Narrowing down the list of people to include in this issue is never easy, but this year the process was particularly tough, spanning multiple hours and multiple meetings. Was it because Washingtonians have suddenly become more interesting and taken on new, compelling challenges? Was it because we’ve paid more attention to those around us as the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve and we stay closer to home? Or are all of us more eager to pick up on our neighbors’ energy and excitement during a decidedly dark time?
Why we found so many compelling candidates is ultimately less interesting than the individuals you’ll meet in this package. Some have lived in D.C. for their entire lives and others arrived in the District to attend college or take on new jobs. Some lead high-profile projects or teams, and some guide smaller groups in their communities. Examined together, these 14 people—captured in color by the inimitable Darrow Montgomery—reflect D.C. in its current moment. Let them tell you why they’re committed to this place we all call home. —Caroline Jones
Photos shot with COVID-19 safety protocols in place at the Lansburgh. Our thanks to the staff of the Washington Justice for their assistance.
Little Bacon Bear
With her distinctive voice and booming personality, Little Bacon Bear controls the D.C. area airways through her evening show on 93.9 WKYS. One of the youngest figures in local radio, she constantly displays her versatility and skill with showcases of local artists on segments such as KYS Versus, and she provides intimate and detailed interviews with big name artists such as Megan Thee Stallion, Brent Faiyaz, and Wale. Bacon has also become one of the most sought-after hosts at clubs, concerts, and festivals. —Nayion Perkins
As a DJ and someone that works in radio, I’m assuming you have a passion for music. What do you like most about music?
You know, it’s really interesting that you would shape it and frame it that way because I think a lot of the time, it’s about the people. The music is a thing that is not fixed, it’s always changing, it is always evolving, it’s growing, it’s loved, it’s hated, it’s getting better, it’s getting worse. But the people are the thing that is unifying. They are the one thing that does not change. … The music is the star, but people and the interactions keep it really going.
What do you love most about working in the D.C. area?
You know, radio has afforded me the opportunity to do so many great things. Obviously, I turn on a microphone and talk with thousands of people as far as the Beltway reaches and beyond, but it is so much more impactful to me when I remember someone’s voice. Like there’s a woman who calls my show every day, and her name is Miss Kim. And Miss Kim calls, and she gets the Bacon Challenge wrong every day. And I love that because I know Miss Kim’s voice. And I also know the prisoner that calls me from the prison up top and wants to tell me a shout out, or tells me how much I got him through his day from listening to me from jail. Or going to a kid’s pep rally at their elementary school, and then going to their middle school years later and seeing them, and they’re like five inches taller, and they still remember your name and show you a picture from five years ago. It’s like, this is us. This is the thing that breaks up the monotony.
What has been your favorite moment working in radio?
For me I always go back to, it’s the prisoners who call in, it’s the grocery store stops, it’s that person in traffic who calls. It’s somebody seeing you through their reflection in your car window, and they’re pointing at you with their mouth open. Those are all the biggest moments because it reminds you that your work matters, and what you’re saying and doing matters, and the songs that you play matter. If there’s anything that I could walk away from radio knowing, it’s that I did my very best at putting as many people in place as I could. I keep talking about local artists just because of my show KYS Versus, which is devoted to giving local artists a platform on the radio. I want to lend this opportunity and lend this space to as many people as I can, and put them in a good position before they pull the plug on me and tell me I can’t do that no more.
As a DJ, how do you read the room at venues and know you’re going to play one song versus another?
I can usually look out into a room when I get there and kind of know how people are feeling. I can see the awkward girl at the bar on her phone scrolling her Twitter timeline. So I’m thinking of her, but I’m also thinking of the guy who’s over at the bar, and I’m just like, ‘OK, what’s his outfit? What are his shoes? What is he feeling? What is his mood? What is he drinking?’ I’m looking at all of these elements. I look at the line at the door too. You can play [Drake, Future, and Young Thug’s] “Way 2 Sexy” but there’s 200 other people still outside, you know, so maybe we shouldn’t play that yet. I just look around the room, I decide how I’m feeling, I decide what these people are dressed for, what they’re thinking they’re getting themselves into, and kind of just figure it out.
I tell young performers and young gig workers in general, or anybody that’s gonna be on a stage, that there’s gonna be some awkward moments, and there’s gonna be some sets where you just don’t know what to play. And those are the things that make you stare at the ceiling at night, but those are the gigs that are really important because once you know that you can go in there when the cables are all messed up, and you gotta go in and fix it, you know you can do anything.
Delan “Blue” Ellington
The New Black Queer Historian
The New Black Queer Historian
At 27, Delan “Blue” Ellington has seen and done a lot. Ellington, who goes by they/he pronouns, is working toward a master’s degree in Public History at Howard University. In their time in D.C.—Ellington grew up in Chicago and rural Illinois—they’ve participated in various protests for Black queer rights, including this summer’s actions outside Nellie’s. They also led interviews for the ClubHouse Oral History Project, took part in the ENIKAlley Coffeehouse documentary, and amassed a wealth of knowledge on the city’s Black queer history. —Sarah Marloff
A lot of people don’t realize that queer protest can be a form of joy. Is that true for you?
