In years past, the People Issue has served as an excuse for the staff of Washington City Paper to bring together, on the page and in our offices, the individuals who interest us most. Organizing all the participants and making room for them in our tiny lobby while they waited to have their photos taken was not always easy, but the interactions between subjects and intimate conversations yielded great insight and camaraderie.
How, then, does an issue that depends on human interaction work during a global pandemic, when close contact with other people is discouraged? You get creative and hope for the best.
Chats that once took place in tiny rooms or across restaurant tables took place over the phone or on Zoom. The downtown office that we left in March was no longer a suitable photography studio, so we ventured into the great outdoors and created an exterior setup in a new wine bar’s backyard. Even steady rains couldn’t stop staff photographer Darrow Montgomery from drawing the best out of his subjects.
Despite the altered circumstances, the people you’ll meet in the following pages—government officials, musicians, artists, and caretakers of all varieties—still offer some humor, wisdom, and insight into this moment. We might not be able to be around one another right now, but we hope these conversations give you the feeling of a little human contact. —Caroline Jones
Elizabeth Acevedo’s books speak to people. From The Poet X to With the Fire on High to Clap When You Land, the poet and author crafts meaningful stories that feature characters who feel like familiar friends and family, who feel real. And she’s got many more stories to come. —Kayla Randall
What is your process for following a story idea?
Something I’ve been doing recently is keeping a process journal, because I realize that every project requires a different learning system and a different way of understanding. What I do know is that with the books and poetry, there tends to be an initial idea that makes me wonder. I think that all good story ideas have to start with wonder: “What would happen if? What’s their secret? Who loves them? Who do they disappoint?” Asking those kinds of questions, I think, is where the fodder is, it’s what drives me toward the human condition. Right now, I have a bunch of Post-its on a wall where I’m just writing questions and different story ideas and scenarios, and I don’t know if this is going to be a book or just a collection of Post-its.
Do you consciously think about how your books, poetry, and writing can contribute to helping younger readers unlearn harmful things?
I don’t think I imagine unlearning when I’m writing; I’m not like “OK, what’s the thing I’m targeting that I imagine folks are struggling with that maybe we can work through on the page.” I do think about unlearning in terms of, “I hope this young person hasn’t even learned the thing that I am trying to push back against on the page.” I think I make my characters braver than what I was because of what I’m unlearning now. I’m trying to be preemptive. I think we all have really strong women in our solar systems, but we may not always know how to see ourselves in them. I think reading lets us see those qualities a little bit sharper—like “Oh, I do that” or “I could do that.”
The beautiful thing about books is anyone can pick up a book and appreciate it. But do you feel like your work is for younger readers or anyone in particular when you’re writing?
I think I’m aware of the register that needs to be acceptable to teenagers. Because I’ve been specifically writing young adult, I’m just aware that they have to feel welcome and invited into these pages. There is the sense that adult literature can feel a little bit more difficult for some young people to grasp at the level of joy. Like, “Maybe we’ll analyze this in class with a teacher helping me, but I’m not going to read it necessarily on my own.” I would say some or most young people aren’t reading adult literature ahead of time. So I am thinking that I need this to be something that a young person can access. I was a former school teacher, I taught in Prince George’s County, I worked with eighth graders, I began writing fiction because I wanted to address the fact that my students weren’t seeing characters like them in their books. But I do know that [when] I write crossover novels that women, men, and non-binary folks of all ages come to these texts. I want to make sure that there are characters there for them too. I want to make sure that there’s enough for a lot of different people to find characters they can map onto. But I am writing young adult, and particularly if it’s a young woman, young Black woman or Afro-Latina woman, reading these books, I want there to be hope. For young people, they need images of themselves winning.
I’m working on an adult novel now, and it’s my first time trying to write a narrative that is tackling some more mature themes. I’m really enjoying it, it’s been nice to move in a different direction and bring in some of my more adult experiences. Right now, it’s just like 100 Post-its and 70 pages, but I’m hopeful.
Frank O. Agbro
The Mayor of Mount Pleasant
Mount Pleasant residents enjoy music and one another’s company, along with some semblance of normalcy, every Saturday thanks to Frank O. Agbro and his front porch. Agbro invites musicians and other creative types to his porch for what he’s dubbed “6 Feet Aparty.” Artists who would typically perform at any one of the city’s many music venues or bars had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic are now playing on the porch, including Granny and the Boys. Since the pandemic devastated D.C., he has welcomed children and their parents to his street on Saturday mornings for a puppet show, then invited the rest of the neighborhood in the late afternoons for an open mic.
Agbro is a musician, a DJ on WPFW, and the head doorman at the Mayflower Hotel. Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Agbro has lived with his family at his Mount Pleasant home since 1996. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
Did you start having performances on your front porch because other places weren’t working?
