We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Doreen Hodges doesn’t have a big garden. No grape arbors or ghost orchids here—a dirt patch not much bigger than a Ford Festiva welcomes visitors to Family Voices, the health care advocacy organization Hodges runs out of a diminutive row house a few blocks east of Suitland Parkway. When Hodges needed to spruce up the property on a limited budget, she thought of the Mayor’s Conservation Corps (MCC), a branch of Adrian Fenty’s Summer Youth Employment Program in which kids complete beautification projects.
“We called for the mayor’s little group to come over and do our planting,” Hodges says. “It wasn’t as smooth as it may sound like it was.” Hodges called a number that was on a flier the MCC had left on the doorknob of her home in Ward 8. She got no reply. She called again and requested that four program participants come out to Family Voices on Aug. 4, three days before an open house scheduled for Aug. 7. No one showed up. She called “four or five times” to find out what had become of her request. No one called back. Hodges e-mailed MCC Director Melissa McKnight, whom she’d known when McKnight worked for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. That worked: MCC foot soldiers hit the dirt patch on Aug. 6, less than 24 hours before Hodges’ event. The small project had taken three weeks to get started. Only Hodges’ perseverance had ensured its completion. Hodges isn’t complaining—the MCC did a good job, putting in geraniums and Chinese privet—but she wonders whether their employer makes the best use of its employees’ time.
“[The kids] have a lot more to offer than just picking up trash,” Hodges says. “If nobody calls them, they have nothing to do but stay outside walking around.”
But for the MCC, “walking around” is standard operating procedure. For nine weeks this summer—from June 18 through Aug. 21—roughly 4,100 District youths ages 14–21 donned blue T-shirts and turned circles around the city, ostensibly to pick up garbage for the federal minimum wage. Sometimes they’re equipped with litter-pickers and trash bags. Sometimes they’re equipped with bad attitudes and allegedly steal mopeds. Sometimes they trim senior citizens’ rosebushes. Sometimes they assassinate healthy crape myrtles, according to the Washington Examiner. And, if they’re not pulling weeds, sometimes they’re smoking weed.
For every pound of garbage that the MCC pulls off a D.C. block, a gumwad of programmatic dysfunction marks its passing. Kids got stiffed on pay and had to get the snafu straightened out, a process that involved a great deal of back-and-forth between the employees and the city government. There’ve been allegations of assaults, thefts, and—that heinous crime of crimes that has enraged Americans since FDR’s Depression-era WPA—make-work work.
It’s a lot for highly taxed, unrepresented D.C. citizen to swallow. A $6 million boondoggle entrée with a appeteaser of maladministration? Eager to dig deeper, I launch a multiweek investigation of the MCC to answer two questions: 1) Does the MCC pay kids $7.25/hr to do nothing? 2) If it does, is that wrong?
“When will this article be published?” Derek Brown asks. The disgruntled manager of Ward 1’s Meridian Hill Park, one the MCC’s 20 sites, will face a shit storm if he goes on record complaining about his employers, but he sounds too fed up to worry about pleasing upper management.
“Aug. 20,” I reply.
“Great,” Brown says. “My last day is one day after that.” A 27-year-old native of San Diego, Calif., Brown returned from Togo—where he’d spent two years in the Peace Corps promoting soybean cultivation—to the American economic crisis, relocated to D.C. in search of a do-gooder job, applied to the MCC, and plunged down a curious rabbit hole: He’d left an AIDS-ravaged country that, according to a CIA Web site, held “its first relatively free and fair legislative elections in October 2007” to find himself treading water in a dysfunctional organization in America’s HIV-ravaged capital.