A part of history, and a part of the silencing we do with the history of queer people and queer Black people’s history, is taking away our joy. … That’s actually where I try to focus my research. That’s why I’m looking into the ClubHouse space of radical Black joy during the HIV/AIDS crisis. It was this place where Black queer people were able to go and just be themselves … And also this place for Black queer political activity.
What led you to Black queer history?
I’ve always seen that there’s always someone who’s left out. … Black queerness just speaks to me, and I want to help the people who look like me and feel like me in the next generations.
I was really connecting with Sidney Brinkley, who created Blacklight, a Black, queer publication [started in 1979], one of the first ones to exist. He was a Howard student, and he was part of the group of students that started the Lambda Student Alliance—the first LGBTQ Association at an HBCU. … I love that generation—that got decimated by HIV/AIDS—like Melvin Boozer, Essex Hemphill, Joe Beam, seeing how they had to fight for their own spaces.
Why are spaces so important? And what does the future of those spaces look like? Is it pop-up parties?
Though I love the idea of a pop-up, I feel they kind of convey that feeling of not having roots or a foundation, not having a place to constantly go. 1296 Upshur: That’s where people knew to go on a weekly basis, and it was created by Black queer people for Black queer people. Those spaces have to be created by the people they’re meant for.
Tell me about the Black Queer History Collective.
Currently I’m building [it] with my co-conspirator, Ashley Bamfo, who did the interviews with me for the ClubHouse Oral History Project. … It’s this Black queer space inside the Rainbow History Project for us to prioritize ourselves and work on collecting oral histories from as many Black queer people we can. … Hopefully, in the grand scheme of things, I really want it to be a space that helps Black queer research. … I also have the goal of getting both the ClubHouse and the Coffeehouse on the National Register of Historic Places.
How does collecting Black queer history affect Black queer future?
When I was younger and discovering myself, there was almost no representation. … I never really liked what I was seeing, and I wasn’t really seeing myself. … Knowing how prior generations navigated these spaces allows us and future generations to navigate these differently. It allows them to see what is possible. … It’s to inspire. I want someone to be inspired to do the things that were once done and really create the sense of normalcy with Black queerness, Black genderqueer-ness, Black transness as a part of Black Liberation.
Wes Unseld Jr.
The Hometown Head Coach
The Hometown Head Coach
Wes Unseld Jr. worked as a ball boy for the Washington Bullets in the late 1980s, hung out inside the team’s locker room as a kid, and considered his dad’s NBA teammates his “big brothers.” Now, the 46-year-old is tasked with leading the same franchise. The son of the late Basketball Hall of Famer and Bullets legend Wes Unseld, the younger Unseld got his start coaching in D.C. Unseld interned with the Wizards in his senior year at Johns Hopkins University, then worked as a scout before becoming an assistant coach from 2005 to 2011. He also worked four seasons with the Mystics as an advanced scout and assistant coach. —Kelyn Soong
I read that you had “no intentions” of making coaching a career when you first started. When did you realize you wanted to be a coach?
It was probably after my sixth or seventh year in the league as an advanced scout. That has a shelf life where, no lie, you’re gone an average 20 days a month during the thick of the season. At that time, I was doing both personnel and advanced [scouting], so you’re just always on the road. And obviously you want to continue to perfect your craft, but that’s when you kind of get a feel for the league, coaching philosophies, personnel, things you like, don’t like. But then it’s also what’s next, because you can’t keep doing that. And I was blessed with an opportunity. [Former Wizards coach] Eddie Jordan was one of my biggest advocates, giving me an opportunity to be with the team as much as possible. So if I had an “off day,” I’d try to be with the team, be around. And when I was, it gave me opportunities to have a voice to run drills, to be part of practice, and they saw merit in that. They really advocated for me to be around as much as possible, and that kind of aided in my transition.
You’ve been around this franchise and this fan base. How aware are you of how the fan base reacts?
Any fan base wants to be aligned with a winning team or winning culture. I know just from being here so long and living here that they’ve got an incredible, untapped potential within this fan base. They’ll rally behind a team that they really can grab hold of, but [the fans’ reaction] is one of those things that I’m currently not dialed in on. For me, the priority is the group that I have to coach, and I think if we do everything that we’re supposed to do, all the other stuff will fall in line.
Coming into this job, were you aware of—and I’m generalizing here—the cynicism from the fan base around the team and franchise?
That’s not new, so I was very aware of it, and to their credit, they’re also a very educated fan base in general. They have [the] pulse of the team, and they have their own thoughts, and they see what they like, don’t like, and then they voice it. That’s fair. But I think [my awareness] comes from more my experience and the years that I was here prior to my return.
How would you define your coaching philosophy and approach as a first-time head coach?
I want to be—people say it’s a “players’ coach.” I don’t know if that’s the right term, but I want players to feel like they can be part of the process, be vested in what we’re doing, have input. Because we all come in with ideas and notions of how we want to do things, but we’re not the ones having to live it. So having their input, especially with the group that I have, we’ve got guys who played in big moments. So the fact that they’ve got a feel for what works and doesn’t work, that feedback is positive.