To speak candidly or frankly, there was a time when there used to be a thing called the Mount Pleasant Festival … They had this one promoter that would just bring his roster of people that we didn’t even know into the community. And the music did not reflect the taste of what I thought I knew [the community to be], and I think a lot of people [thought that], too. That’s why they no longer do it … We would do occasional porch things when we felt like it and had nothing to do … But then when the pandemic hit, that’s when we were supposed to do a Monday thing over at Marx Cafe and then we had to cancel that. Then it was like, what are we going to do? Okay, well, we are going to do the front porch thing. Now, that’s when things kind of got a little bit hairy because the first concert, naturally, everybody was panicked. Nobody knew what was going on and everybody was freaked out … I was kind of freaked out because I usually sit on my front porch … and I just sit and listen to music and just kind of watch things. And I see people walking around with their heads down and I see parents or babysitters with strollers just going around the block, nothing to do. And that really spoke to me … Right now, we don’t have anything. The bars are closed. There’s no entertainment anywhere. Everything was like a cemetery and it didn’t feel right. And I was like … What can I do?
Has everyone in the community been supportive of this?
Most people in the community, especially on my block. Actually, I want to give a shoutout to my neighbors, the Kilbourne Place neighbors. They are the best. They understood what I was doing and they’ve been very supportive, most of them.
Have people called the police?
People have called the police. When Granny and the Boys were playing, seven police officers showed up, but they watched. They enjoyed the music and they left. Because I do know the rules in terms of music, because I was an ANC commissioner. I was the chair of the ANC of Mount Pleasant. I get comments from police officers saying thank you for what you do. Because they know … People playing music, having a good time, practicing safe distance. Just because one person or two people don’t like it—this is the time where we all have to come together and sacrifice something. I’m sacrificing my time and energy. I’m not making money doing this. But it’s something that we need. We are sacrificing something for hopefully a better future, and so we can all get through this together. I think this is why we find ourselves where we are right now, because a lot of us weren’t practicing that before—everyone’s going about their own business, having their headphones on, being closed [off]. But now we all have to pay attention to something because we’re all vulnerable.
When does this end?
I like to do things one day at a time. Because I think when the time comes, I’ll know what to do. The only thing I can foresee is the weather conditions and stuff. People are already asking me, “Frank, what are we going to do?” My brother already donated an outdoor heater and we’re gonna see how that works.
The Shot Caller
Raman Santra, better known to D.C. residents as “Barred in DC,” entered the blogosphere in March 2013. The blog’s name plays off his day job as a lawyer and his passion for local bar culture. Initially, Santra sought to review the bars he visited, but he found breaking news about restaurant openings by sleuthing government websites more fulfilling. In recent years, he gained traction on Twitter and pivoted to using the platform to conduct clever polls, disseminate information, source recommendations on specific cuisines, and even make policy recommendations to the mayor’s office. He now has close to 15,000 Twitter followers, branded koozies, and a fair share of scoops. —Laura Hayes
If there was no pandemic, where would we find you having a drink?
A bar I’ve never been to before, drinking a beer I’ve never had before.
Why do you love bars?
You can meet people that you’d never meet walking down the street and connect with people who have been here longer or have been in different situations. D.C., even though people who live here try to compare it to New York or Chicago, has an amazing bar scene. There’s such a diversity of bars, clubs, cocktail bars, dive bars, and neighborhood spots that serve great food. The stereotype about D.C. is people really care about their jobs. But they also have so many great memories of what they do off the clock. That’s why it’s so important for bars to make it through this crisis.
What needs to happen for bars to see the other side of the pandemic?
I’ve been trying to promote how important bars and restaurants are to D.C. That’s why we live in the city—so we can get to them quickly. The biggest bummer is that they had to close and be restricted to protect us all. The real thing we need is monetary assistance indirectly by backing up landlords or banks, but it does feel hopeless to a lot of people and somewhat to me. D.C. doesn’t have that kind of money. We have to hope that Congress provides some substantial benefits.
Tell me the best drinking neighborhood in D.C.
I live off H Street NE right now, so I’m biased. But I did a poll. The 1300 block of H Street NE is the best bar block in D.C.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from a poll?
There’s been a debate whether to tip pre- or post-tax. Most people tip post-tax. That’s one of the areas where people’s behavior changes when they see some of these results.
What is the role of blogs like yours in the future of food journalism?
There’s a huge role for it. I think there’s a little bit of unfair coverage in newspapers and magazines. There’s some reliance on public relations. That’s just the nature of the beast. Blog and Instagram account Feed The Malik is a great example of a different perspective on the scene that’s complimentary. It won’t replace print, but it fills in the gaps of smaller spots that are more word-of-mouth and in Black and immigrant communities. [Bloggers] are able to be more nimble.
You like referring to yourself as a fake journalist, but you’ve done real reporting. Has your stance changed?
I still have to ask people what “on the record” and “on background” mean. I try to ask for comment on things, but I’ll just post stuff if I get good information. I’m a citizens’ journalist. I can get there. I do get cited a lot like I’m a real journalist. I’ll take that. I like the fake journalist name.
