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Creating the People Issue every year is an act of love. Daily journalism requires reporters and editors to track down the newest, most relevant information for readers, and any of us may, at times, be guilty of leaning too heavily in to conflict. The People Issue, on the other hand, requires slowing down and thinking deliberately about the individuals whose actions shape, serve, inform and delight D.C. residents. Their devotion to their work provides a needed dose of inspiration in a year of challenge and change.
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The 11 Washingtonians you’ll hear from below are working in our cultural institutions, caring for one another, and organizing a better city for their neighbors. We hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as we did. —Caroline Jones
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
When you ask Marc Bamuthi Joseph to tell you about himself, one of the first things he’ll note is that he “makes culture.” He’s also a first generation American of Haitian descent and the father of two nearly grown children. Since 2019, Joseph, who goes by Bamuthi, has been the vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center. He’s also a poet and a creator of operas. (The New York Times named his opera libretto, We Shall Not Be Moved, one of 2017’s Best Classical Music Performances.) He’s lectured at more than 200 colleges, he’s a TED Global Fellow, an inaugural honoree of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, and a recipient of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship. —Sarah Marloff
With such an impressive resume, in your own words, what do you do?
I make culture. I write, I cultivate. I work in impact. What I like to say is both my ancestors and the legacy of the slave catchers are chasing me, so I have to move fast.
What does that mean, exactly?
I’m of the privileged and the hunted. The privilege is being a straight, cisgender male, educated. … Being an artist who has been institutionally supported, who now works at one of the largest institutions—one of the top five cultural institutions in the country—all that is a privilege. There’s a profound inquiry that’s always present: How do you responsibly exercise the privilege of being a creative person … embedded inside of a cultural institution that … wasn’t necessarily built as a creative space for the people … All those things are privileges I have to wield with honor.
And none of that stops me from being hunted as a person of Haitian descent, as an African American-appearing body … I come from the poorest country in the hemisphere, which has tremendous political volatility … That too is part of my biographical profile, my psychological profile, my ethical calculus. Those ancestors and my elders—they didn’t migrate here for me to not be dope.
The slave catchers are preventing me because they are attached to a system that has not been set up for the greatest success if you’re in a body like mine. And the tension is where a lot of my creativity comes from.
How does that tension inform your work at the Kennedy Center?
There’s this trajectory in the arts where diversity has been the gold standard for a long time. If you have trans artists or Latinx artists or artists with disabilities, it’s like OK, diversity. We’ve checked the box; for this performance we’ll seek to bring trans audiences or Latinx audiences. [Often] you look back or look at the hyper-urgent present and try to reconcile it—if Asian American women are being attacked, or George Floyd is killed, or Russia invades Ukraine [and you] put a flag out or darken the lights, put out a statement—all those are Band-Aids that don’t address the systemic. If racism is structural, then anti-racism must be structural.
Equity and capital has to be invested in communities—that’s more than we’re going to produce a show. We’re going to invest in leaders from certain communities and instead of thinking about reconciling the past we’re going to think about the transformation of the future: What is the actual future we want to make?
You make opera. How is opera relevant today and what led you to it?
A lot of symphonic music, a lot of orchestral music, at our most cynical, you can think of these forms of music as soundtracks to imperialism … They’re also known more for the audiences than the artists. It’s one of the few spaces where we’re like, “Oh, opera belongs to them.” And particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries in the United States, we think less about what opera is and more about who it’s for. And, correspondingly, who it’s not for.
I’m a spoken word artist, and I think of opera as like long-ass, multi-character poems, set to music. To that extent, the form is for me. Because it’s outrageous and ostentatious—largely fantasy, there’s a kind of creative space that you don’t even have in musical theater … with opera there’s a little bit of permission to break [continuity of thought]. And the truth is, in contemporary context, for a poet, opera is really liberating … And then, finally, I don’t make operas about old, White people.
This is a form where the artist can actually be at center to tell relevant and urgent stories that don’t reaffirm White supremacy and, in fact, challenge it.
