Sign up for our free newsletter
Dionne Reeder likes to tell the story of a younger cousin whom she hired at her cafe in Anacostia, Cheers At The Big Chair. It’s an anecdote about personal responsibility and hard work, says the community advocate and business owner who has declared her candidacy for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.
She showed up at her cafe one day and her cousin—who refers to as her as “Auntie” out of respect—was loafing, FaceTiming with a friend. Reeder looked askance at the manager, who told her the nephew had swept and taken out the trash, and then decided to take a break.
She took her nephew out back: “He said, ‘What’s up Auntie?’ and I said, ‘You know I’m firing you.’” Reeder cackles. For her it was an easy call. The young man needed to be taught a lesson. “I told him, ‘I love you enough to fire you.’”
On the second floor of this cozy eatery on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE last weekend, Reeder talked with Loose Lips about the values her parents instilled in her. “If I came home with a B, my father would say, ‘You know you can get an A.’” These days, Reeder speaks of “human capital development” for youth and small businesses, which she says is more about self-sufficiency than social services and worker-friendly initiatives.
Reeder aims to unseat incumbent Elissa Silverman, the at-large councilmember best known for championing labor-friendly bills that have alienated the business community and provided an opening for a challenge. And if Reeder can marshall that powerful bloc of support, the incumbent could be in for a fight.
Reeder grew up in Columbia Heights. Her father worked his entire career at George Washington University and her mother ran an upholstery business out of the family’s basement.
She has an infectious optimism that she says is rooted in the work ethic her parents demanded. “They empowered me to work hard, to achieve something,” says Reeder, who graduated from Roosevelt High School and then West Virginia State University, where she served as president of the student government.
While having the benefit of two working parents, and eventually a job on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for the House Committee on Natural Resources, Reeder also saw inequity in less fortunate households by doing community work through her church. “I learned that you need to show people the way to do the work,” she says. “You have to understand their needs, and look at ways to serve that need.”
Reeder has impressed some impressive people. At the D.C Community Prevention Partnership she developed a college prep program, and 75 percent of the 200 youth she helped get into college graduated, which caught the attention of then-Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, who awarded her a $9 million budget to curb youth violence. When Williams became mayor he hired Reeder as his neighborhood services coordinator in Ward 8. She later worked for the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, managing the organization’s day-to-day activities and its multi-million dollar investments.
Although her background is in community service, she says the need for economic development is what motivated her to lead a team to start Cheers, a full service restaurant that hires employees from the community. “We need services and an implementation process that is inclusive to be able to identify skills in people that allow them to move forward,” she says. “When you invest in people, it builds a community of helping systems.”
Unseating Silverman in a citywide race will be a major challenge for a first-time candidate. The incumbent often has the spending advantage, and Silverman’s record of progressive initiatives has shown her to be a serious and ambitious lawmaker.
But legislation Silverman has supported, including a flexible hours bill that did not become law, a minimum wage boost, and a paid family leave act, leave her vulnerable to a business-friendly campaign, Reeder says. “It’s a soul-searching angle that results from my own business struggles,” she says. “I had to look at who on the Council is supportive of business and who is not. [Elissa] is a good person, but I have the ability to relate to community growth through service, religious faith, and business.”
A native Washingtonian, Reeder grew up in Ward 1, where she now lives, bought her first home in Ward 5, and has served communities all over the city. She is an openly gay, married, African-American woman who has a daughter by her marriage, as well as a four-year-old granddaughter. “We grew up together,” she says of her daughter and her wife, whom she met when they were in their 20s. (Reeder is 46, her wife, 43.) “They keep me sound.”
In order to wage a credible challenge, Reeder will have to generate multi-generational support, as well as synthesize the public services and private enterprise sectors. Bryan “Scottie” Irving of Blue Skye Construction, LLC knew Reeder’s sister, whose life was tragically cut short. “She has overcome a lot from a family perspective,” Irving says of Reeder. “She’s stayed fast to who she is, whereas a lot of people veer off in the other direction.”
Brenda Williams, former deputy chief of staff for Councilmember Marion Barry and a former charter school operator, says, “I’m from an era where we were taught to listen, to take things in as we process information on our own. I see that in her, and I see a natural networker who likes to negotiate and put people together. I see why people want her to run.”
Williams says she also appreciates Reeder’s spirit of entrepreneurship, which can be infectious for people who do not think they have the pedigree to be successful in such a fast-paced economy. “Dionne’s message is one of a level playing field. We hear people say that business is too hard, that the spirit of adventure is missing in young people.”
Reeder’s willingness to take on business risk appeals to an older generation that also wants to see more practical experience on the Council. “It’s easy to write words on paper, but it’s different to know what it’s like to have to meet payroll, to experience what those words mean,” says Williams.
Reeder says she was raised to understand that community services can only get a person so far. “People behind that counter and in that kitchen [at Cheers], they got to believe in themselves. The business community can do that, if we develop the human capital and get away from being dependant on social services.”
This post has been updated.