Since September 2019, Sarah Gordon has been the curator of D.C.’s Art Bank—the District’s collection of nearly 3,000 works from a wide range of local artists. The Art Bank isn’t her only responsibility at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, though, and it’s not her first time working for a local institution. Over the last 20 years, she’s worked with the National Museum for Women in the Arts, the National Gallery of Art, Dumbarton Oaks, the General Services Administration, the Art Museum of the Americas, Photoworks at Glen Echo Park, and the American University Museum. —Emma Sarappo
Tell me about your current position as curator at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
The first project I oversee is the Art Bank, D.C.’s collection of fine art. It started in 1986 and now has almost 3,000 works. Once we acquire works, they go out on loan to D.C. government buildings. The second bucket has to do with the galleries in our building. In those galleries, we do a few things. One is that we have a curatorial grant, and we give it to D.C.-based curators to install exhibitions in that space. Then we exhibit the Art Bank finalists, and we also exhibit works from the finalists for the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program, which is another visual art grant that we have. The third bucket is public art projects. These are commissioned or paneled projects, again through a grant process, where we place art installations in public spaces.
What’s your strategy for adding to the Art Bank?
Generally, we try to acquire work that is from the artist’s current practice, that’s sort of a snapshot of what artists are doing in this region at a particular moment. There is room also for acquiring work that is historically significant to the story of D.C. art, so occasionally we’ll do that. We really do want it to be representative of the city. We collect from all eight wards as well as the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. We have work from native Washingtonians, we have work from artists who are international and have lived here for a short time, we have work in all different media, all different styles. There are certain threads you can see through the collection. We have an area of the e-museum that’s images of Washington. I think you can see the influence of some major movements like the Washington Color School, which artists in this region continue to respond to. I’ve had conversations with artists recently about the relationship between D.C. and the Harlem Renaissance, and that’s something interesting to pull out from the collection.
What is the e-museum’s role, especially during the pandemic?
We are trying to bring more attention to it, to the artists, to how you can access it. We have actually seen the number of visits to the e-museum rise pretty drastically in the last six months or so. The thing that’s so unique about this collection is that it’s dispersed across the whole city. Even if you did spend a lot of time in municipal buildings, you’d have to go to so many different buildings to get the fullness of the collection. So having that online resource, where you can search by date or you can search by artist or you can just scroll through, it allows you to have a bigger understanding of the fullness of the collection.
What is your relationship with the D.C. arts scene?
I’ve learned such a great amount about the local arts scene in the last year. It has been so wonderful to get to know so many artists who are working here and what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. My academic study was based in the 19th century and based in different places that weren’t where I lived, so it really has been an honor, and I look forward to even more. Being able to do this work with our local arts community, where we can give funding to artists rather than what I was doing for a long time, applying for funding, it’s an honor to be able to do this work.
The District’s Moral Compass
Rochelle Ford is the Office of Government Ethics’ third director. The self-described ethics nerd lives and gardens in Truxton Circle with her husband and kids. In her previous jobs, she advised senators and U.S. attorneys general on ethics rules. She loves to read short stories and hopes, maybe one day, to write a novel. —Mitch Ryals
The Office of Government Ethics is a relatively new agency in D.C. and has faced criticism in the past for lacking real teeth. How do you address those concerns?
To the degree the public lacks trust in the conduct or impartiality or integrity of public officials and employees of the District of Columbia, it’s our job to improve that image.
This agency has not had a chance to have a robust educational program. We should be partnering with every one of the District’s agencies to know what their risks are. That’s how you cultivate an ethical culture. Make sure, from bottom to top, we’re on the same page with agency directors and make sure the managers are able to assess and identify things before
What ethics reforms are necessary in the District?
I think there needs to be some clarifying with respect to outside employment for all employees, as to what the limits are.
[And] our lobbyist laws are confusing. We get tons of complaints and feedback every year from lobbyists, and they’re completely valid. Our penalties for lobbying are sort of a joke. Lobbyists tend to get fined for administrative
Investigations into former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans lingered for years. He’s now agreed to settlements in two cases. Are you satisfied with the outcomes?
I am satisfied overall. I didn’t negotiate the first settlement that I think sort of gives a problematic precedent. I’m going to have to go forward and fix that. He used what’s known in the criminal world as an Alford plea, where he says, “I neither admit nor deny that I sent these emails, but if I did, it was wrong,” and that’s antithetical to the point of agreeing to a negotiated disposition.
I wanted to be able to assure the District residents that, yes, his behavior was completely unethical. I think [the second settlement] was the largest fine levied by the agency. And hopefully we can move on. I learned a lot, especially watching Mr. Evans and his response to [the settlement].
What do you mean?
I always think about policy and about work and not about spin. And so that’s just a lesson in spin for me. But District residents can look at that conduct and make their own decision.
Talk about your previous experience. You worked for the law firm WilmerHale for nine years and left to work for the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and then the Department of Justice.
I started at WilmerHale, where I did white collar work, the other side of the table from what I do now, which helps in identifying why there’s misconduct or a lack of controls and how to fix it.
At the Senate ethics committee, which was nonpartisan, we worked across the spectrum of people who you might not agree with politically, but seeing common purpose is helpful in terms of being objective.
