’s not going to work here. You know, with the smell of those crabs. But how about Tony & Joe’s?” We’re the only original tenant in there.
What do you think of Washington Harbor today, with new restaurants like Fiola Mare?
Fiola Mare apparently is very successful. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’ve eaten there. Fifty dollars for a plate of spaghetti? But it’s good. Farmers Fishers Bakers has done well there. Sequoia just remodeled and they did a great job. That orange thing [Orange Anchor], they closed.
What does it take to last 30 years in this competitive market?
Good food and good service. We have a wonderful staff, including over 20 people that have been there 20 or 25 years. It’s like a big family. And I’m not a screamer or a yeller. The customer is always right. Sometimes you get mad. My son Dean, who is at Tony & Joe’s, he’s terrific. He’s so good with these customers. A lot of them want something for nothing. “I didn’t like this, comp it,” they’ll say. Then why did you eat it? I don’t have the patience. I’d say, “Get out!” and then I’d be sued. But the secret is good food, good service.
I heard you dine out seven nights a week?
I go to the Prime Rib a lot. Buzz BeLer owns that. His brother Nick BeLer, who passed away 20 years ago, was my best friend. We had great times together. I was wild in my earlier years. Now I’m glad I can just get up. But yeah, I eat out a lot at RPM Italian and The Palm.
Tell me about the early days. I know that then Post food critic Phyllis Richman wrote a review that put Tony & Joe’s on the map?
Here’s what happened. We had these investors and I had a couple of partners. And they spent all of this money. We were supposed to open in June, but didn’t until October. I’m sitting there and freezing thinking, “What the hell have I done?” The investors spent $100,000 on advertising, and it was no good at all. Then Phyllis Richman came in and said, “Tony & Joe’s—a contender on the waterfront.” She gave us a magnificent review and that was it. And that cost nothing. I said to the other guys who I bought out, “Thanks for spending $100 grand, you jerks.”
Do you think restaurant reviews are still that powerful or have they lost their impact? Back then it was all you had, there were no blogs like Eater.
I don’t think they’re as as powerful as Phyllis was, but this guy [Tom Sietsema] is pretty powerful. He doesn’t like us. He gave a pretty good review to Ivy City [Smokehouse Tavern] but the last time he was at Tony’s he said, “Same old place blah, blah, blah.” I said, “I cry all the way to the bank.”
Alida Garcia is the director of coalitions and policy at FWD.us, an immigration reform advocacy group backed by Mark Zuckerberg. After leaving her job as an attorney in Los Angeles to work for the Obama re-election campaign, she remains an active voice in Washington for undocumented immigrants. —Jeanine Santucci
Why did you decide to leave your job at a law firm and come to D.C.?
When I was a practicing attorney in Los Angeles, it was when President Obama was first running for president. And like many young people, I sort of saw a greater sense of purpose and community and started volunteering nearly full time. And after that it was sort of something I couldn’t let go. I was recruited out of my law firm into city government. And then from there recruited to work in the president’s re-election, which ultimately landed me in D.C. And so you know it was really about following my heart and believing, at that time, that President Obama was going to try to legalize the 11 million undocumented people in the United States. So it just felt like it was where I needed to be.
Where does your passion for working on immigration reform come from?
I grew up in California. I’m Mexican-American. I am the descendant of many generations of farm workers. And you know the majority of the agricultural workers in the United States are undocumented. So I know rooted in my own origin story in United States is many generations of people who came to contribute here from Mexico. That’s really personal to me.
What does the undocumented population here in D.C. look like?
The undocumented population in D.C. is around 25,000 people. One thing that’s important to note is that in D.C., often immigration issues are talked about from a federal reform lens but in many ways are not internally reflected through what’s going on locally in the District and surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia. There’s a large undocumented population from a variety of cultures. There’s a large presence of people from Bolivia in the region and El Salvador and Mexico. And they are impacted by these policies every single day.
What can a D.C. resident do to advocate for immigrant rights considering that there is no voting representative?
Every day I go call Congress and I take a different representative. So yesterday I called Senator Rubio. The day before I called Senator Tillis, the day before that I called Paul Ryan. It’s really frustrating to feel that I don’t have a representative to speak to on a daily basis about that issue. I want all the federal representatives who are voting members to know that this is urgent for Washington, D.C. residents.