The Parent Leader
The Parent Leader
Since joining Platform of Hope, a local nonprofit that connects and empowers families, in 2019, Ivania Zelaya has stepped up as a peer leader. POH leaders say Zelaya embodies the experience of parents lifting up other parents through the uncertainties of the pandemic and shifting D.C. public school policy. A mother of two, a mask maker, and Nicaraguan immigrant with limited English proficiency, Zelaya is also a recent alum of Briya Public Charter School, a Parents Amplifying Voices in Education advocate, and a trusted community member in Columbia Heights. —Ambar Castillo
How did you first get involved with Platform of Hope?
I learned about POH a few years ago when helping a friend with a program questionnaire. We were both waiting for our girls to leave school for the day, and she was anxious about it, so I advised her to complete the survey when she was at home and feeling calmer. Then I asked her about the program and learned there was this place where we could learn more about raising our kids and about our social-emotional states as a parent. But before that, I had gotten to know the late Miss Sylvia [Stokes, the POH project and family care lead] when a close friend invited me to bring my daughter for tutoring at Jubilee Housing. Meeting her opened me and my friend up to conversations on parenting. While we lost Miss Sylvia during COVID, we continued attending parenting activities there.
What advice do you give other parents navigating these strange times?
I tell them to stay close to their kids, to help make their kids feel comfortable telling us about any situation or issue that happens at school. That way we can talk about it, ask questions, and advocate for them. Maybe your child has a problem, maybe something they don’t tell you but you can sense it. Feel free to ask questions, or to talk to others about what’s going on, because otherwise you’ll never know. Get fully involved with their school, or at least ask them how they’re doing on a consistent basis—even if they’re teens.
How would your colleagues describe you as a leader?
Well, some people take my thoughts in stride, some don’t. … I’m not afraid of confrontation. If listening to [the needs of] my daughter means I clash with a school principal, then so be it. … A close friend has also told me I have a way with words, lots of ideas, and project a certain confidence. Just this Monday we had a POH meeting, and I recommended we hold an activity on a Saturday, and apart from agreeing, other parents started adding their own ideas. … I’ve gone to [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] meetings and advised a concerned parent to see a doctor for their 4th grade child who was struggling academically and see if they could be tested and possibly qualify for special education support. He’s in 10th grade now and is still receiving special education services … There was this other parent who had concerns about her child possibly being autistic, so I gave her a bunch of OSSE documents I had collected to orient her. I told her to call and see what she could find, and that if she needed someone to go and hold her hand, to call me. … I’ve been told I have a strong personality, but deep down, I’m a teddy bear.
Who are the great leaders in your life?
My greatest influences are my mother, who had a strong character, taught us discipline, and would sometimes hit us with a belt, a fajaso, as we say in Nicaragua, and my late brother, who became a captain of the Sandinistas, and I would love to just hear him talk. And I liked the presence and style of teachers I had growing up—I always wanted to be a teacher. Thanks to some resources that POH connected me with, I’m now studying to be a [Childhood Development Associate] at Briya, a course I had started earlier elsewhere but couldn’t complete when I was the mother of a young daughter.
E. Ethelbert Miller
E. Ethelbert Miller, who’s called D.C. home since 1968, is a writer and literary activist. The 71-year-old may be best known for his poetry, his longtime work as director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center, and for serving on the boards of almost “every major literary organization” in the country. But Miller wears many hats and many other titles including memoirist, baseball fan, and unofficial publicist for writers, friends, and local politicians. (He even offered this editor some “packaging” tips.) Coincidentally, he also wears many physical hats and currently prefers baseball caps. —Sarah Marloff
You have a long list of accolades: D.C. Hall of Fame, days named in honor of you, numerous awards. How do you carry all this?
I think my major contribution is being made now. I’ve been working on a baseball trilogy—the third [book] comes out next year. That work, I feel, is my contribution to American literature. All my awards, with the exception of the one I got for If God Invented Baseball, they’re all [for] literary service. It’s not my work itself.
It’s just another thing in terms of why I’m a literary activist—I try to make sure people are not overlooked or forgotten. But I feel like only now is my actual work being known. I feel I can say, without any sense of arrogance, I can look at the people who are sports critics [saying]: “We have not seen this. We’ve seen a person who had one baseball poem. We’ve not seen anybody who has had a trilogy of baseball poems. The range goes from baseball to visual arts, baseball to music, baseball to African American history. … It’s getting into the baseball community, so that’s been my new tribe. I’m in a new chapter in my life.
What is it about baseball?
People say [baseball is] slow, but I feel like when you reach a certain point you like baseball because it slows down, and you appreciate it.
If you go to a baseball game and you sit behind an old couple—I’m an old couple!—people who are still keeping baseball scorecards and not looking at the scoreboard. … It’s meditative. It’s a thing where strategy, at any given time, somebody can do something that you wouldn’t expect.
Everyone wants to be successful, but baseball reminds you that if you got up 10 times and got three hits, you’re a really good baseball player. … I use baseball as a metaphor. One of my books is The 5th Inning, because the fifth inning, that’s a complete game. I wrote that when I was turning 50. At that time, in terms of the economy, we could be sitting here, they’ll knock on the door and say, “Sign this, clean your office, and be out of here by 5.” Game over. Fifth inning.
What does it mean to a “literary activist”?
I’ve always been concerned … about a number of things, but primarily preservation and promotion. I take pride in the fact that I tried to promote a lot of writers. Some writers claim me as a mentor … that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dwayne Betts. I knew all these individuals when they were starting out. I take pride in that because you always want to make sure what you’re doing while you’re living will have an impact on people coming after.