You hear the jokes about “government ethics, huh huh huh, you must be busy,” but most people want to do the right thing. The rules are not always clear to people. That’s the takeaway from that job. Others don’t want to do the right thing, and in that case, leadership matters.
At the DOJ, I advised [former] Attorneys General [Jeff] Sessions and Loretta Lynch, and that’s where I learned how important it is to understand how government operates. It helps identify where there might be problems, foresees issues before they come up, and helps train employees. I left because I had concerns about partisan impact, political impact on
the department. I could not sleep at night working for DOJ the way things are now.
I hope my mark [in the District] will be a culture in which employees feel they can come to us, that incentivizes good behavior, it provides incentives for employees to be proactively
Kenilworth Katrina is a rapper, performer, and community organizer. She creates socially conscious music that you can dance to, and she possesses a magnetic personality that makes everyone—even strangers—comfortable in her presence. Katrina is also an accomplished music producer, and through her production company KK On The Beat, she has crafted tracks for other artists and movie soundtracks. —Sidney Thomas
You’ve spearheaded several anti-violence projects. Why is this cause so important to you?
Over the years, I have lost count of all the friends I’ve lost due to violence. I’ve always wanted to do something about it. I wanted to bring rappers from all over the city together for a positive movement.
How have you adjusted professionally to the pandemic?
I’m still busy. I’m still recording and still shooting videos. I just performed at a live show a few weeks ago with hip-hop star Rah Digga. I learned how to read music. I’m also hosting and producing a game show called “See How Much U Know,” which is a music trivia competition similar to Family Feud. The city has lost numerous performances because of the pandemic, so I’m working with other local musicians to find alternate venues or find other ways to showcase our talent.
You shot the video for your song “Nobody Knows” at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, even sitting on the altar at one point. How did you get a permit to film there?
We didn’t have a permit. I knew they probably wouldn’t give me one, so I just went in there and took a risk. I’m a creative person. Once I get the idea and visualize the concept for a video, I always figure out a way to make it happen.
What female artists motivated you to become a musician?
Lauryn Hill is the absolute GOAT! Roxanne Shante is another great, and she was in my video “Shante.” Nonchalant, one of the first female D.C. rappers, was also very influential. There are so many incredible women in the industry, Lalah Hathaway, Joss Stone, Conya Doss, Joan Jett, Sampa the Great, I can go on all day.
In the 40-year history of hip-hop, there are almost no instances of a major label committing any significant marketing or promotional push to an openly LGBTQ artist. Why do you think hip-hop is so behind other genres in terms of accepting gay artists?
I used to feel LGBTQ artists were not accepted in hip-hop. But the culture has evolved drastically. Young M.A. came out as openly gay. Billy Porter is not a rapper, but he has made a significant impact on the entertainment industry. As a lesbian, I feel accepted and that people are listening to the music first before focusing on my sexual orientation. Artists like us are breaking down barriers.
“She Said” is a really personal song.
It was inspired by my mother, which is why I had her and my sister April in the video. The song was inspired by my family. My mother and sister have encouraged and supported me from day one. Whenever I get discouraged in my career, I listen to “She Said,” and it reminds me that dreams still come true and to keep going like my mother said. Everyone loves that song.
Seema Gajwani is the special counsel for juvenile justice reform and chief of the restorative justice section in D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General. In some cases, instead of charging juveniles with a crime, the OAG will use restorative justice, a program where facilitators moderate a discussion between young people accused of crimes and their victims. The goal is give both sides a better understanding of each other, find a resolution, and keep it from happening again. The program offers juveniles an opportunity to avoid a criminal record. —Mitch Ryals
Explain the restorative justice model—where it comes from and how it’s working in D.C.
Restorative justice is kind of an ancient practice that was developed by indiginous cultures in Africa and Native American tribes and in New Zealand, by the Maori people.
Restorative justice offers young people charged with crimes an opportunity to take responsibility. The young person has to be willing to look at the person they hurt and tell them what they did and then answer their questions and hear how badly they were impacted by that.
It gives victims of crime the chance to have a say in what happens to the person who committed the crime. Really, we’re looking to have children learn from their mistakes and give victims of crime an opportunity to gain healing and closure. And then come up with things they can do to make it right.
The restorative justice program is victim driven, meaning victims of crime must agree to participate. Otherwise, it’s not an option. Are you concerned about potential inequities in allowing the victim to make such an important determination in how a criminal charge is adjudicated?
It’s a difficult part of this model. We do have situations where we allow a victim to have a surrogate, their family or somebody else, to sit in for them. But the purpose of restorative justice is in part to have young people build empathy and consequential thinking, so the dialogue with the person they hurt is really important. It’s not something we can do without victims’ willingness to participate.
You are now about three years into the restorative justice program. What has surprised you in that time, and how has the program evolved?
I think what surprised me is that we can do it. We’ve now facilitated 150 to 160 conferences that have gone well. Of those, only seven or eight have had to be returned to a prosecutor because they broke down or the young person was not compliant with what they needed to do. [In] early internal data, we’re seeing a reduction in recidivism.