My next opera is called Watch Night, based on the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, as well as the murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It’s an opera that imagines that those two religious sanctuaries share an alleyway in the South and thinks about religion and faith-based hate … It’s not like Carmen. Not like La Bohème. It’s a contemporary story that features principally Black characters, that thinks about race and spirituality, and I can find myself there.
As a queer, I see a lot of value in reclaiming—and claiming—words and space, and I’m really drawn to the idea that you make and broaden space with your art.
Language is a thing. Language is used to exclude, it’s used to invite, it’s used to suggest, and there’s a kind of a winking fuck you that’s implied when I tell people I write opera … There are ways conservative parties have taken a word like “woke” and turned it to mean something else … There isn’t as much energy for progressive thinkers to take conservative language and flip it on its head. In embracing the term and embracing the form, that is one of the things I hope to do.
Rose Nguyen’s first career was in nursing, but she was always thinking about food, daydreaming about what she was going to make for dinner. As her interest in cooking and baking blossomed, she started blogging about her adventures in the kitchen, so friends started asking her to cater events and bake cakes for celebrations. Eventually, she connected with chef Erik Bruner-Yang, convinced him to give her a chance, and scored a pastry job at his H Street NE restaurant Maketto. After spending a few years honing her recipes and techniques, the 34-year-old opened Rose Ave Bakery as a stall in the pan-Asian D.C. food hall The Block in 2020. She’s still taking care of people, one pastry at a time. —Nevin Martell
What was your vision for the bakery?
As an Asian-American, I’m not fully Asian, not fully American—I’m both. I wanted to think of new ways to present foods and flavors by bringing them together in different ways. I didn’t want to limit myself; I just wanted to do whatever I want.
The bakery opened in March of 2020 as the world was shutting down. What was that like?
We were open for a solid three days and then we closed, not knowing what was going to happen. In mid-May, I decided I had to do something. I didn’t ask my staff to come back because it was still very scary, so I restarted by myself. I did everything by preorders, so I knew exactly what I needed to prep. I did it out of necessity—desperation, really—because I had to start paying off the debts I accrued when I opened the business.
When did you realize the bakery was becoming successful?
A few weeks after I started, I opened my preorders and sold out in a few minutes. It was all word of mouth and social media. When it came time for pickups, the line would go down the block. It was very surreal, because when we started, no one knew us. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about us. I was just whirling, trying to keep up.
What are the items most beloved by your customers, who you affectionately call Rose Buds?
The passion fruit doughnuts coated in raspberry sugar with crushed rose petals on top have been on the menu since day one and are never going away. People love our ube chiffon cake. And there’s a Spam musubi-inspired croissant filled with Spam and furikake; that’s another favorite.
What’s happening with your stand-alone brick-and-mortar bakery?
Our new space in Woodley Park is going to be the home I’ve always dreamed of for my staff. We’re going to make the outdoors cozy with a bunch of plants and some tables. Inside gets a lot of sunlight because of the windows that go all the way up. It’s going to have a beautiful pastry case and the coffee program will be better, because we’re getting an espresso machine. We’re hoping to open in mid- to late January.
Has your vision for the bakery shifted?
The big dream is to provide a home for our community who wants to support us and provide meaningful careers for the people that work for us. Because if Rose Ave Bakery can keep shining, then maybe I can find some balance in my life and just be a normal, healthy human being after working so hard for so long. It sounds like a normal goal, but that’s my goal right now.
Like many kids, Ariana Harbin sang along to Motown mixes, jazz records, and Michael Jackson. But unlike most kids, her fascination with music led her to classical guitar. Not yet a teenager, Harbin learned music theory and songwriting. When teen angst hit, the D.C. native discovered new wave and synths and fell in love. Those roots make up her musical alter ego: Ari Voxx. The burgeoning singer-songwriter got her start in the local scene performing jazz with the group Sweet Something, but it felt like she was trying to be something she’s not. Ari Voxx blossomed in the pandemic, churning out dreamy, indie pop with her backing band, the Sad Lads. At 27, she works a series of service industry jobs—including booking shows for Capitol Cider House. She’s a regular at Sofar Sounds shows, has opened for touring bands at Songbyrd, performed at Pearl Street Warehouse, and has an upcoming January residency at DC9. She’s saying “yes” to everything with the intention of becoming D.C.’s next big thing. —Sarah Marloff
You first made a name for yourself in the local jazz scene. What was it about jazz that got you started and what made you want to try other sounds?