“We create something out of nothing to fill time,” Brown says of the MCC’s core mission. His complaints about the MCC, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE, the MCC’s parent bureaucracy), and the similarly acronymed Department of Employment Services (DOES, an avuncular bureaucracy that serves as the MCC’s HR department) include, but are not limited to, shorted pay, a lack of basic beautification materials (“like shears and brooms”), a lack of meaningful projects (“People see [team members] sitting around because they are!” Brown quips), poor publicity (any private citizen can propose a project to the MCC—most found out about it when the program distributed 100,000 paper doorhangers announcing the eco-friendly initiative), and crimes committed by team members while on the clock. Brown doesn’t have information about felonious malfeasance but promises to put me in touch with other site managers who might. Still, his frustration cuts through the static of my cell phone connection.
“I thought I would be a liaison between kids and people in the community,” Brown says. “My role is a glorified baby sitter.” When I ask Brown the obvious question—this program is flawed, everyone knows it is flawed, but isn’t it better than nothing?—he flinches, but not much.
“The kids that are in the program are staying out of trouble…at least during the day,” Brown concedes. “But what is the cost of this program? If the cost is really high, why was it so poorly run?”
My Deep Throat croaking, I contact the MCC directly to set up a site visit. And thus I stumble into the clutches of DDOE Director of Public Information Alan R. Heymann.
Heymann is friendly if guarded. He wants to know more about my story. We set up an interview with DOE Director George Hawkins. We set up a supervised site visit that I’m sure will be stage-managed, but officialdom must be afforded the opportunity to make its case. I neglect to take notes during our telephone call, figuring Heymann will pass me on to Hawkins, and I will never need to talk to him again.
Everybody’s wrong about something.
When I interview Hawkins the next day, I find him open about the MCC’s shortcomings but insistent that the program is a net positive for the community.
“If not all the kids are working as hard as they should be all the time, they are working harder than they would be otherwise,” Hawkins says. “We don’t accept the flaws in the program and intend to fix them. We don’t want make-work jobs…we want real jobs for real pay.” I bring up payroll problems and a lack of appropriate projects. Hawkins is unapologetic—this is the first year the MCC was run as a part of the Mayor’s 19,000-participant Summer Youth Employment Program, a gigantic workforce was hired in a short period of time, there’s associated “logistical uncertainty,” there’s attrition each week. In sum, the Fenty administration took on an enormous job and is doing the best that it can.
“There are lots of kids that are doing good work in this program,” Hawkins says. “The stories of those kids are always overshadowed by the ones that are creating trouble.”
What’s most disconcerting about my telephone interview with Hawkins isn’t anything the director confirms or denies, but the fact that it’s conducted on speakerphone in Alan Heymann’s presence. I hear Heymann breathing in the crackly silences between my questions and Hawkins’ answers, listening, waiting. I wonder why a routine interview with a department head must be conducted in the presence of his public information officer. If the MCC has nothing to hide, what is Alan Heymann worried about?
I drive to Margaret Murray Washington High School in the unit block of O Street NW for the MCC site visit Heymann has arranged. Heymann had balked at scheduling a visit the day before because of forecasted rain that, inconveniently, held off until this morning. The sky is overcast, pregnant with a thunderstorm. When I get out of my car and walk down O Street—home to the So Others Might Eat homeless outreach program, the block cries out for beautification—I face enough precipitation to make my visit difficult, but not enough to call it off.
Heymann and MCC Program Director Melissa McKnight meet me in front of MM Washington. They wear light blue MCC team leader shirts, a detail I find: 1) disingenuous—these are DDOE administrators, not kids at a summer job; 2) condescending to both me and program participants for the same reason; and 3) illustrative of the micromanaged site visit that follows. At MM Washington, I meet just about everybody Alan Heymann wants me to meet, including:
1) Charles Satterfield, DDOE energy program specialist. Satterfield had just finished a talk about “renewables” and “a solar powered backpack” when I arrived. (To those who fume that MCC team members pick up trash instead of learning about conservation: You are wrong. MCC participants regularly attend lectures about saving energy as well as staying in school, protecting themselves from STDs, and avoiding gangs. To those who fume that the MCC pays D.C. youth not to work but to attend lectures: Fume away.)