There’s a lot of stuff you can do locally. One thing is about just being a good person. We interact with immigrants all day long but we don’t think about it in that context. Part of building a more welcoming society is making sure that we’re treating people throughout our day with dignity and respect, not just in political discourse. So for me as someone who’s going to work in an advocacy organization, I may get in an Uber with an immigrant driver in the morning and then I may go get a lunch at a salad place where, who is picking the vegetables in that salad? Many mothers in D.C. are able to pursue their careers because they have immigrant women in their households helping raise their children.
I think it’s really important that we break down the national issue that can be very toxic in its rhetoric. And just think about this in the simplest form: How are we respecting the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis who are contributing not only to our economy but to our collective happiness as people in our ability to live our dreams collectively?
By all accounts, Alicia Montgomery is a public radio legend. At NPR, she was the senior supervising producer of its acclaimed Code Switch project, and as editorial director at WAMU 88.5 for the past year, she contributed to the station’s huge gains in African-American and Latinx listenership. This month, she returned to NPR to help lead the Morning Edition team. Chalk her success up to her passion for the medium. It turns out Montgomery has been a self-proclaimed “public radio junkie” since childhood—and she’s still dedicated to making the medium sing. —Kayla Randall
Where does your love for public radio come from?
My mom was one of those parents who just played it in every room of the house and on the car radio all the time. I’ve been listening since I was in seventh grade. My mom is one of those people who is all about, “We can make our world a better place, we can do it in small ways, we can do it in big ways, we have an obligation to do it.” When I tune in to public radio, it’s like a whole media organization that’s run kind of on those principles. Like everywhere, it’s not immune to jerks or jerky behavior, but you have a whole collection of people who think that the ultimate mission is to give people information and the stories and ideas that are going to help them make the world a better place. I hate to sound all crunchy granola, but it’s a spiritually invigorating place to be, where people are really jazzed about the First Amendment, and truth, and facts, and compassion. I loved it as a listener and I love it more and in a deeper way as someone who has the privilege and the good luck to be on this side of it.
How has the D.C. area informed your work?
Being at the member station here has been a way to combine my love for Washington and the Washington area with my love for public radio. I’m from here, I was born in the city, fifth generation, I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, I lived in the city as a young professional, and I live in Greenbelt now. I’m not going anywhere. I love this place. It’s interesting to talk to people who have this sort of limited experience with what D.C. is and who’s here. I have great memories of my grandmother’s house that’s around the corner from the Shrimp Boat, and bopping around Dupont Circle trying to find brunch money.
Why do you think you and your team at WAMU have been able to make such a difference in increasing diversity?
The thing that I’ve been able to do, because of my history with the area, is know the strivers on Capitol Hill, the black families in upper Northwest and Anacostia, the do-gooder class of the nonprofits, and the folks who come here from other countries. I know someone and am close to someone in every single one of those communities. So, what I can do is advocate for all of them and reassure the reporters that when you go out to report on diverse communities it doesn’t mean you have to go out and do that story about how this group of people is being oppressed by that group of people. In order to demonstrate respect for people, you have to demonstrate their full humanity. Even when groups are in opposition to each other, that doesn’t mean there’s a set of villains and a set of heroes. Diversifying stories and storytelling is complicated, but I think that it’s a question of paying the same kind of attention to the folks outside of your bubble as you do to those who are inside your bubble.
In public media especially, we think that if we tell a good story, people are just going to find us. But if we haven’t been talking to those people for 20 years, then the idea that they’re just going to stumble on this story is wishful thinking. It’s not just that we tell the stories better, it’s that we reach out to the community and tap somebody on the shoulder. Whether that’s through social media or calling up community leaders, or staging an event in a library or community center, we say, “Hey, we’re listening to you and we want to hear from you.”
Through his booking imprint, Ripping Headaches, Hasan A is responsible for just about every metal show that comes through the District. The Baltimore native has booked metal shows in the DMV for more than seven years, and in that time, he’s transformed the region’s scene from one that most metal and extreme bands used to avoid into one of the East Coast’s most active. —Matt Cohen
How did you start booking shows in the D.C. area?