Jazz just seemed like the thing I fell into because my voice fit well with it and there were plenty of gig opportunities, especially in this area. There’s a lot of heavy jazz roots in D.C.: Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday was from Philadelphia … The kind of jazz I sing, standards like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, it keeps transcending generations, which is cool. I really enjoy singing jazz, but I don’t want to make my living singing other people’s songs for the rest of my life. I’ve always been writing, but I got more confident performing with the jazz group: If I can do this, I can do my own stuff. And I started and other people liked it.
But my beginnings with music started with classical guitar when I was a kid; when I got to be a teenager, I wanted to do rock. Then I gave up music for a few years.
Pressure from family. “This isn’t a real job.” “You need to figure out what you want to do with your life.” I started working in the service industry. I was living in Frederick for a few years and my roommate was dating this guy who was in bands. He was over one day and heard me singing in the shower—not in a creepy way!—I think maybe it was a Billie Holiday song. He was like, you need to come jam with us. And we started the Gin Rickys.
Did you ever write your own jazz songs?
I did write some—more nu jazz, neo-soul. Those songs are in the ether right now. I thought they were pretty good, but they weren’t really me, like I was putting on a version of what I thought people wanted from me because they think of me as the jazz singer. I feel like I was trying to emulate Erykah Badu and, honestly, I don’t really listen to that kind of music. That isn’t really true to my soul right now.
What’s next for Ari Voxx?
I’m trying to have my album release next year … It’s basically all written, it’s called I’m OK, Please Stop Asking. Sad vibes and mental state awareness is very heavy in my song themes. I suffer from anxiety and depression and I like to live in my feelings. If I’m upset, I enjoy getting it out, not pushing it away and ignoring it or covering it up with toxic positivity, which I absolutely hate … Over the next few months, I’ll be working heavily on that.
I’m also working on opening my own booking agency, but I like to call it a booking collective. I work with several agencies in the area, and a lot of times, they’re run by old crotchety dudes and, with the musicians’ needs not really in mind, it feels a little impersonal. Some private events I do are fun … But sometimes it feels like you’re … sort of a human jukebox. So my business model is kind of like a matchmaking service for musicians and clients. I’m working on that, getting some grants … And eventually I want to open a venue [or three] here. I’m staying in the DMV.
Doreen Gentzler has brought the news to generations of Washingtonians for more than three decades, anchoring NBC4’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts from the summer of 1989 until she retired last month. In the intervening years, she added health and medical reporting to her list of responsibilities, covered multiple presidential inaugurations, and raised two now-grown children. Beyond a vacation with her husband, who also recently retired, the Arlington native hasn’t determined what her post-TV life will look like yet, but she’s sure of one thing: She won’t miss returning to work at 9 p.m. every weeknight. —Caroline Jones
It’s only been a few weeks of retirement. But how are things changing for you?
Well, I haven’t had a day yet where I felt retired, really, because I’ve been catching up on a whole bunch of, you know, piles of paperwork, and I had a house full of people for Thanksgiving. And I just spent a whirlwind 20 hours or so in New York. My son just got engaged. I went up there to look at wedding dresses.
What aren’t you missing about working?
Lots of stuff. I’m not missing two deadlines every day. You know, the news lately has been very disheartening. When you are a local TV newscaster, you are sharing all the local news every day, about the shootings in the Metro, violence, and the hateful things that people are doing to each other. And, of course, we try to not just cover the bad news. We cover a lot of stuff that’s not bad news, but there’s no getting around the fact that life has gotten more violent and more challenging … It gets you after a while, just taking in stuff.