Can you offer any advice to young writers or editors?
That’s what you have to do as a writer: You never want to be too far above people. That’s where [there’s overlap with] being a politician—you’ve got the person who’s homeless, you have to speak up, you have to recognize that person. And that’s what I feel I’ve learned. I learned that from baseball.
The past two years have been full of change for Marcelle Afram. They took an executive chef job at Michelin-starred Maydan, struck out on their own with Palestinian rotisserie chicken ghost restaurant Shababi, and came out as nonbinary transmasculine in August 2020 at the age of 35. They’ve been public about it all, serving as a source of hope to those still finding their identities. —Laura Hayes
You have roots in cultures with rich culinary traditions. Your grandparents fled Palestine in 1948 and settled in Beirut on your mom’s side and Damascus, Syria, on your dad’s side. Until recently, you rarely cooked food from that region. What has been rewarding about that shift?
I never had an issue seeing other people cook the cuisine of my people. It was more so I didn’t see enough of the people it belonged to doing it. There’s a major word that a lot of us from these ethnic groups are using: reclamation. People aren’t familiar with the complexities of people from the SWANA region—South West Asian/North African. When the narrative isn’t being told from the perspective of the people it belongs to, there’s a lot of homogenization of the cuisines and people. I think the [culinary] face of the Arab-speaking world is Lebanese cuisine. The reality is everyone in that region is just as diverse and complex as anywhere else.
What was your proudest moment from the past year?
Being able to use the work we were doing at Shababi as a platform for political advocacy and fundraising. In nine months we raised over $10,000 in direct funds for different support groups for the Palestininan cause.
What was coming out like as someone so public-facing in the restaurant industry?
I was nervous. If I hadn’t noticed other nonbinary transmasculine people in the food space that I made friends with through social media, it probably would have taken me even longer to figure out who I am. I immediately realized I wanted to be the role model I needed growing up. That would have saved a lot of pain. There were a lot of people who are closeted or questioning or considering, and I think I didn’t anticipate that reach-out. Overall the response was privileged in the sense that it was so supportive. Not everyone can put themselves out there, but we do need representatives in the community. I really feel like I’m alive and present, and I wasn’t before for a really long time. That journey to authenticity, in a lot of ways, saved my life.
Are chefs who don’t fit the Michelin mold as cis White males getting the recognition they deserve these days?
It’s never enough because there’s lost time that needs to be made up, and that’s real. I think about this all the time with the D.C. area. Ethnically it’s so diverse and some of the best food lies outside the city where there are booming ethnic populations. How many of those chefs’ names are we talking about on a daily basis?
What still needs to change in the restaurant industry?
Everything. I’ve been using the word “broken” instead of change. Systems need to be shattered and rebuilt. Oftentimes we want to amend what has been built by people that in no way ever considered people who come from marginalized places. My plan for the brick-and-mortar is putting quality of life before what’s on the menu. I’m thinking about what my employees need. Break it from the top.
Wait, you’re opening a restaurant?
I am opening a Palestinian diner hopefully really soon.
Nzinga Tull is an engineer working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope from the agency’s Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. She helped bring the telescope back online this summer after an essential computer failed. Tull, 46, grew up in Ward 7, and also teaches and performs with KanKouran West African Dance Company and chairs the board of the education nonprofit Teaching for Change. —Mitch Ryals
You started dancing at age 3?
Yes! You know, D.C. was Chocolate City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was coming of age, and my parents had very strong cultural Black nationalist sensibilities, and it was important for them that we were in touch with our African heritage.
What does dance mean for you? How has that changed since you were younger?
Dance both grounds me in my cultural identity and makes me feel the freest. And that grounding has sustained me. Even when I wasn’t actively taking classes and performing in junior high and high school, there were still performances here. I would come to the show, and there’s kind of a resonance, a heart tug that says, “This is your community. These are your people. You’re a part of this continuum.”
You’ve worked on the Hubble telescope for several years. Can you describe that work?
I’m a systems engineer. There are various systems on the telescope: the thermal control that keeps everything hot when it’s supposed to be hot and cold when it’s supposed to be cold; the power system makes sure everything’s got enough juice. There’s pointing control because you’ve gotta make sure the aperture is pointed in the right place in the sky. So mission operations are separated into all these different subsystems. Systems engineers support the coordination of everything.
The telescope ran into a problem this past summer. What was your role in fixing it?
Oh, Lord have mercy! There are several computers on the telescope, but this summer the payload computer, which is responsible for controlling the science instruments, stopped working. If we can’t command them, we can’t collect data from them.
Many of the different critical components have a primary and redundant side. So we switched to an alternative side. But because of the design of the telescope, we couldn’t just switch the component that we thought was suspect. We also had to switch to alternative components for data management and other spacecraft functions.
We were down for five weeks this summer. It is a reminder that as the telescope gets older and older, the problems will become more and more complex, and so we have to practice grace with both the telescope and with ourselves.
You’re working for NASA through a contract with your family’s firm, Jackson and Tull. How did the firm get started?
My dad is a civil and structural engineer, and the firm started out doing civil and structural engineering. He and the company started out designing a lot of churches, did a lot of infrastructure stuff, bridges. The Franklin Street Bridge was the very first pedestrian walkway in D.C. We did the structural engineering for that. Dad drives through the city making notes on structural integrity to this day. And he’s always been that way.