I saw that there were a lot of bands that would just skip over Baltimore or D.C. and I always wondered why. So I started reaching out to these bands—thanks to the power of the internet—and I would straight-up ask them “Hey, when are you guys planning to come through Baltimore or D.C.?”
And I would either get one of two answers: “We had a bad time in Baltimore or D.C.,” or “We don’t think it’s a viable market.” And I thought “huh, maybe I could do this, maybe I could put on these shows.” I’d seen other people do it and I talked to other people who put on shows, or who work at venues. So I decided “OK, maybe I could start doing this.” It started off small, and it just spiraled from there.
And there’s a scene here! It’s not like you were putting on shows and no one was coming out.
Yeah. Baltimore and D.C. has a rich history of metal, punk, and extreme music. I’m not the only one. D.C. has a history of it: There were places like The Hung Jury bar, The Bayou, and Phantasmagoria that would put on, if we look back on it, legendary metal shows. A lot of touring acts would come through, and it would all be DIY shows. There’s always been that history here, and there’s always been that need for it.
Deceased is a mainstay. They’ve always been a mainstay of this area. And I know King Fowley from Deceased used to put on a lot of shows in the area back in the ’80s and ’90s. I would say other important D.C. bands are…of course Pentagram, The Obsessed. The Obsessed being a huge one. I talked to a lot of people from other parts of the country or world and they know The Obsessed, they know Pentagram, and they know this area because of those bands and because of the history here.
Why do you think those bands and that scene doesn’t get as much credit in D.C.’s history of music?
I feel like a lot of those bands haven’t put themselves out there to have their stories documented and reported on. A lot of these metal bands, they’re just kind of secretive sometimes, and a lot of these underground acts, they just tend to keep things under the rug. I also think a lot of journalists or writers haven’t really given metal or extreme music in the area the same chance as hardcore or punk.
What’s the hardest thing about booking shows in D.C.?
Really just getting the people out there, getting them interested. Making sure all the pieces fit, whether it be ensuring the bands have everything they need to perform, the venue is situated and set up. Word of mouth, too: If people know about the show, that’s always the difficult part.
In D.C., I’d say, there aren’t a lot of legitimate venues that want to put on heavier shows. And it kinda has to do with… it’s a business, they want to bring people out, and it’s a niche market.
I’ve definitely relied a lot on the DIY venues, or the bars and spaces that want to give heavy music a chance, such as The Pinch, Slash Run, Atlas Brew Works, various house spaces or restaurants around D.C. I’ve definitely appreciated the owners, or the people that manage these spaces giving that music a chance, and seeing that there is a demographic out there that want to come out and support these bands and support the venues and businesses that these shows are at.
If you don’t already own one of watercolor illustrator Marcella Kriebel’s vibrant food-based prints, you’ve probably seen them for sale in local shops or hanging in your friends’ apartments. She also hosts workshops where she teaches watercolor painting, often using subjects grabbed from the farmers market outside her studio in Brookland. Her evocative drawings of food and her love of preparing it come together in her soon-to-be-released second cookbook, Comida Cubana: A Cuban Culinary Journey. —Stephanie Rudig
What about D.C. inspires you and keeps you here working as an artist?
I think a lot of people are critical of the transient nature, but I kind of like it because it is this mass convergence of different people from all over the place. It keeps the culture kind of fresh. But in the same regard, it’s been fun to be part of the wave of entrepreneurs starting their own businesses and really putting down roots. I think I feed off of a lot of other creatives, and also small business owners who are coming up with creative ways to grow their business, but then also market it. Ultimately it’s the community. It’s both the people that pass through here and the people laying down roots that I’m inspired by.
Your second cookbook is coming out soon. Why did you decide to focus on Cuban food in particular?
For a lot of Americans, me as well, it was a very enchanting place. Prior to visiting, it was like a place that was so close and yet so far. I had never been there prior to this book concept. Similar to my last book, I’m not an expert in these things, but I love to learn all about food and take you on that journey with me. The research was so fun because it wasn’t something I was an expert in, but I got to learn about it and record that process in the visual way that I do. So why Cuba? Because I had never been there, and I was inspired to learn about people and places through their culinary rituals and food traditions.
Was it different working on the second book opposed to the first?