D.C. is an interesting market because there’s a big difference between the glossy D.C. stuff and the local news stuff. How do you sort of get through that for 33 years, telling those sort of sad stories?
I think it has helped me a lot that I picked up the medical reporting very early … There’s a lot of hopeful news in the medical arena and and a lot of inspiring people who are researching for cures and treatments and people who are fighting against incredible odds and being very brave.
What’s an ideal evening for you, now that you have your evenings back?
I don’t know if I know what the typical evening is yet. In my pajamas at 7 o’clock and having a glass of wine and watching something on Netflix and not having to go back to work at 9 o’clock?
You’d go home between broadcasts most days?
Yeah, because I’ve always lived within a short drive of the office. Usually heat up something in the microwave for dinner and now, it’s maybe watch a few minutes of TV, but for many years, it was read the bedtime stories, help with the homework, sign the paperwork that came home in the backpack, you know, all that kind of stuff.
Are you going to bed way earlier now?
Do you think the kind of longevity that you had, staying in an anchor role for decades, is possible now? That somebody who would come in and replace you could stay there for 33 years?
I don’t know. I mean, where is the media business in general headed? I don’t know. I think there’s always going to be a place for local news coverage. But will it look the same? It’s all right there on your phone … Will a job like mine exist in the future? I’m not confident about that. I feel very, very lucky that I got to do this job when I did.
One of the ways you describe yourself on Instagram is a TV news survivor. What does that mean to you?
I’m saying I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’ve seen a lot of changes. And I’m still hanging in there and still like doing what I do.
Despite working intimately with some of the city’s biggest four-legged celebrities, Craig Saffoe has managed to maintain both his humility and a level head. As the curator of Great Cats, Andean bears, and the Kids’ Farm at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Saffoe oversees the care of 17 species and more than 50 individual animals, including Luke the Lion, who tragically passed away this fall, as well as the two new Andean bear cubs and their parents, Brienne and Quito. Saffoe has worked in zoology for almost 30 years, all of them at the National Zoo. Recently Saffoe has begun to focus on a different aspect of his career: making a path for aspiring, minority zoologists. —Camila Bailey
You and your team have developed some incredible relationships with the animals, but you have recently had to deal with the loss of [lions] Luke and Naba. How has the Zoo coped?
With the animals, it’s debatable. We always want animals to feel a certain way, I think because that’s how we feel, and so we project our emotions onto a lot of animals. But then you take it to the staff and of course it hits the staff because we work with these animals every day. They are our family. The tricky thing is that you have to maintain your professionalism while you’re feeling kind of cloudy.
We still have other large, dangerous animals we’re working with. So if we were to allow ourselves to be completely consumed by emotion, we would be much more likely to make a mistake and do something that could be hazardous or deadly to us. [But] we had people here checking each other’s backs all the time, especially following Luke’s passing.
You have also created a larger network within the zoology community, the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals.
Yes. We’re about a year and a half old and we have been having a blast with that.
Do you wish you had been able to connect with those in the organization sooner in your career?
Absolutely. I came in as an intern in 1994, at 19, and I was very lucky that I started under the mentorship of another Black zookeeper. But after he retired, I would look around and say, “Huh, I’m the only one in these meetings.” It’s the same thing with my female colleagues who sit in a room full of men and go, “Why aren’t there more women in these chairs? That would be awfully nice to see someone who looks like me and has the same lived experience.”
You don’t stay in a field for more than 20 years disgruntled, but the one thing I wish is that I had been thoughtful enough to open more doors targeting minorities.
We [zoologists] have been exclusionary without trying to be. Every time you see a zoo professional or wildlife expert—the Crocodile Hunter, Jane Goodall—it’s all folks who have one thing in common; they’re all White. For someone who is non-White, I love those people, but you don’t see yourself.
The AMZAP group has 600+ members now, and it’s phenomenal because a lot of people had no idea that we were out here.
Does AMZAP have a mentorship program?
Yes! Almost two years into the program, we’re finally getting this organized. It took off a lot faster than I thought it was going to and in the meantime, I try to work with students where I can. It’s been one of the best parts of this field.