So you saw your dad doing this cool work and wanted to join?
Yeah! He started the business. He’s a Black man from Virginia and wasn’t getting a fair shake in the business space in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so his mentor and partner said, “Well, let’s start our own thing,” and so they did.
That work feels like it exercises a different muscle than dancing.
At the core, you’re driven by creativity to solve a problem or tell a story. Engineering and the arts are not terribly different in that regard. Maintaining this creative practice through dance compels me to stay in touch with my innate creativity in all things, which is particularly helpful in engineering.
You grew up in Hillcrest, went to Spelman College in Atlanta, and came back. Why?
One of the beautiful things about growing up in D.C., especially as a Black kid, that I appreciated more and more as I got older, is that there are all kinds of Black people living in D.C. The full expanse of Black humanity was normalized in my upbringing, which is how we all deserve to exist on this planet—that our existence is just normal, and we have access to everything. Our existence doesn’t limit us. And I felt very fortunate that that was my upbringing here.
The Punk Preserver
The Punk Preserver
Librarian Michele Casto may be the co-founder of the D.C. Punk Archive, but she gives special thanks to librarians Maggie Gilmore and Bobbie Dougherty, as well as James [June] Schneider, who is known for his documentary Punk the Capital, along with many others who worked toward establishing the archive. Casto is the go-to person for any questions regarding the archive, thanks to her role in the Washingtoniana Collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. She has been a D.C. resident and a DCPL employee for 20 years. —Michelle Goldchain
Why did you want to work in libraries?
I studied history as an undergrad and had some sort of aimless jobs after graduating. I worked as a seamstress. I worked in a group home. I just didn’t really have a direction career-wise. I just studied history because I was interested in it, and the inspiration to go to libraries just kind of came kind of out of the blue. … I loved reading, and I loved public service, and so once I sort of thought about that as an idea, it just felt so right.
Why do you think D.C.’s punk history is worth archiving?
It’s not only just that this style of music is unique to D.C., it’s that it means so much to the people in D.C. … When we first started to talk about this project … it felt like what we were going to do is document kind of D.C. punk, meaning the sort of well-known aspects of … D.C. hardcore: Fugazi, Minor Threat, these kinds of things. But as we started thinking about it a little more, we’re like, “D.C. punk is so much bigger than that. It’s bigger than a certain sound of music, a certain style of music. It’s an approach to creativity. It’s an approach to art. It’s an approach to finding your community and finding your space that has been going on in D.C. before D.C. hardcore and since.”
Do you have any favorite objects in the archive?
That’s so hard. Well, my go-to answer for that is that Don Zientara donated his original four-track recorder from Inner Ear Studios. This was near the beginning of the project, long before the sad news that he’s having to close down. … Most of what we take in is paper-based materials, but something like that is we can make an exception because it’s this magical piece of equipment that all the early D.C. punk records were recorded on … and it represents this decades-long institution of Inner Ear Studios, and all the amazing work that came out of there and Don Zientara’s genius, and his contribution to this whole scene.
How has the creation of the D.C. punk archive affected the D.C. Public Library?
I can’t even say we were at the forefront of anything because you always learn from someone else, but I do feel like maybe we did inspire people to start similar projects and get excited about documentation of local music. … It helped change how people think of the public library as somewhere exciting things happen. It’s more than just books. It’s more than just research. It’s also these really awesome programs [and] engagement with local music. Like, there’s something exciting for you to come experience, but it’s also somewhere where your community is reflected.
Can you tell me about the D.C. punk exhibit in the MLK Library?
I felt really strongly about having an exhibit that featured the materials in the punk archive just for those kinds of people who heard about the project and would just want to walk in and see things. … And so, the team making the exhibits supported having punk and go-go both have a presence in the permanent exhibits here in the new library, and so even though we still encourage people to come in and dig deeper into the collections, this gives them a pretty good sort of summary. … It just opened a month ago, and people love it. James worked on a video that loops, that has live performances moving through that go across all the decades, and it was just awesome to have a way to show people a little taste of what we built.
Starting this summer, we’re going to start having shows on this roof here at MLK. … There will be a call for bands coming soon, so stay tuned.
Restaurateur Mark Bucher is crisscrossing the country on a mission to open 20 Medium Rare steak bistros in five years. Regardless of how little time he has or whether his business partners think he’s being too generous, Bucher keeps himself busy addressing hunger through Feed the Fridge, delivering free meals to homebound seniors, and deep-frying turkeys on Thanksgiving. —Laura Hayes
Tell us about your strategy of only serving one set meal of steak frites. Restaurants specializing in a single dish are more common abroad.
It’s a great restaurant model because we’re so disciplined in keeping it simple. It’s easier to replicate than a Cheesecake Factory. There’s no food waste, no specials, nothing that our servers have to push on a Monday. It’s easy to hire and retain great staff. By our kitchen only cooking one thing, they get really, really good at it. You can’t be all things to all people and survive the restaurant business.
Through your philanthropic efforts, it’s clear that you view restaurants as stewards of community. How did that start?