How do you anticipate the program evolving?
I think the next frontier is really testing out if restorative justice can be applied for more serious offenses. So we’re going to be partnering with some outside researchers to do a rigorous evaluation of restorative justice and its use on more serious violent crime—cases where persons have been burglarized or stabbed. We’ve now taken some firearm offenses, [which is new].
You’ve worked on both sides of the courtroom, as a public defender and now in a prosecutor’s office, though in a nontraditional role. Can you give some insights into the system?
The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced that our adversarial justice system is really badly suited for most cases. Where a young person or a defendant is willing to take responsibility, the adversarial system is actually really bad at helping that person change their behavior.
I remember having clients [as a public defender] who from the very beginning are like, “I’m so sorry, I totally shouldn’t have done this.” But there’s no place for them to say that in court except three months later when a judge or prosecutor reads out the offense from the police report and the judge turns to a young person and says, “Did you do this?” And the lawyer whispers in the kid’s ear and says, “Say yes,” and they say “Yes.”
That doesn’t feel like accountability, and it certainly doesn’t feel like justice to the victim. The system is not well suited to the things in real life and human behavior that promote behavior change, although it is very well suited for those who want to go to trial and test the evidence.
Andrew T. Trueblood
The Man with a Plan
To complete his master’s degree in city planning from MIT, Andrew Trueblood wrote his thesis in 2009 about the District’s unique, historic Height Act. “I never thought I ever would be in a place to think about it in reality,” he says. Now, between long bike rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway and endless platters of nachos in his Southeast neighborhood, the 37-year-old stands at the crossroads of D.C.’s physical future. As the director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, he is the point person on the politically sensitive effort to update the citywide Comprehensive Plan that’s currently before the D.C. Council. —Tom Sherwood
So many millennial guys have beards. When did you grow your beard?
I grew my beard in the winter of 2012. It’s funny you ask. I would not feel comfortable saying this two years ago, but I will say it now. When I came to [the] D.C. [government], I was 30, exactly 30. And I felt completely too young. Someone made a joke, “Just grow a beard.” That’s what I tried. And I kept it.
How did you go from a Las Vegas suburban high school to Princeton and your first job with the DC Housing Authority?
My dad’s an architect. My mom [ran] the Boys and Girls Club of Henderson. In some way, my career is a melding of the two, the built environment but also social purpose. I wanted to go to college on the East Coast. I took a public interest fellowship job straight from Princeton with the DC Housing Authority.
You also worked for the U.S. Treasury and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before joining the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development in 2013. Mayor Bowser named you head of planning two years ago. The Comp Plan update is a defining moment in your career.
I love my job. I get to think about the big picture, a chance to step back from everyday problems—is the trash picked up?—to think about what will happen in a few years, a generation. It’s incumbent upon us to update [the Comp Plan] for racial equity, for resilience, housing certainly.
Is there a thought about what you might do next?
I don’t know.
You’re looking ahead for the city, but not for yourself?
I’m not going to lie. It would be disingenuous to say I’m not thinking about what that could be. It’s just not like I have explicit or clear plans.
A friend of yours says, “When he works, he works,” but the mild-mannered public person at hundreds of community meetings has a “real personality.” Plus, you’re a nachos freak and coffee snob.
That’s one of the nice things about cycling, it allows me to eat as many nachos as I want. I love Las Placitas. It has some of my favorite nachos. I love a pot of Folgers as much as I do a single origin, pour over coffee from Guatemala. So I don’t know that I am a coffee snob.
On a casual boat outing in September, you wound up in the midst of that ‘Trumptilla’ of boats in the Washington Channel. A friend says every word from you was a cuss word.
There may have been a lot of anxiety. Being surrounded in the water by a bunch of Trumptillas, you know, wasn’t the most comfortable. If I go out on the water, I want peace, serenity.
The Heart of the Firehouse
Jonathan Tate followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the District’s fire service eight years ago. Recognizing that heart disease is the leading cause of death among firefighters, the D.C. firefighter and EMT launched Food on the Stove, a nonprofit that helps his colleagues live longer, healthier lives. Through Food on the Stove, Tate enlists experts to coach firefighters on improving their diet and exercise routines and supplies them with healthy meal kits on Friday nights. He runs the three-year-old organization with help from his brother, wife, and board members. —Laura Hayes
Why does heart disease account for 44 percent of firefighter deaths?
When you sign up to be a firefighter, you can’t control sleep deprivation. Last year, we had 230,000 calls and we work 24-hour shifts. There are always calls coming in. That can affect your health. You sign up to go into burning buildings, climb flights of stairs, and adrenaline runs through you when you’re awakened from sleep very quickly. Your heart is always racing.
We cook all three meals while at work. It’s a lot of good meals, but not good for you. We haven’t been health conscious. And the stress of the job—dealing with some of the things we see on a day-to-day basis—can not only affect your mental health, but your physical health too.