The last book was mostly recipes and less of my voice. Although it very much feels like my voice because it’s all hand drawn, there wasn’t as much storytelling in the last one as this one. The beginning of each section in the book has a little story. It’s a huge process to do it entirely yourself, from research, interviews, design, layout, actual artwork, the test kitchen. So there’s a lot of steps. Doing these two books is a great reflection of my interests because of my interest in anthropology and learning about people through food. Food is always a wonderful bridge into anyone’s life. You can talk about preferences, traditions, sourcing things, all kinds of different things.
Do you have a favorite food?
My very favorite food? That’s very hard. I love pickled foods, pretty keen on most things pickled. My brother’s smoked salmon and lox. Any cured fish.
It seems like everybody I know owns a print of yours. What’s it like to be one of D.C.’s most ubiquitous artists?
It’s strange. I mean I’m honored to think that hundreds of my prints grace the walls of many many apartments and row homes in the city. It’s kind of wild to think about. But you’re right, there’s a lot.
Have you ever been surprised to see them hanging somewhere?
I’m always surprised! I’m always delighted. For me, I love when people do different combinations. It’s meant to be this mix and match. When people get to curate their own selection, that’s when the distinct fun stuff starts to happen. When people are putting sardines and figs next to an artichoke or, you know, heirloom tomatoes with the heart beets and brassicas or something. A lot of people are like, she’s the girl who draws the vegetables. But there’s so much more! I made a point this summer to make sure I had some heavy hitters in the junk food category. Now we’ve got bacon burger, hot dog, ice cream, waffle cone, pizza slice. So not just the vegetable girl.
Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi is an author and the founding director of American University’s new Antiracist Research and Policy Center, launching in 2018. His book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America won a National Book Award. When he’s not fighting racism, the recent D.C. transplant enjoys taking advantage of the city’s many vegan restaurants. —Will Warren
The word that catches my eye in the title of the book is “idea.” It’s The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, I’m wondering why is the emphasis on ideas and not just racism?
I wanted to show the ways in which racist ideas, which I ended up defining as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way, have affected the course of history and the way history has affected the course of these ideas. And I wanted to distinguish between racist ideas and racist policies. And I think when people say racism, some people are just talking about racist ideas, some people are just talking about racist policies, but I think I wanted to show that really, when you think about racism, you’re talking about the marriage of racist policies and racist ideas.
I’m sure you get tired of talking about the book. Do you?
Actually, I don’t. I think one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is because I think race and racism is such a huge problem. And it’s such a huge problem many of us don’t want to talk about it. And one of the reasons why we don’t want to talk about it is because we don’t have the language to talk about it or even the knowledge to speak about it. And we also do not know the ways in which it is literally affecting our lives right now.
Is the Center going to be educating students who are taking classes through the Center or is it going to be something broader?
All of the above. We’re gonna have these research teams. And these teams are gonna be made up of annual groups of scholars, journalists, policy experts, and advocates, and each of these advocates, journalists, policy experts, and scholars are gonna have the ability to teach courses at AU. And so clearly students will be able to learn through literally being involved in these projects, but then we have an anti-racist education project that’s going to seek to create curricular materials that either people can use or that they can come to AU to realize like, “OK, how, as a teacher, do I pursue my work from an anti-racist standpoint? From the standpoint of a social worker, from the standpoint of a preacher.” And so we want to figure out ways to assist many of these different groups of people, so they understand how to pursue what they already do from a more anti-racist standpoint.
What’s the tone and tenor been like on campus [after two incidents this year where white supremacist imagery and icons were displayed on AU’s campus, the more recent of which occurred on the same night Kendi introduced the Antiracist Research and Policy Center]?
I mean, there was of course a range of feelings. Generally, students and even non-students were concerned and fearful about what happened, about what could happen. And they do not feel as if they’re being defended by the president. If anything, they feel the president is inciting this. You had other students who feel that AU hasn’t gone further enough in sort of challenging its own racist issues, and so, for some of them, they decided to blame the institution, which was surprising to me because these types of people tend to want to harass institutions that they feel are a threat to them. And those institutions that are a threat to them are actually sort of striving to eliminate discrimination. I just tried to connote to the students and to the larger AU community that this is emblematic of what happens when you start making progress. When you break down barriers, that leads to a bitter backlash.