The moment it hit me was the very first turkey fry 14 years ago. We clean up, and I had one of my daughters with me, and we go out to my car. It looks like a ticket under my windshield. Who gave me a ticket on Thanksgiving? I was mad. I grabbed it, and it was a thank-you card from a family who lived a block away in a shelter. If I didn’t cook their turkey for them, they would have been unable to have Thanksgiving together.
You kicked into high gear during the pandemic.
In March 2020, when they said seniors should stay inside and quarantine because this thing called coronavirus is coming, I didn’t even talk to my business partners. I just did it. I put a tweet out that said “I’m going to feed everyone who needs to be fed,” because I knew we could do it. I felt needed. I felt no one else was doing it. So, fuck it! In March, April, May, and June, hundreds of meals were going out at night. We had a system. We had drivers.
By August 2020 you founded Feed the Fridge. Now you have 26 community refrigerators filled with free meals from local restaurants and a nonprofit, We Care, to fund your efforts. What makes it successful?
No one said it would work. “You can’t put food in a refrigerator and not have it tampered with.” We put in tamper-proof containers. “Someone is going to put graffiti all over the refrigerators.” OK, we’ll fix it. “Someone is going to take more than one meal.” So what? We talked to psychologists and social workers and figured out what we needed to do to the fridges so they’d be appreciated and respected by the communities they serve. They’re all wrapped with words of affirmation chosen by people smarter than me. “How could it be outside and unsupervised?” Because humans are good.
What was the most memorable moment from the past 20 months of the pandemic?
At one of the food giveaways, a church in Silver Spring, I had this crazy idea. I went and bought 500 $1 scratch-off lottery tickets. I called it “glimmer of hope” and attached one to every meal. I don’t know if there are any winners, but to see their faces.
Michelle “Noodles” Smith
The Undeterred Creative
The Undeterred Creative
Michelle “Noodles” Smith had $12 in her pocket when she acquired her first storefront in 2003. Now, 18 years later, her intense passion for creating is reflected in Cookie Wear, her store at 810 Upshur St. NW in Petworth. The D.C. native and mother of three shows her eclectic style through clothes, jewelry, suitcases, and more items being added daily. She’s been selling her art since she was 10, and now teaches local artists how to become business owners. Despite the recent losses of her father and brother, who died within weeks of each other, Smith’s creative spirit pushes her onward. —Bailey Vogt
What is your style?
I like wearing things that don’t match. They don’t necessarily have to make sense. They just feel good for me at that time. I love vintage. I love retro. The ‘70s for me, as far as fashion, was by far my most favorite with the bell-bottoms. The oversize collars. The big hair. Everything was fun.
Where did you get the name Cookie Wear?
The name celebrates the relationship I have with my late stepfather. He baked bomb-ass cookies. I was trying to pay homage to him, and I didn’t know how, but if I wanted to learn how to do something, he would bring me the kit. He would bring me instructions. He’d say, “Do it.” So as I was going through this therapy of losing him and not having someone to channel into, that’s what Cookie Wear came from.
How did you get your first storefront?
I had someone that believed in me and gave me a shot. I had only $12 in my pocket and my friend at the time owned a building at 3717 Georgia Ave. [NW]. I went in there and I said, “Oh, I would design it this way. And I would do this, and I would do that.” She turned her back and said, “Go for it.” I didn’t have any money when I started my business, but what I did have was a whole bunch of stuff at home that I made, and I didn’t know why I made it. It just evolved.
You help other vendors with their businesses. How?
I’m a nurturer. I’m a Cancer. Every Friday or Saturday, people can set up in my store, outside my store, and I help them sell. They have to get their own tent and table. But once they set up, they make money because I’m watching them, I’m correcting them, and I’m supporting them. I’m just grateful for those bad past experiences that I had to learn from [so] that I could give back.
How do you continue to be creative despite the personal tragedies you’ve had recently?
I can’t tell you that I still don’t cry. Just knowing that these men love me so much, I wouldn’t want to disappoint them. They are the reason why I am who I am. They were my big cheerleaders. I tell you the past, gosh, the past two months, it’s been very hard to function. But I create. You know when you think of those people who sparked that fire in you, you always keep that fire spark.
What’s next for Cookie Wear?
My goal is next year to quit my day job and really evolve off of my creativity and my brands and create a schedule for myself. What I learned from my fathers, who both passed from kidney failure, and my brother, what I saw all three of them, they wanted to live a good, fun life all the way to the very end. That’s what I’m determined to do.
Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, The Atlantic science writer Ed Yong has exposed what went wrong in the nation’s response to the pandemic, envisioned a vaccine endgame, and elucidated then little-known, little-believed experiences of COVID long-haulers. He also loves writing about whale poop. —Ambar Castillo
How do you assess the impact of your stories?
Given how badly the U.S. has fared throughout the pandemic, it is quite difficult to wonder if the work that you do as a journalist has any impact. But people have repeatedly written in over the past few years to say that the work I’ve done has helped them to make sense of these events that can seem so senseless. That the pieces have given them resolve in making safer decisions for themselves and their families at a time when even the highest levels of government were giving them bad advice. People have said that the pieces have helped them open up conversations with skeptical friends and family members to help them make the case that the pandemic is worth taking seriously. People have said that—and this probably matters the most—it has helped them maintain a sense of calm and hope amid all of it. That, in just understanding more about what is happening, and seeing the bigger picture, they felt a little stronger. It honestly means more than traffic or awards or any of the other metrics that we gauge our work by.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned covering COVID?