How did you maintain your own interest in zoology?
The mentors I’ve had have helped me keep that spark alive. That plus the incoming pipeline of students, people who want to come into the field, the keepers who work with me, all keep that spark going.
When you can say, “I remember when I was five years in and I was learning at the rate you’re learning,” it’s inspiring to me, as someone who now has almost 30 years of experience, to try to impart some of that experience onto people.
It’s been almost a year and a half since the Zoo reopened after the initial COVID-19 outbreak. How has that felt?
It’s huge for us. When people are coming by, it just brings such a whole different vibe to the zoo. We often hear from community members that, even just running through the park, they get just as familiar and attached to the animals as we do. You realize how much of a community staple you are. It’s impactful to see your own community respond positively to the work you’re doing.
Our leadership has done a good job of trying to tie the community more into what we’re doing instead of just trying to live up to the national Smithsonian brand. We’re D.C.’s zoo. We are the Smithsonian for the entire United States, but D.C. is our community. D.C. is where we live. D.C. are the people that we need, we need the community members of the city to wrap their arms around us and show us some love.
As the executive director of D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiners, Erin Pollitt is proud to be a nurse leading a team of nurses. DCFNE is the city’s sole provider of adult medical forensic care, meaning these specially trained nurses are the ones who respond to hospital calls, document injuries for potential legal cases, and care for survivors of sexual assault and domestic and family violence. It’s where the criminal justice system meets nursing. On call 24 hours a day, every day of the year, DCFNE not only handles the hospital response, but also operates a clinic where survivors who don’t need acute medical care can get a physical exam and have injuries documented should they wish to eventually pursue charges. Annually, DCFNE serves more than 800 survivors. This year, they’ve seen a 30 percent increase, exceeding their pre-COVID numbers. With 15 years of nursing experience—11 of them as a forensic nurse—Pollitt has been at the helm of DCFNE since 2019. She’s the organization’s third executive director, but the first nurse to lead. —Sarah Marloff
You’ve seen an increase in survivors. Are more people being assaulted or are more people feeling better about seeking support?
I can’t opine on crime increasing, but my gut is that it’s not that. We’ve been really making it a priority to do outreach and connect with community organizations and schools to let folks know what resources are available and feel more comfortable accessing those resources. There are barriers. Folks are worried about their privacy, they’re worried about engaging in a formal system that may have harmed them in the past, they’re worried about cost. So anything we can do to dispel and make it so folks feel safe coming to us. My gut is that our actions, on that end, have been working.
How does your background as a nurse first help shape the organization?
Our field of nursing, it’s not for the faint of heart. No nursing is, but this one carries a high risk of vicarious trauma. It carries a very large emotional weight load. Because I’ve been there and I felt it, and I do feel it, even tertiary … it helps me really prioritize the needs of the staff and ensure they feel cared for and supported and can still go out and do the work.
Why did you choose forensic nursing?
I didn’t go into nursing knowing that this was even an option. Fifteen years later, I get really excited when I hear students or nurses interviewing for us say, “I learned about this in nursing school and knew I wanted to do it,” because I didn’t learn about it in nursing school.
When people ask me what I do, like at a dinner party, it’s either a conversation starter or an immediate conversation ender. I usually lead with, “It’s not always the most uplifting job, but it is very rewarding.”
That’s what keeps me in it. When I worked in the ER, I would manage multiple patients at the same time and couldn’t really spend time with someone because you truly have something that’s more urgent. The beauty of forensic nursing is that we are called in to respond and we have no other patients. We’re there for just the one patient and so we’re able to take as much time with them as they need.
What does that look like?
Once we get in exam mode, we find out their history of what happened … Typically, we’ll ask, “What happened to your body?” because there’s not only the forensic and potential evidence component, but there’s the medical component.
Some of the things we might offer based on what they tell us and what they’re willing [to sit through] is a head-to-toe, full body exam. We’re trained to assess for injuries of trauma—some things we know are symptoms of strangulation or head injury, but you might not see marks or injuries with the naked eye. We offer to take pictures—an additional skill we learn is forensic photography. We could offer a Sexual Assault Kit, which includes swabs collected and then preserved within a chain of custody and sent to the crime lab for testing. We also offer toxicology testing and assess for risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and we would recommend medications.