Cyndee Clay has worked at HIPS—a nonprofit that serves drug users, sex workers, and other vulnerable groups—since she was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. She’s fought Congress on increasing access to clean syringes, and she’s pushed the District to provide naloxone, an antidote that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. In 2018, HIPS will celebrate its 25th anniversary and its third year at 906 H St. NE. —Andrew Giambrone
What services does HIPS provide?
We have a medical room on site four days a week, a full drop-in center that has a computer lab, showers, laundry, and support groups. Everything from making sure you have clean clothes to safer drug-using and sex materials to support finding housing. We like to think of ourselves as the safety net for people who don’t have a whole lot of other places to go.
How do you build relationships with clients?
We get a lot of referrals from word of mouth. We also have an extensive mobile services program through our van. We’ve been out on the streets between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. for the past 25 years, reaching people who engage in the sex trade. We provide syringe access in far-flung areas of the city.
What are the origins of the name HIPS?
HIPS was formed in 1993 as Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. We dropped the meaning of the acronym because we expanded our services to more than people who were doing prostitution. Now we talk about the sex trade and sex work, recognizing that for a lot of people, sex work is their job. We haven’t necessarily come up with another explanation for what those four letters could stand for.
Do you think most people understand what “harm reduction,” HIPS’ type of work, is?
I think harm reduction is gaining in understanding and popularity. When you say “harm reduction,” people think syringe exchange. HIPS approaches harm reduction as a philosophy toward life and public health. It acknowledges that behaviors exist on a spectrum of risk and we help people choose safer behaviors. That can be about drug use, or sex work, or learning to manage your money so you’re not as forced to go out on the streets. People will tell you what’s working for them and what’s not.
How is HIPS tackling D.C.’s opioid epidemic?
Times now are scary and interesting. D.C. is definitely seeing an overdose crisis like the rest of the country. But our affected population is mostly aging people of color who have injected drugs all their lives and are potentially more prone to fatal overdoses.
D.C. did the right thing in expanding needle exchange. HIPS would like to see the same for naloxone, so the lifesaving drug is available to everyone who might be able to reverse an overdose. We just don’t feel like there is support from the city at the levels there should be. I think there hasn’t been the uproar around naloxone access specifically because of who the victims are.
Many HIPS clients are gender-nonconforming. What challenges does this group face?
Despite D.C. having good laws on the books around trans identity and protections, it gets a lot harder to put our money where our mouth is when we’re talking about what jobs are available for trans people, who historically have been blocked out of traditional employment because of transphobia. The city has shown a lot of lip service, but it’s dropped the ball in providing education, jobs, and housing.
We’re asking people to stop criminalizing trans people. For example, laws against sex work are utilized to tell trans women they have to get out of certain neighborhoods. These laws create cycles of incarceration for trans people. That’s why we support an anti-exploitation bill currently before the D.C. Council.
What pulled you into this line of work?
When I found out there was this agency that was not judging people and was providing help and services, that made so much sense to me. Like many people, I had experiences as a young person with drugs and transactional sex. I was just astounded there was a place like HIPS.
Haywood Turnipseed Jr.
Haywood Turnipseed Jr. came to the D.C. area in 1995, when he was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. Now the Air Force veteran and comedian spends his days working in telecommunications at the National Gallery of Art and his nights entertaining local audiences with his ruminations on gentrification and children’s television. He lives in Congress Heights with his wife and kids. —Caroline Jones
What got you into the D.C. comedy scene?
At my last telecom job, I got laid off. We had just had our newborn and we had just bought the house. At the time, I was just dabbling, doing it here and there. My wife was like, “If you really want to give this thing a shot, now might be the time.” Plus childcare is expensive. It was going to cost us more to find somebody to come in and take care of our kid than it was for me to sit home and collect unemployment.
While you were starting out, were your kids particularly influential?
Oh yeah, definitely. I was working with them during the day and it was like watching Sesame Street, then going and talking about Sesame Street. I had just gotten laid off so I was a little bit angry. I wasn’t ticked off totally, but I was just like, “Hey, man, what is the world? What’s going on when you can’t keep a gig?” Sesame Street was really influential in just being calm. Like, you know what, it ain’t that bad. It’s rough out here but focus, listen. At the time I was doing meditation, so comedy and consciousness were coinciding. I felt that thing I always wanted to do awakening.