Why did you start Food on the Stove?
My father worked for D.C. Fire and EMS for 32 years and retired as the deputy fire chief. The life expectancy for a firefighter is 10 to 15 years less than any other employee in America. My father died nine years after he retired. He had multiple heart attacks, but ended up passing away from cancer. When I saw that, I thought, “I want to do something about it.” Food on the Stove is a double entendre. It’s also the number one way that structure fires start. It’s a phrase firefighters hear all the time. I said, “Let’s take that phrase and get firefighters to pay more attention to the food on their stove, which is what’s really killing people.”
How does Food on the Stove seek to solve that problem?
Heard of Blue Apron? We started a free meal delivery service specifically for the fire service called Farm to Firehouse. We get locally sourced, healthy food for firefighters, and we package it at Union Market and deliver it to five or six firehouses every Friday. My board member, Fiona Lewis, uses District Fishwife to box our meals up. She doesn’t charge a lot, but we pay her to make the sauces and marinades. She’s been a big help to Food on the Stove.
[The end of October was] our 26th week doing it. Our first recipe was Peruvian chicken with roasted sweet potatoes and coleslaw. It’s a 640-calorie meal. We give them the recipe and firefighters make it. Through donations, we’ve fed over 2,000 firefighters so far. We’re serving those who serve us. We also do nutrition classes, cooking classes, and cooking demos, but they’ve slowed down due to COVID.
What are your future plans for Food on the Stove?
Our big goal is to purchase an old, vacant firehouse at 1338 Park Road NW. My father would work in that firehouse during the MLK riots. We’d like to purchase it to create a commercial kitchen and food pantry.
Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson
During most of 2018, bounce beat promoter and sometimes rapper Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson emceed nightly Kremlin Annex anti-Trump protests outside the White House. He went on to found the Long Live GoGo movement, dedicated to cultural sustainability and mobilization. Since then, the Silver Spring native has organized multiple marches and rallies under his Moechella brand, taking on various social justice issues including statehood, gun violence, police brutality, and the school-to-prison pipeline. —Alona Wartofsky
How do you connect the dots between promoting bounce beat and political activism?
Organizing in go-go and politics have a lot in common: A lot of PR, a lot of dealing with people and understanding how they work, and always finding the middle ground, that compromise that will make everyone happy and comfortable enough to
But also, everything is politics. You have to understand who works with who, who doesn’t work with each other, and their priorities—what really grinds their gears and gets them going. You need to understand that to be able to navigate through the different personnel you have to work with to get these rallies done.
What have you achieved in the past couple of years for the community?
I think that we have successfully given people the hope that their voice will be heard and that they can be the change in their own communities. I think our work has also inspired new activists to lift their voices as well. We have also started to change the stigma of the go-go community from people perceiving the go-go [scene] as a place that is potentially violent. Now people look at go-go as a place of unity, a place of true culture and community.
With everything you have achieved so far, what is your proudest moment?
Definitely the birth of Moechella last year, especially after the third Moechella that Backyard [Band] played at in May outside the Reeves Center. I felt like that was very significant because it made people realize that it isn’t a moment, it is a movement. Also, being invited to be a part of the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, that means people have been paying attention. And go-go becoming the official music of the city, that showed that people were giving it the respect that it had always deserved. Them allotting the $3 million for the budget for go-go definitely shows they are looking to give go-go a chance within policy.
What was your favorite moment from White House Kremlin Annex protests?
The night that the attorney general Rod Rosenstein stepped down. That was the first time I realized how powerful music was to the protest. The electricity of that night, the amount of people that were out there and how receptive they were to the musical component of the messaging, that was the inspiration for what we’re doing now, using go-go music to do the same in my community.
What are your favorite snacks?
Caesar Snapea Crisps, mango kombucha, and pepperoncini Kettle Chips. And the palak chaat at Rasika? I’m telling you …
Are you still running for mayor? Do you have political aspirations?
We’ll see. Nothing is impossible. But still, me for mayor 2022, for sure.
The Mayor’s Right Hand
John Falcicchio is Mayor Muriel Bower’s chief of staff and her appointed Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Originally from Jersey City, New Jersey, he started his career in District politics raising money for Mayor Adrian Fenty’s campaign. He lives in Mount Vernon Triangle. —Mitch Ryals
You rose through the ranks from Fenty’s campaign and then to Bowser’s administration. What have you learned and how has your thinking or approach to your job changed?
This is something I talk to young people about who are starting in politics or District government: Always make yourself indispensable. Do whatever is needed in order to get the job done. I like to throw myself into the work, so I work hard, and I work long, and I think that effort is something they both realized, and have given me more and more responsibilities.
You left D.C. for a while after Fenty lost to Vince Gray. Why did you come back to work for Bowser?
In August 2010, one of my former roommates was murdered in D.C. His name is Neil Godleski, [and he was] killed by [a teenager], who was in the care of our Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Neil happened to be passing by on his bicycle heading home from work, and the young man pulled out the gun and shot him.