2) James Williams, MM Washington’s site manager. A middle-aged grad student at the University of the District of Columbia who lives two blocks from MM Washington, Williams reeks of credibility. There’s a trash weight quota—15 pounds per team, per sweep—at his site. He’s got a scale, even!
3) A posse of the brightest-eyed, bushiest-tailed MCC participants a public information director could dream of. They surround me with umbrellas, shielding me from both the elements and any negative impression of their program. One attends George Washington University, another Penn State; none are younger than 19. They gleefully surrender their names. They laugh off documented problems with their pay. They are bright, quotable (Q: “Why did you take this summer job?” A: “Starbucks wasn’t hiring.” Ha!), and flush with hope for the future (one team leader on managing difficult team members: “No kid needs to be let go”). If Heymann didn’t pre-select these kids, then the MCC really is turning out high-quality youth, and City Paper should leave it alone.
Exhausted by positive MCC vibes, I let my questions peter out. A harder rain begins to fall. MCC participants scatter, heading perhaps for home. (To those who fume that MCC participants don’t work in the rain: Fume away). I will not accompany the MCC on any sweep this day. I will not be able to have a private conversation with a random team member—maybe a dissatisfied team member, maybe an eloquent, critical, quotable team member—while this rain falls. Thus, I broach the idea with Heymann of a future, unaccompanied site visit.
“That’s not going to work,” Heymann says. He mounts the usual objections—the MCC employs minors, there are security risks, and did he mention the minors and the security risks? We make vague plans to schedule a future visit. He offers a one-page list of MCC sites and showcase projects: weeding at St. Elizabeths, beautification of the Shaw Skate Park, and (unbelievably, based on the MCC’s response time) Doreen Hodges’ Festiva-sized garden. I accept the list and walk back to my car, already plotting a guerrilla reporting campaign. All told, I’m at MM Washington for less than an hour. I do not enter the site. I do not talk to any program participants without Heymann peering over my shoulder. I leave, stuffed with all of the Fenty advertising I can stomach.
The next day, without Alan Heymann’s permission, I drive to an MCC site identified on the sheet he provided as “Former DC General Hospital.” The campus of this once-bustling facility is windswept and lonely. A plastic bag just like that one in American Beauty crackles by. The parking lot needs repaving. I’m on the banks of the Anacostia River in the shadow of D.C. Jail, but I’m reminded of the last checkpoint before Cambodia in Apocalypse Now. I park right in front of the door and wander the campus for 15 minutes, looking for some sign of the MCC.
A number of blue-shirted young women point me toward a door (in my rush to find MCC HQ, I do not interview these MCC team members, who are standing around doing nothing). I enter the site and wander around the deserted first floor. I call out, “Hello? Hello?” I get no reply. I exit the building, find another group of blue-shirted young ladies (also standing around doing nothing) who point me down a ramp, around a security gate, down a dusty path, around some overgrown shrubbery, and into what must have been the lobby of an obscure former D.C. General Hospital office. Here, in the guts of the former hospital, I find about 20 MCC participants—all boys—enduring a freeform lecture by two uniformed D.C. Department of Corrections officers. Topics include:
Education: “You’ve gotta pass your SATs.”
Sex: “Really, you’re all too young to be doing it.”
Religion: “Just believe in God. If you’re a Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist—doesn’t matter.”
Video games: “There’s more to life than a video game. Be the person who designs the video game.”
Criminal justice: “We’re open 24/7, 365 days a year. I’ve never seen the jail closed.”
Employment: “A job’s a job as long as it’s honest.”
Fascinated, I watch these correctional officers reach out to the MCC’s young men. Some listen. Some stare at the ground. One team leader wears earbuds. One team member texts.
Soon after the officers start talking about the perils of “the corner,” I am pulled aside by the site manager and asked who I am and what I am doing here. I identify myself. I offer a business card. Within seconds, she is on her cell phone. Within moments, a troubled program that can’t always pay its participants or find stuff for them to do has conveyed news of my unauthorized, random visit to one of 20 sites (“Certainly, Heymann can’t find you everywhere,” my editor says) to its director. The site manager hands me the phone.
