In 2014, then-candidate Muriel Bowser promised if elected to create a new deputy mayor position for east of the river, which has long been code for the District’s poorest and most heavily African-American communities.
Bowser delivered on her promise in 2015 by hiring Courtney Snowden as the first Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity whose ostensible mandate includes all the District’s “underserved communities.” But her primary focus is Wards 7 and 8, where nearly half of the District’s black population lives and where the poverty rate was 33 percent in 2015, a 6 percent rise from 2007, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
More than two years after Snowden was hired, a bill from Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd to fully fund and staff the skeletal Mayor’s Office on African American Affairs, also created in 2015, is under consideration by the D.C. Council.
Because 12 of 13 council members signed on as sponsors, the bill’s passage seems assured. But the problems that make it seem necessary won’t pass quite as easily. Nor will the unspoken question the bill raises: Why aren’t African Americans, who make up nearly half the District, already being robustly represented and supported by the mayor’s office?
“Yes, it is problematic that we have to have an Office on African American Affairs in Chocolate City,” says Michael L. Chambers II, a member of the Commission on African American Affairs, a volunteer, 17-person group created in 2011.
Though former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. introduced the original bill that created the commission, most credit the effort to former Mayor Marion Barry, who was on the D.C. Council at the time and was openly distraught at the results of the 2010 U.S. Census that showed black residents fleeing the District in far greater numbers than expected.
“From the very beginning, it [the Commission on African American Affairs] was not supported by the city,” says Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown history professor who was the first chair of the commission. “There are these immense problems that no one is paying attention to.”
In 2016, Jackson spearheaded a report with Georgetown’s School of Nursing and Health Studies that presented health disparities between the District’s white and black residents. Some notable findings included life expectancy for white men exceeding that of black men by 15 years and an infant mortality rate nearly six times higher for blacks than whites.
Snowden, whose ethics stumbles have made her the target of two D.C. Inspector General investigations, bristles at the idea that her office isn’t up to the task.
“This isn’t just sort of a song and dance,” she says. “We are putting real resources into making sure that we can grow the communities that have been there [in Wards 7 and 8].”
Snowden, who says that part of her office’s role is “to align government resources,” points to a nearly 4 percent drop in unemployment—to 12.5 percent in Ward 8 since Bowser was elected—as evidence that the mayor’s efforts are bearing fruit.
Helming the Office on African American Affairs is Rahman Branch, a well-respected former principal of Ward 8’s Ballou High School who was appointed director in early 2015 and has been a one-man show ever since.
Branch’s tenure at Ballou lasted a decade, so he has an intimate knowledge of the terrain, what’s been tried before, and what it takes to get problems noticed and addressed west of the river.
“The term ‘overlooked and underserved’ can only be applied if we first recognize that there is a population that has been overlooked and underserved,” Branch says.
Snowden and Branch cite a number of programs that point to progress, including Financially Fit DC, a financial planning and education effort that, among other things, connects District residents with home buying clubs. Other examples are Aspire to Entrepreneurship, a program that supports “justice-involved” youths, and Project 500, a partnership with American University that offers training and support for small businesses east of the river.
But among those working at the community level in Wards 7 and 8, there are few believers that an expanded office will move the needle.
“There are specific policies that led to what we see happening [east of the river],” says Ari Theresa, a lawyer who challenges large housing developers on zoning and regulation issues in court. “Instead of letting go of those policies, they’re proposing an office. They’re not stating any measurable goals. It’s just a distraction or something to make people feel that their needs are being responded to.”
Other detractors are less diplomatic.
“Putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound does nothing,” says Anthony Muhammad, chair of ANC 8E. “You’re still gonna die.”
A common refrain among those working the trenches east of the Anacostia is that the expansion of this office is the type of cynical electioneering that has been aimed at the District’s black population for too many cycles now.
“Well, it’s election season, and if it looks like the black mayor is trying to do things for black people, it should help get some votes,” says Sandra Seegars (“SS”), a longtime Ward 8 community activist who expresses hope that the OAAA is a sincere effort by the Bowser administration.
Says Jeri Washington, a Ward 7 community activist, “It feeds right into the narrative that we are the last and lost and least. I don’t understand why we’re now just talking about funding. I have to put it on the mayor. I have to put it on the city council. It [the funding] should’ve been automatic.”
Comparable to the OAAA are the Offices on Latino Affairs and Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. Both fall under the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs and have budgets of about $3 million and $850,000, respectively, and staffs of 10 or fewer each.
Todd’s legislation does not yet include a proposed funding level, but he says, “I expect that the funding will be robust [for the expanded OAAA], on par with other offices that are similar.”
It wouldn’t take much to give it more love than it’s seen in recent District operating budgets. The office was only allocated $114,000 in FY 2018, and to add insult to injury, it was mistakenly characterized as the “Outdoor Advertising Association of America.”
But even funded, the contention about the office is unlikely to go away.
“They [politicians] are not going to speak up on this because they think they’ll be seen as favoring the African-American community,” says Jackson. “But they have to stop worrying about if they do this, will these middle-class white voters reject them.”
Another obstacle appears to be Snowden herself, who continues to be polarizing.
“We had not seen the deputy mayor or heard from her in the better part of two years,” says Chambers, referring to a Commission on African American Affairs meeting Snowden recently attended. “Now she was the one trying to get negroes in check before we go to meet the mayor?”
If there’s a silver lining, it might be Branch.
“I’m here for the work,” he says. “Whatever the ether is saying, I was doing this work in this community before this mayor and I was proud to be appointed to do this work now. I have been here for a while in service. I feel like that’s what we’re supposed to do.”