And all of that could be evidence used in a legal case, correct? If the survivor wishes to enter the criminal justice system?
Absolutely. Even the chart and the documentation get used, oftentimes, in both civil and criminal cases. And our nurses can testify, as well.
What should people know about these services?
It’s illegal to force someone to cooperate with police in order to get SANE [sexual assault nurse examiner] services. We definitely offer an option where folks can come in, have anything from our menu of services with or without police involvement. We can store sexual assault kits for up to two years in case folks change their mind. The confidentiality part is so important. We’re a separate organization from the hospital. Anyone in D.C. can call the D.C. Victim Hotline—it’s 24/7—to get linked to our program and a confidential advocate. (844) 4-HELP-DC.
Ren Powell moved to D.C. in 1999 to attend Howard University with plans to go on to dental school. Along the way, he got hooked on a contemporary form of capoeira, an art form Africans enslaved in Brazil created that combines martial arts, movement, and music, and he changed course. More than 20 years later, he is still teaching capoeira through his nonprofit, Capoeira DC, and next year he will ascend to its highest level—mestre—a rare feat for a Jamaican-born American. He’s lived in Bloomingdale with his wife, also a capoeirista, since 2002. —Mitch Ryals
You were born in Jamaica, and then moved to New York with your family at 13, but let’s start with your arrival in D.C. to attend school at Howard University.
I’ve been speaking Spanish my whole life, and then when I got to university, I was like, how do I get outta here as fast as possible? I played soccer there also, and I had ambitions of being an athlete. But language was the fastest way that I could score some good grades.
I also speak Brazilian Portuguese, I speak Jamaican patois, and I’m learning Italian now. I understand all the romance languages.
I grew up with this Jamaican patois language, and my dad would be like, “Speak properly. Don’t speak that street language.” So I learned that I can speak in this way out here, but when I’m around older, educated people, they want me to pronounce the words right. Wherever there was colonization there was creole language. It’s a means of escape, communication, and maintenance of culture.
You said capoeira took over your plans to go to dental school. Talk more about that decision.
I’d taken the DAT and realized it was going to cost me about $125,000 to finish dental school, and I said, “Oh my god, but I can make that money back.” I was trying to rationalize all this stuff with myself.
And then I had a conversation with one of my best friends, who is a dentist, and I tried to get him to come to capoeira class. He was like, “You know what, Ren, I can’t do any of those things anymore because what happens if I hurt my fingers, hurt my hands? I won’t be able to make money to feed my family, and I paid so much money to go to dental school.” I was like, “What? Is it a trade-off?” My nonprofit had been created at that point, and it was growing. I started accepting the idea that I might have been a part of something from its grassroots stages, and I should just ride it.
Can you talk a little bit about capoeira? What is your philosophy around teaching it?
When you start capoeira, it’s dance, fight, acrobatics, music, and culture. When you start training capoeira, you’re being taught as a performance artist immediately. It’s self-defense and performance art at the same time, and there is music to accompany all of that.
You’ve been teaching this art form for more than 20 years now. How do you approach that work?
What I teach in capoeira is to explore your creative energy. You might like to sing, you might like to do cartwheels, you might like to be a leader and just help people out. Whatever that thing is, we’re gonna find it. You might like to just sit back and draw us. And then we’re gonna explore it, and then you have to learn to hone and cultivate it.
Next year you’ll become a capoeira “mestre” or master, which is the highest level in the art. How did you get there?
In capoeira, the belt system is a circle. When you’re a beginner student, you have the white cord, and then the white cord is also a master cord in our group. When you become a “professor,” that’s the post-instructor level, you start the “formatura” period where you’re being formed into a master.
But myself being an estrangeiro, a foreign capoeirista, I wanted to make sure nobody could ask me any questions that I couldn’t answer. I wanted to be held accountable for this knowledge.