This is also somebody who was in the care of the District who had such a disregard for life. I didn’t have the chance to continue to work in D.C. because Mayor Fenty lost the election, but it was always something [I wanted] to [do], come back and work on all the issues that we worked on to improve the lives and outcomes for young people.
Why do they call you Johnny Business?
This is actually terrible. It’s a nickname I gave myself. When I was working for Fenty, he had endorsed [former Democratic presidential candidate] Howard Dean, and before the Iowa primaries, I asked him if I could take some time to go to Iowa to help organize for the caucus. I remember some colleagues were going out to grab a drink on a Saturday evening or something, and they said, “C’mon let’s go out,” and I told them, “No, I’m all business.” And they were teasing me a little about it, and they’re like “Oh, you’re all business? Alright, Mr. Business.” And I was like “Yeah, just call me Johnny Business.”
You’re Bowser’s chief of staff and a deputy mayor. Chief of staff is an inherently political role, and a deputy mayor should be making decisions independent of politics, right? How do you balance those things?
The deputy mayor role, to your point, does look a little bit more internal, and the chief of staff role is a little more external looking. It’s different in those ways, but overall, the benefit of having someone do both roles is for DMPED, a lot of the decisions come down to “What would the mayor want to do?” And this removes a layer in that decision-making and helps them be more efficient.
What is your greatest accomplishment during your career in D.C.?
One of the things I’m most proud of is that we were able to pass the $15 minimum wage. D.C. was one of the first jurisdictions in the country [to do so], and we did it by engaging a lot of stakeholders. At the end of the day, not everybody will be happy with the outcome, but it does help people and it does help families across the District.
You’ve been in District government for many years. What will you do after life in politics?
I haven’t thought that far. What is also a question to be answered is how much longer the mayor would like to serve. After we get through this election, I think the mayor has to make a big decision about whether she runs again.
I don’t know what’s next, but I’d like to continue to serve as long as the mayor would like me to. I know I’d be in D.C., but I haven’t planned that far because I’ve been so focused on the work at hand.
The Outdoors Activist
Brittany Leavitt tries not to put labels on the things she does, but if she had to, she would call herself a “community dreamer.” By day, the Hyattsville resident is an educator for the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. When she’s not teaching 2- and 3-year-olds, Leavitt, 31, focuses on making climbing and the outdoors a more diverse and inclusive space for the BIPOC community. She is an outdoor instructor, the regional director of Brown Girls Climb, and the D.C. leader of Outdoor Afro, and she recently joined the board of directors for the American Mountain Guide Association. —Kelyn Soong
What motivates you to do so much in this community?
It’s funny, no one’s ever asked me this question before. But the amount of work that I do is a lot of work, but it brings me joy, because not only am I supporting folks who are trying to get in this space … I’m also still trying to fight for my voice to be heard as well. Being able to watch folks ask or find ways to support their own communities and their own areas across the country is really awesome and meaningful. I learn so much from everyone else, too. I don’t have all the answers, but I always go and learn from the different folks in my own community space and do a lot of unlearning as well. So what keeps me going is just being able to see the joy that everyone is bringing together and the sport that we create with each other in this space.
You’ve faced racism and microaggressions in these spaces. Has that improved over time?
It depends on where I’m talking or who I’m talking with. Yes and no. I think right now, everyone is kind of scrambling to try to support our community. But over time, it’s still an ongoing battle and conversation. Even though I’m in this space and people know my name, I still have to list out all the credentials in order to be seen as like, OK, she does have a voice in this spot, or OK, she does have a position in this space. So sometimes it’s a great thing and then imposter syndrome hits, because I get questioned or tested to see if I’m even supposed to be in this space. So it’s very wishy-washy. Especially being a Black woman, and being a Black woman climber, that’s kind of like being in space where it’s very heavily male-dominated when it comes to like boardrooms and behind the scenes stuff. I have to have my website out and ready sometimes to be like, “Yep, this is what I do,” in order to be seen.
What do you feel you’re fighting or advocating for? What are your main missions?
My main mission is to continue to not only share our stories and take up space, but also share the joys that we cultivate in these spaces. Oftentimes, folks want to hear about the hardships and the traumas that we’ve gone through connecting to the outdoors, but I really want folks to understand that we also have joys and we’ve also created defeats, and we also have redefined what outdoorsy means. And it doesn’t just fit in one little box. Like when you say outdoors, oftentimes folks think you wear plaid and khaki, and you have a backpack, and things like that. And some folks don’t even have that. They wear their Jordans or their sandals and [they’re] kind of reshaping the idea that it doesn’t fit a mold.
Maria Gomez is the founder, president, and CEO of Mary’s Center, a community health center with several locations around the city that welcome everyone and anyone. In just over 30 years, Gomez has turned Mary’s Center from a freestanding clinic that served 200 people with an operating budget of $250,000 to a health care system that serves nearly 50,000 people with an operating budget of $61 million. The mayor recently invited Gomez to be on her ReOpen DC taskforce and chair its health committee. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
How did you get involved in this line of work? Was your emphasis on serving the immigrant community because you are an immigrant yourself?