I wrote, in 2018, a story about whether America was ready for the next pandemic or not. At that time, I saw it very much as a science or health story. It became very quickly clear in covering COVID that it’s so much more than that. It’s a crisis that touches on every facet of our society. And, therefore, to make sense of why COVID has been so bad for the states, you need to understand the nation’s psychology. You need to understand the history of its medical and public health system. You need to understand its attitudes to sickness, to strength, individualism, its nursing homes and carceral state, its social media architecture. You need to understand all of that. And science and health care are certainly a part of it. But the expansive nature of the pandemic has been very eye-opening, and has made the work that much more difficult to do.
What microbe or animal that you’ve studied has taught you the most about being human?
It’s almost impossible to pick any given one. But I will talk a little bit about [my forthcoming] book, An Immense World … It is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to experience the world through the senses of another creature. But I think it is a truly profound act to try to do that. Our perception of the world is so all-encompassing that it is easy to believe that that is all there is to perceive. And that is a lie, an illusion. There are so many animals that can see colors we can’t see, hear frequencies we can’t hear, sense things like electric fields we cannot sense. By thinking about their senses, and how they perceive the world, we have a much deeper, richer understanding of the meaning of this reality that we inhabit. I feel that when I think about weird and wonderful creatures. I feel that when I take my dog for a walk … Because it’s a thing that, to my knowledge, only humans do. We have the ability to try to step into the heads of other creatures. And it’s such a singular gift that we should be aware of it and cherish it.
Speaking of, what’s the origin of your dog’s name, Typo? And what’s your perception of Typo’s strongest perception?
It was my wife’s idea. We were trying to think of funny writer-related names. And that’s not the typical dog name. Cadence, right? It’s two syllables, hard consonants. Also, it means that his full name is Typography, which is what he gets called when he’s been bad. Typo is a creature of smell: When he turns his head to something, I assume it’s more because he wants to smell or listen to it than see it. And at a time when a lot of people struggle to think about the lives of even other humans, it’s a very useful exercise to try and step into the mind of very different creatures than us.
Dr. Natalie Hopkinson is an associate professor at Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture, and Media, and co-founder of the #DontMuteDC movement. Recently, Hopkinson endured an impassioned battle with the D.C. Council over her seat on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Hopkinson’s graphic showing a glaring bias toward Whiter wards in arts funding ruffled the feathers of the Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who lost a bid to block her reappointment. —Candace Y.A. Montague
What is your personal background in the arts?
My dad used to sing. He died in 2015. We used to tease him because he was a computer systems analyst by day, but he really had a beautiful voice. He sang calypso as a kid in Guyana, and he even went around to nursing homes in Florida. He loved to sing so much. We were in plays when we lived in Canada. Our whole family was in plays. Then when we moved to Indiana, my mom was the business manager for the Madam Walker Urban Life Center, which is a historically Black theater. So I was really born into the arts. It was an important part of my family’s life and my childhood. I grew up in that Black theater.
You based your dissertation at the University of Maryland, College Park, on go-go music, and you’ve written a book about its history in D.C. You have studied its origins extensively. Why this genre?
I always knew it was important, and I felt that go-go was an important way to carry on those traditions that people think we lost: the fashion, the dance, visual arts, the drums. It’s a way of life that has sustained Black people for centuries, and it’s given us a reprieve from the daily racism and indignities that we have to face. It’s like a refuge. It is a very special place. It’s a very special thing. And it gives us a voice politically.
Why is the fight to keep creatives of color on the receiving end of funding so important to you?
It’s important to me because this is just who I am. There’s nothing that you could tell me that would make me believe that we don’t belong in this city, that we don’t belong on the arts commission, that we don’t belong on the other end of a grant letter. This idea that certain people are disposable and don’t deserve a voice is not normal to me. I think it’s very important as gentrification pushes people out.
Would you say you are anti-gentrification or pro-D.C.?
I am definitely pro-D.C. Gentrification is a very violent and ugly process. I am pro-inclusive, diverse, vibrant D.C. D.C. isn’t just Chocolate City or Neapolitan or whatever nonsense they’re calling it now. But when you have policies that specifically expel certain parts of D.C., then you are anti-D.C.
You lost your husband to brain cancer earlier this year. How did he inspire the fight in you?
You know, he was a great husband. A great human being. And sometimes we would have meetings in the house at the same time and have to split up. But he would hear some things from time to time and be like, “What is happening over there?” He really helped me feel even more outraged than I would have on my own. He would teach me about how procurement works and how public notice works. When I would write articles and trolls would come on there in the comments, he would put on his gloves and defend my honor. He would have the legal knowledge, and he rode hard for his wife. He definitely inspired me.
The Perpetually Evolving Artist
The Perpetually Evolving Artist
Park Slope, Brooklyn, native Psalmayene 24 arrived in D.C. 30 years ago to attend Howard University. The creative community and energy he found in the District have led him to stay here ever since. Known to local audiences for his work as a performer, playwright, and director, Psalm, the Andrew W. Mellon playwright-in-residence at Mosaic Theater Company, is currently preparing for in-person performances of Dear Mapel, an autobiographical work he initially workshopped and presented as a streamed video production in 2020. —Caroline Jones
Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?