“Hey, Justin,” McKnight says. “Does Alan know you’re out there?”
I play dumb so transparently—“Um…well…I don’t know…Mr. Heymann gave me this list of sites…”—that I’m shocked that I’m allowed to remain for the remainder of the Dept. of Corrections presentation. Shortly after its conclusion, I’m approached by a team leader who graciously throws me out of the building.
“I can’t take your notebook,” the team leader says (Is this really a possibility?), “but you can’t write about anything you’ve seen here.” (Is he serious?) I leave the building with the 20 or so male MCC participants with whom I have been prevented from speaking. We pass a number of female participants on their way into the building to receive the same lecture from the same correctional officers. (“They all seem like good kids,” says the august, thinly mustachioed Commander Terrance Wilson, who’s worked corrections in D.C. since 1985. “We should help keep ’em straight.”)
Irritated at my dismissal, I climb back into my car. I pull out of the parking lot, passing a few kids turning over soil in a flower bed. These kids are not blue-shirted MCC participants but members of Mayor Fenty’s Green Summer Jobs Corps, the MCC’s less-maligned, smaller sister program. If you can explain how or why these two programs exist side-by-side, you may wish to write a Washington City Paper cover story about it. Contact Erik Wemple, editor, at (202) 332-2100.
On Massachusetts Avenue right outside the hospital, I see a cluster of blue-shirted MCC kids leaving the hospital on foot. If they have an MCC-related destination, it’s unclear. If any are carrying bags or shears or garden supplies, I can’t see them. Once they are off the grounds, I toy with the prospect of following them or conducting a mass interview. Can Heymann somehow prevent every MCC participant from speaking to me? Has he installed nanorecorders in their retinas?
Then, two kids break off from the group. Like any good journalist or sexual predator, I rejoice. These kids are playing hooky! (This is unconfirmed.) Once they are a few blocks away from the main group, I pull over, jump out of my car, and bum-rush them at the intersection of 18th and D Streets SE. I identify myself. I thrust business cards upon them. I interrogate them.
“What are you guys doing?” I ask, whipping out a pen.
“We’re going to meet our team leader,” replies DeJaun Mitchell, 15. Whether true or false, this is absurd. Why have they broken off from the main group? Where could their team leader possibly be? Why do they carry no garbage bags, no clippers, no garden gloves?
“Do you like your summer job?” I ask.
“I feel good about picking trash up,” says Daqan Matthews, 14. Nervously eyeing this bald white man with forearm tattoos brandishing a reporter’s notebook, Mitchell and Matthews are less than forthcoming. (Did I expect two kids playing hooky to say, “Drat, you’ve caught us playing hooky?”) Our conversation grows stilted, then awkward, then excruciating. When the interview ends, we part ways, relieved. I climb back into my car. My phone rings. Alan Heymann is on the line.
“Justin!” Heymann exclaims. “I heard you visited an MCC site without my permission. This isn’t what we talked about.”
“No, I guess it isn’t,” I say. “I did see a great presentation by the Department of Corrections…”
“No employee of this agency—temporary or permanent—is allowed to speak on the record with reporters unless I’m present,” Heymann barks, Karl Rove–style. I contemplate reminding Heymann that the U.S. Constitution has a First Amendment. I consider pointing out that Heymann is holding DDOE “employees” DeJaun Mitchell and Daqan Matthews to the same standards as federal workers with security clearances who’ve signed non-disclosure agreements. I half-heartedly spar with him about my status as a security risk, (“Those Who Sacrifice Liberty for Security Deserve Neither,” quoth Benjamin Franklin) but the notion that my ninja-like investigative reporting endangers children is too ridiculous to seriously debate.