The health catastrophe in the mid-’80s, with immigrants fleeing the civil war [in El Salvador], was devastating. I had a great job in a hospital. I had great hours. But I couldn’t sit back and watch our community go through all the suffering … People couldn’t find health care. They couldn’t find somebody who spoke Spanish. Their children were being born at home because they couldn’t find a provider. I thought, “God, I had a great fortune of getting to this country myself as a teen.” My mom was able to flee Colombia. We were poor and there was no way that I was going to get a decent education in Colombia. It’s hard to go beyond a certain grade in school if you are not connected, at least back when I was growing up over there … I know this sounds really hokey, because it’s been used a million times, but I really needed to pay it forward … I was in the last class that graduated as Western High School [now Duke Ellington School of the Arts] … I had the great fortune of attending Georgetown Nursing School … Not even in one generation to go from having literally nothing and going to bed hungry many times in Colombia to having this extraordinary education. I couldn’t sit back and just watch the community unfold and go through the same thing I went through when I first got here. So I really envisioned a program that was literally an oasis for pregnant women and their children. That was really what I wanted to do—to have a comprehensive program where pregnant women found joy in carrying
Why is it called Mary’s Center?
We got the initial funding from the city. This was under [former mayor] Marion Barry, who, in many ways, was an extraordinary doer. He got things done. He has his reputation, but we owe him [for] the opening of our doors. It was the ’80s, and it was a different time. And he said, “Look, we’ll give you the initial funding, but we don’t want you to name anything ethnic or anything religious.” This is a time when there were so many needs in the city, and giving $250,000 dollars to an immigrant group was not going to be the most popular thing. But he stuck his neck out and just said don’t be so obvious … We started with pregnant women, but the only hospital that would deliver our patients was Providence Hospital, which no longer exists. The hospital at that time was run by a nun. And the nun said “We will help you, but you have to name the center something religious.” … We were torn between the hospital who wanted something religious as a name and the city who said nothing religious … And I was like, OK, what do we do? We have people who are in need and we’re not going to be established just because we can’t come to a consensus about a name. I was very upset about that … and then, by some divine intervention, I don’t really know … I just said, look, why don’t we name it Mary? For the hospital, it can be Mary, mother of God, and for the city, it can be just Mary, whoever.
Where do you find your strength?
It is hard. We have an extraordinary, extraordinary group of staff members. One is better than the next. They just work so hard. They work relentlessly. They care about what they do. They stick around even when times are hard. They know how to help me think differently, and think creatively, and think sustainably … And my office is downstairs from where patients are seen and I see those families. It’s just—my life is great compared to theirs. That’s where I get my strength. Lastly, I have an extraordinary family that is very supportive and allows me to spend the time to do this, because it is 24/7.
The Community Advocate
Natacia Knapper always seems to be organizing. In a year when D.C. reckoned with anti-Black racism and police brutality, it comes as no surprise. Knapper works with a lot of organizations, including Stop Police Terror Project DC and the Ward 1 Mutual Aid Network. In each advocacy space, she learns more about organizing people and makes connections between the causes she’s fighting for. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
How did you get involved in the mutual aid network when your work is typically in police accountability? Why did you gravitate to that?
To me, you can’t really separate police accountability and re-envisioning safety. Like those have to be the same … In my personal capacity, I have more of an abolitionist theory around policing, but regardless of whether you’re there or not, in terms of abolition, the truth of the matter is police cannot be equipped to really address every area of safety. And if we’re telling people to not engage in that system, we have to have an alternative to that. Mutual aid to me feels like such a natural, real step in showing community that there is a way to to support each other and take care of each other without necessarily needing to really engage and be reliant on the state. And like we have a duty to each other honestly, to keep each other safe and to take care of each other as a community. That’s what it means to be in community. So for me, mutual aid is just such a natural step in that direction, because the whole premise and philosophy around mutual aid is taking care of each other, checking in with each other, pulling our collective resources.
What has activism this year taught you about yourself? About people?
It’s been interesting. I think that in a lot of ways I have felt more energized around organizing than I have maybe ever felt before, because people are more engaged than I’ve ever seen them, for this sustained amount of time. And it doesn’t feel like it’s dying down … On a personal level, it’s also kind of taught me [to give] each other and yourself grace. I think that’s actually been sort of like the hugest take away I’ve actually had this year. Because we are living through something that we have never had to live through before, or at least many of us … I think that the reason why the uprising happened in the way that it did, I think is an extension of a lot of people’s eyes being open through this pandemic and understanding the ways—to be frank—our government has been ill-suited at managing and really taking care of people. My point in saying all of that is we are going through a very unique point in time, even though none of these issues are new. I think the way in which we have been confronted with them is new. And we’re all sort of figuring out what it looks like to really start investing in building this new world. And that is going to come with making some mistakes and not necessarily always knowing what the next step is and just being really OK with that. And not being afraid of making those mistakes and learning from them and not letting those things paralyze us into not making the changes we know we need.