Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Natalie Hopkinson apparently wasn’t acting right, so now she might not get to serve on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities anymore. The Howard University professor and co-founder of the #DontMuteDC movement has been waiting since May for a hearing on her renomination to the commission, which manages a nearly $40 million budget. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has the exclusive authority to schedule such a hearing. And he’s refusing to do so.

In the six months that Hopkinson has been waiting, she hasn’t been shy about calling bullshit.

She and Mendelson have traded blows in government documents, news articles, and Medium posts. Mendelson has referred to a “mess” within the commission, and though he hasn’t called out Hopkinson by name, he has noted that the problems he sees seemed to show up right around the time she joined the commission.  “The problem is more likely about personalities than substantive issues,” Mendelson declared in a June report on the confirmation of DCCAH Chair Reggie Van Lee.

The “mess” was obvious to Hopkinson, too. But the problem, as she saw it, was inequitable arts funding. Of particular concern for her was the formula Mendelson wrote into law that set aside 28 percent of the commission’s grant budget for a cohort of mostly White-led arts organizations with budgets of more than $1 million. The organizations in the National Capital Arts Cohort each received hundreds of thousands of grant dollars without applying through the competitive process that every other organization must go through.

Scholar and member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Natalie Hopkinson at a panel discussion in 2019.
Natalie Hopkinson at a panel discussion in 2019. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry have been among the most vocal critics of the commission’s historic inequities and of this specific carve out, and helped to eliminate it this summer.

Mayor Muriel Bowser renominated Hopkinson and Barry to the commission, along with two other Black women: Gretchen Wharton and Kymber Lovett-Menkiti. But Mendelson has only introduced a vote for Wharton and Lovett-Menkiti. Without Council action, Hopkinson and Barry’s nominations will expire Nov. 3, and they’ll be kicked off the commission. Mendelson, it appears, is not going to budge.

After Colby King raised the issue in his Oct. 31 Washington Post column, Mendelson issued a public statement accusing Barry and Hopkinson of having “antagonized and alienated their colleagues, and not in a good way.” He quoted unnamed commission members who complained to him about both women using descriptions such as “bomb thrower,” “mean spirited,” and “bully.”

Commissioners told the chairman that one of the two women “cares not a whit about building a coalition.” “F*** White women” is another anonymous quote attached to one or both of the Black women. Mendelson’s statement isn’t clear as to who the specific criticisms apply to.

Mendelson also accused Barry, the widow of Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry, of violating ethics and conflict of interest laws by voting on an arts commission grant for her nonprofit organization, Recreation Wish List Committee.

A list of fiscal year 2021 grantees shows that Barry’s nonprofit received a $60,000 grant from the arts commission, and meeting minutes from Aug. 2020 show the grant awards passed unanimously.

Barry, who is the only paid employee of the nonprofit according to tax forms, did not respond to Loose Lips’ email seeking comment, but her spokesperson, Raymone Bain, forwarded an email from Van Lee that was sent to Mendelson Sunday evening. In it, Van Lee explains arts commissioners’ votes are “completely blind,” meaning commissioners can’t see names of grant applicants when they vote.

“To my knowledge, there has been no inappropriate involvement of any commissioner in voting on grant awards,” Van Lee wrote in the email.

Current and former commissioners tell LL that it has not been uncommon for arts commissioners to vote in favor of grants for organizations in which they’re involved.

During a press conference Monday morning, Mendelson declined to identify the anonymous commissioners he quoted or explain the context of their criticisms. Asked whether those criticisms could be appropriately aired out during a public hearing, the chairman said “I’d rather put this all behind us … than drag it out and amplify that controversy.”

The quotes don’t surprise arts commissioner Quanice Floyd considering the discourse on the commission.

“I know who would describe them as that. It’s because they’re unsettled,” she says referring to entrenched commissioners she says were resistant to change.

Floyd, who is Black, acknowledges that discussions about race and equity that Barry and Hopkinson force among commissioners can get tense. But passion is often mistaken for anger, she says, noting that other commissioners have been just as nasty. “And nasty with no agenda,” she adds. “That’s the worst part about it.”

Hopkinson prefers not to engage in anonymous attacks.

“I would love to have a hearing and if people have concerns about why I’ve advocated for equity, to have that all in the open,” she says. “To use his public office as a platform for slurs and insults against two professional women is unacceptable.”

For Benjamen Douglas, a former arts commission staffer, the quotes mirror the hostility he saw directed at Hopkinson and Barry.

He recalls former commission chair Kay Kendall and current deputy director David Markey questioning why grant funding should go toward supporting go-go music.

“None of that was explicitly racist, but without a doubt overtly racist in terms of their lack of understanding and lack of willingness to understand,” Douglas says. “It was outright derision at the idea we should be supporting the District’s native music.”

In an email to LL, Kendall says Douglas’ description does not match her recollection. 

“The Commission has always had a grant category for individual musicians, but after GoGo was named the official music of DC, the Commission created a funding category just for GoGo musicians as a way to support and highlight that genre of music,” she writes.

Markey says in an email to LL that CAH provided grants to support a go-go residency in schools and a grant to “engage middle school music teachers with professional development around a middle school [D.C. Public Schools] Go-Go cornerstone.” He denies that he opposed giving grant funding to support go-go music.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White
At-Large Councilmember Robert White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

At-Large Councilmember Robert White is maneuvering to remove Hopkinson and Barry’s nominations from the Committee of the Whole, which Mendelson chairs, and bring them to the Council for a full vote.

“I’m very worried about the stereotype and double standard of the ‘angry Black woman,’” White told LL in an interview last week. “I’m not convinced that Cora or Natalie did or said anything different than men say or do, but that it’s seen as different particularly when it’s Black women. I’m not prepared for the city in any way to scapegoat two Black women doing work that is necessary.”

Confronted with White’s concern, Mendelson fumed during his Monday morning presser. “Pull something out like that. Pull a red flag out like that, wave it around, but it’s not true,” the chairman bemoaned.

White needs nine votes to pull the nominations out of Mendelson’s committee. As of Monday, the chairman was confident they weren’t there.

Mendelson told reporters he believes Hopkinson and Barry’s continued positions on the CAH will hinder the progress the commission has made toward improving diversity and equity.

“I think they want to take a lot of credit for it,” he said. “I think the current chair of the commission deserves much of the credit and the commission as a whole deserves much of the credit.”

Van Lee doesn’t agree. In the email he sent to Mendelson Sunday evening, he “emphatically endorse[s]” Hopkinson and Barry’s renomination. He describes their participation in CAH meetings as “harmonious and collegial,” and writes that “their contribution on the CAH is of critical importance to me so as to not lose momentum or otherwise jeopardize the implementation of those essential recommendations.”

“Had Cora and Natalie never spoken up, we would have been doing the same thing we were doing, which was approving grants to the same institutions over and over again,” Floyd says.

Hopkinson, for her part, is dismayed by the whole ordeal, which she likened to a “middle school food fight.” 

“I’m not a politician,” she says. “I’m floating above this.