Heymann makes arrangements for another supervised site visit later that day at Benning Stoddert Recreation Center on East Capitol Street. I show up. I dutifully interview enthusiastic MCC participants while he watches and learn nothing new—possibly because of Heymann’s micromanagement, possibly because there isn’t more to learn. During the visit, Heymann and I remain civil. We make small talk. I learn that we’re almost the same age. I learn that he’s from Chicago. I learn that he rides a bike. Also, he’s no longer wearing a light-blue MCC team leader shirt. This is progress.
But, later that night, Heymann calls again. I’m at a wedding. I don’t answer. When I listen to his voice message, he says he’s learned of my attempts to contact DDOE union representatives—I’m desperately digging for information about MCC crime—and threatens to call my editor.
Three days before my deadline, I track down two former MCC site managers, both of whom have resigned from the program. I am optimistic about these interviews. One of the sources worked at what I’ve been told is a particularly problematic site. Perhaps there is muck to be raked.
“[The MCC’s] nothing more than managing a bunch of teenagers who had no place having a job in the first place,” says one site manager. “You have to imagine how many [team members] are bad apples. I’m not saying they don’t deserve a shot…[but we] can’t just have them walk around the city with their buddies all summer long.” He recounts the litany of MCC problems I’ve already heard about: pay problems, a lack of projects, missing supplies. He expresses outrage that public funds pay for lectures, basketball tournaments, and arts and crafts. “I thought it was an abomination that taxpayer money was being spent to turn [the MCC] into a camp,” he says. My second source echoes his concerns. Neither offers any novel muck.
I finish the interviews, frustrated. Without proffering anything new, these former MCC employees demand anonymity to talk about problems that Derek Brown, an active employee, has already bravely put on the record. They strike me as whiners (“I felt like I needed more support,” one says). They’re “former employees”—i.e., quitters. Who expects working with inner-city youth to be easy? Who expects a city that has struggled to keep its drinking water clean to run a
youth conservation program at all, let alone a perfect one? The MCC puts money in otherwise idle kids’ pockets. If the MCC is baby-sitting, so what?
Then, one day before my deadline, Alan Heymann calls. It’s a new day—he’s ready to talk. He wants to know what I know about MCC-related criminal complaints. “What we’re not interested in is seeing the person’s name in the paper,” Heymann says of the victim of an MCC-related crime. And so, we plunge down a curious rabbit hole: Alan Heymann thinks I know something I do not and, to spin what I write about it, will reveal information. But to learn about what I do not know, I must pretend to know that I already know it.
Adopting what I imagine to be an indifferent tone, I ask about assaults. Heymann says he will get back to me. He does, confirming that some MCC team members have been discharged for making threats. “You’re telling me something I already know,” I counter. In lieu of playing cat-and-mouse, I suggest that Heymann just tell me everything. Heymann says he will get back to me. When he calls back, he makes a three-part disclosure: 1) there have been 10 incidents of assault in the MCC this summer that 2) resulted in the discharge of 10 MCC team members and 3) the D.C. Police Department was involved in at least some of the cases. “I would point out—that’s 10 out of 4,100 participants,” Heymann says.
I get out my calculator. I do the math. After all our strategizing—my secretive search for sources, my guerrilla reporting, Heymann’s stage-managing and absurd access restrictions—this is the story: .24 percent of the MCC, a deeply flawed but not completely horrible summer-jobs program, is criminal. This, in the era of the $700-billion bailout. Bush’s rescue of Fannie Mae was at least .24 percent flawed. Obama’s restructuring of GM is at least .24 percent flawed. If the MCC is .24 percent flawed—or even if it was 2.4 percent or 24 percent flawed—it still provides some semblance of a home for at-risk kids in the dog days of summer. Should it be killed?
As I type up my final draft, I turn over Heymann’s business card. I see an inscription on the back that I had missed before. It’s a quote from Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, a long-deceased anti-pesticide crusader and proto-environmentalist. “Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life,” the card reads.
Before this article is published, I will throw Heymann’s business card into the street. Perhaps an MCC participant, serving a beautiful cause by mysterious means, will lean down to pick it up.