Do you like raising kids in D.C.?
Yeah. I’m a big museum-head but we don’t have to pay. I work at a museum. My kids watch that show Little Einsteins. We’ll see a Chagall painting on Little Einsteins and then we can show it to them in real life. You can’t beat that. It’s a culturally diverse area, it’s an economically diverse area, and it’s educationally diverse. On all levels you have some of everything that a kid could want.
Plus you have the fun. We live near THEARC and over there, the Washington Ballet always does The Nutcracker, so I’ve taken my kids to see that. It’s actually Frederick Douglass having a party, so they get to go see the Frederick Douglass House but then they get a piece of that history as well. It’s not just his story anymore—now it’s our story. Everything I grew up hearing from my leaders and my elders and those folks that influenced me, I get to share with my children.
A lot of your comedy comments on the diversity of D.C. What do you think of D.C. audiences? Are they a little too uptight?
They’re smart. The majority of the people who come out to comedy shows in this area are younger folk who are really here to change the world. It’s a political town and they come here to work, so that’s the mindframe. When I go up and I do something that’s throwing what they do in their face, I do get the “Oh, hey, I’m here to help you.” I’m like, “OK, now this is where we have a conversation.” If you don’t realize that our struggles are in decline, then you’re not really helping my struggle, you’re actually hindering my progress.
In general, the audiences tend to get that because I have a different vibe that I come with. I try to be more friendly. If you’re cool with poking fun at yourself, it’s not a big deal. In this town, you better have a sense of humor. These people will attack you from every angle. That’s what D.C. is, it’s the uber-rich with some of the poorest people I’ve ever seen. That whole juxtaposition kind of keeps me in balance.
D.C. in and of itself forces me to be honest. These audiences are people who are looking to change America. So thank you. They helped us legalize marijuana in this city. That only happened when more young Caucasians moved to the area and actually were involved in the voting process. That’s the truth. When that happened, they helped us legalize marijuana and helped raise my property value. Win-win!
Six years ago, Elena Lacayo traded her high-powered job as an immigration advocate at the National Council of La Raza (now known as UnidosUS) for a guitar. She started the band Elena & Los Fulanos, a largely acoustic project dedicated to exploring her Nicaraguan and American roots, and released her debut album, Miel Venenosa, in 2014. Lacayo’s music resonates throughout D.C. for its ability to intersect cultures (she sings in both English and Spanish), honor traditions from Latin America, and give a voice to communities who aren’t often heard. —Julyssa Lopez
How your music has evolved since you released your first album, Miel Venenosa?
I think a lot of artists go through this, where you look back at the thing that you made and you critique it quite a bit. I’m very proud of Miel Venenosa. I thought it was a really good album for a first shot and it was definitely built around me being a solo singer-songwriter. But the more I listened to it, the more I was like, “Oh next time I can do this different kind of thing.” I’m a little more confident in the decisions I make now, and I think “This is a good idea and I’m going to stick with it” instead of being all insecure about it. So much of that is because I’m getting more recognition from my peers and other people and I think our project has moved to a different stage. It’s no longer incubating.
The last album had a couple of things that sounded Latin, but it didn’t have those essential elements, the way this one does. But I think that’s what culture is—that’s essentially what it means to be from a place. It’s not about what you seek out, it’s about what’s already in you that comes out.
A lot of your music is focused on traditions from Latin America, specifically Nicaragua. What do you do to ground the music in tradition and history to keep it authentic?
The question has always been “How do I integrate things in a way that feels honest and real to the project?” I know a lot of people do resistance music and a lot of people do cultural music, and I want to make sure what I do comes off authentic, well-grounded and well-informed in tradition. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I know how to respect the cultures and traditions I’m referencing, and hopefully I can bring in people who don’t know what these things are.
How has your background as an immigration advocate played a role in your music?