I knew that I wanted to be creative, and that I was creative. And then I wanted to share my expressions with the world. And it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, that I actually embraced this identity of being an artist, you know, because I didn’t go to the performing arts high school in New York City. And my junior high school drama teacher suggested that I audition for the program. And I was scared to at that point, I hadn’t fully accepted that. … But things work out as they’re supposed to. I surely believe that, that everything is written and you’re sort of walking through life on pages that were already scribbled on.
What keeps you in D.C.?
Well, this is the city where I found my wife, so that’s one thing. … I feel like it’s bustling enough to keep me engaged. But then there’s enough sort of psychic room still, that I can actually think and imagine in ways that just feel in tune with my creative rhythms. And then the community here, I mean, I’ve found a community that’s more like a family.
When you talk about having the sort of psychic space to do that sort of creative brainstorming that you want and need to do as an artist, are there specific places that you go in D.C. or in the area to get that?
So since the pandemic has started, I’ve been going out into nature to get inspiration and to sort of write and find peace. So Rock Creek Park is one place that I love to go whenever I can. I love getting out to Malcolm X Park. … When George Floyd happened, I was just stunned, like so many people were. And I found that writing wasn’t enough for me to process what had happened. I needed another outlet, and that’s when I really started going out into nature in earnest, and it’s become a part of my artistic practice now. So I’m out in nature five times a week or so.
Being in nature is a newer thing for you, but you were one of the first creators to take a show, and present it outside in a new context when you did The Frederick Douglass Project, [a 2018 production performed at the Yards’ Marina].
I just like to push myself outside of my own comfort zones, whether those zones are self-imposed, or externally enforced. I think that comes from being a part of the hip-hop generation and culture, where there’s a sense of risk and daring that is inherent in hip-hop. And if you embrace that, you can’t help but take that into other areas … I’m somewhat of a thrill seeker, too. So I think just as part of my personality, always push the bounds and see what is beyond what we can see, what’s beyond the horizon. It’s part of sort of my upbringing, personality, culture, and then like, just the thrill of it. I mean, it’s fun to try new things. So that’s what keeps me motivated in terms of experimentation and doing things and experiencing things that maybe no one has ever done or experienced before.
Azel Prather Jr.
Azel Prather Jr. is constantly looking for new ways to impact his community. Teaching early childhood and pre-K classes at KIPP DC Arts & Technology Academy, he uses unorthodox methods to keep his students engaged. This year, he released Move with Mr. Prather, an interactive album he recorded with the help of his students that helps them count, recognize the days of the week, identify opposites, and practice good manners. His reach extends beyond the classroom. Alongside his partners Aja Sophia and Malik Sneed, he founded Soufside Market, a marketplace that showcases Black businesses every Saturday in Southeast D.C. from spring to fall. —Nayion Perkins
You have an outside-the-box approach when it comes to getting kids engaged in learning. How did you adopt this approach?
For me, it was watching it being done the wrong way. Watching people who don’t look like us spread the message or try to teach in ways that we learn through. Primarily the music and dance songs, the YouTube videos that the kids watch and they learn from are by people who don’t look like us, who don’t talk like us, who don’t dress like us, but they’ll try to do it for those three or four minutes to get our attention. I just [got] kind of tired of seeing it. And I refused to play it in my class. I’m like, “Well, if I’m not going to play it, what am I going to do about it? I might as well do it myself.” So that was my biggest thing. I just wanted to give them something that they can relate to.
Since you released the album, what has been the most rewarding about seeing people receive it?
So many things. Parents letting me know that their kids didn’t know how to count to 200 before they started listening to your song, or they didn’t know all the days of the week before they started listening to your song. Or when I’m at school, and I’m hearing my songs being played in the morning when they’re pulling up, or in the evening when they’re leaving, or the random Instagrams that I get of kids telling their parents, “I want Move with Mr. Prather.” I think it’s weird, but it’s like, that’s what I wanted to happen, I wanted them to want to listen to it and take it in so they actually get something from it. A kid will stop me and be like, “Hey, are you Mr. Prather?” I think that’s dope, you know. I go to work every day. I’m a teacher and a lot of times you don’t see teachers in that light. I’m right here. I’m going to dap you up, give you a hug, a pound or whatever we gotta do just to let you know I’m human, I’m real, I’m touchable. I’m here with you. So that’s been the biggest reward. Being able to be something for them, you know. Being something to them and being something for them.
The second year of the Soufside Market concluded in September. What motivated you, Aja, and Malik to start it?
Myself, Aja, and Malik, we went to Eastern Market wanting to shop Black, and couldn’t. It was one Black vendor. And we literally went to the table the next week and was like, we got to do something about it. It’s a lot of Black brands that don’t get the opportunity, a lot of Black brands that don’t have the shelf space, Black products that don’t have shelf space in these stores or these places. So we just wanted to be able to use our platforms and use our resources to be able to do that for somebody else. We put our money together, found a space, bought tables, bought tents, and had our DJ, DJ Loud, who’s been with us the whole time, come out. That’s really what it was, we just saw the lack of Black business … To want to go shop Black and you can’t … It was a big problem, especially in Chocolate City. In an establishment such as that, I can’t go support my people? So instead of crying about it or whining about it, we’ll give you some way to support our people and the people showed up and showed love.