I come from the activism world and so after I quit the job at NCLR, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything radical enough. There was a part of me that was like, “I’m doing this thing and it’s a little self-oriented and it requires a lot of self-promotion.” That’s totally essential and part of the game, but there was a part of me that wondered what I was giving back. It didn’t feel radical enough to me. And then the election happened, and suddenly, it felt like the world around me had shifted and we were doing something radical, promoting culture and cultural understanding. It had a different significance in this context.
I wrote an article a while ago on living two cultural identities, and this white woman comes up to me, someone who I wouldn’t think would connect with the article. And she said, “I totally identified with that—I was raised Christian and Jewish, and I felt so torn by these identities.” That’s exactly the kind of moments I hope my music inspires. We’re all complicated and have these unique experiences that form who we are, and you can’t know these things unless you have conversations and ask questions respectfully and engage people. You can’t know what people have been through by the way they look. It’s exciting to think that hopefully some of that is coming across in the music, and I feel like it’s making an impact, especially now. It feels more important now.
For the past 20 years, Robert Northern III, the 83-year-old jazz legend known to the music world as Brother Ah, has told tales on his weekly radio show on WPFW about his life as a session French horn player for all the greats—John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and countless others. When leading his own ensembles, however, Brother Ah is known for his spiritual and meditative take on jazz, which recently found a new audience thanks to a reissue of his catalogue from the New York-based record label Manufactured Recordings. —Matt Cohen
You’ve lived in D.C. for decades, but you’re originally from The Bronx by way of North Carolina. What brought you to D.C.?
A woman. I’ve always loved Washington, D.C. When I used to go on the road, everybody in the bus would say they couldn’t wait to get to Washington, D.C. because of the food, and the culture, and all of that. I loved the architecture. It’s just a beautiful city.
But I met a beautiful woman in Tanzania. I spent my summers in Africa starting in 1972. And she had moved to Africa, to Tanzania, and I was on the faculty at that time at Dartmouth College and Brown University. She came back to Washington, D.C. to get her Ph.D. at American University. And so I’d come down on the weekends and visit her from Brown University. And when I left Brown University after nine years, I moved here.
You lived in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, working as a session musician. What was it like for you to transition from that jazz scene to D.C.?
Well, in that way, it was disappointing. Because I had been so used to not only recording sessions, but performing all over New York—in great halls, in great clubs. To come to Washington, D.C., my only opportunity to work as a French horn player would be in the symphony. And that’s great, I did a lot of symphony work in New York and Europe, but there was no opportunity to get a position in the National Symphony Orchestra here, so there wasn’t really a lot of work for a French horn player in Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, I became what they call a multi-instrumentalist, so I was able to work as a flutist and a percussionist in my own group. But I didn’t get the excitement that I had in New York, playing with musicians like Sun Ra for nine years, and ’Trane, and all those cats. I missed that, I really did.
How did your time in Africa inspire you musically?
I spent time in Africa in a village. I didn’t live in the cities, I lived very, very, very far into the forest in a small village. No running water. No electricity. I was in a mud hut. The only light at night was the moon and the stars, and I got into nature. That’s really what happened. I began to be educated into the music that happens in the forest. I got very close to the sounds of animals, and birds, and insects, and village musicians who learned from nature themselves. And I got a whole different understanding about the laws of nature.
In your opinion what animal makes the most beautiful music?
I would say birds. I literally got into a conversation with birds with my flute. I was in the middle of the forest and the birds were having a conversation. You can follow their call-and-response—they were really talking! And I took my flute out and I jumped in. And they stopped, to listen to me. And once I kept playing, they heard me and we had a three-way conversation!
When I got back to America, I got a call from the curator of mammals at the Washington Zoo. He called me and says “Brother Ah, I’ve heard about your experiences with birds in Africa. We have a problem. The Stanley blue cranes are almost extinct and we have them at the zoo and they won’t lay an egg. So will you come down and help us?”
So I came down during the afternoon and I set up my musical instruments outside the cage and I studied the birds. And I realized that what’s happening is that the female would not lay an egg unless she does a crane dance. It’s the male bird that has to inspire her to do the dance before she lays an egg.
So I listen to the male bird and I got his melody and I got his rhythm. About an hour later, I became the male bird and I played all his stuff, and she began to dance! So the next morning the curator called me. He said “Brother Ah! You’re in the paper! Did you read the paper?” I said “What do you mean?” And he said “The bird laid an egg!”