And there’s an event to celebrate your accomplishment?
Yes, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities had a festival grant, and we got it. So we’re gonna host this formatura event next year. It’s free to the public, but we’ll have three or four days of celebration. One of them will be a performance of my students and celebrating 20 years of growth, not just for me but for Capoeira DC.
Another goal is to honor this history. A lot of people associated with it in Brazil are known as ruffians. It was illegal in the 1800s, and if you were caught doing capoeira, they would cut the Achilles tendon, cut your foot off. Same thing with being a runaway here in America.
We still need to know where this thing is from, the source of this thing, how it was discriminated against and pay homage to that and understand that and be a part of that and its fullness.
What’s next for you? Will you continue with capoeira after you’ve reached the top?
Capoeira will be part of my life forever, but I steal away every now and then and do my thing. Ping-pong is very near and dear to my heart. Soccer is more dangerous for my hamstrings and my body, but ping-pong, yeah, I can roll.
I love to dance, I love salsa, I love vacationing, I love hiking, I love exploring new cultures. I want to learn Arabic at some point because I really want to read some of the old texts in the world that’s in those old Mesopotamian languages, and Arabic and Hebrew can give you some kind of gaze into it.
Pick an issue involving the criminal legal system in D.C. and Patrice Sulton has been part of it. The decade-long process of revising the city’s outdated criminal code? She helped run it. Police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s killing? She served on the Council-created committee coming up with possible answers. The debate over the future of the D.C. Jail? She helped write the report proposing steps forward. Sulton has spent close to two decades working on reform efforts in D.C., initially as an attorney in private practice before launching the nonprofit D.C. Justice Lab following the sweeping racial justice protests of 2020. That history has made her one of the most trusted sources of bold ideas about how to change the system around the Wilson Building. —Alex Koma
How did you find your way to criminal justice reform?
I came here for law school. And while in law school [at George Washington University], I participated in a program that allows students to represent people who are accused of misdemeanor criminal offenses and children who are facing charges in delinquency court … In criminal court rooms, the goal is to figure out whether a person’s guilty or not guilty and to mete out punishment. And I always felt like my job should be bigger than that, that I should try to help my clients out where I could help them. And so if that meant they were abused by the police, I would figure out how to sue the police. If the laws that they were convicted under were unfair, then I wanted to learn how to change the laws.
You surely would have made more money by staying in private practice, to say nothing of the precarity of launching a nonprofit in the middle of a pandemic. What made you do it?
I’m from a generation that pushes the “get rich, give back” kind of philosophy. I just didn’t grow up that way. I have always been taught and observed with my own two eyes that if you take care of the community, the community will take care of you. I have parents and aunts and uncles who would never be without a meal or a place to stay because of the way they’ve helped people throughout their lives. And to me, that’s really valuable … Now, if you ask me in a couple of weeks, when they start announcing all the Big Law bonuses, you might get a different answer. But seriously, I wouldn’t trade it.
Last year, the Post quoted you criticizing lawmakers, saying not enough people directly affected by the system (including Black residents and survivors of crime) were part of reform conversations. Do you feel anything has changed since then?
I do think that, in some ways, people are talking about it more. It’s also become kind of a buzzword or virtue signal … But there’s a lot of value in the intentionality to me. I think if people are sincerely trying to do the outreach, to do the engagement, that, to me, is really valuable. And I’m happy to see some movement in that direction. And I’m hoping that we’ll be able to bring a little bit more honesty to how challenging it is in the new year.
D.C. leaders have taken some steps toward police reform since the summer of 2020, but your organization and others have also observed a lack of progress on some issues. Has enough changed?
I do have strong concerns about the pace of change. I oftentimes feel frustrated by what I think is a universally good idea moving very slowly, or not at all. Every now and then I’m reminded that it could be worse, that we could be facing backward, since you are seeing bills being introduced in places that are regressive. But in some ways it’s more frustrating to me to see everybody who outwardly says that they share the same values, where we are in the best position to do things that are smarter ways of keeping us safe, and to still see the refusal to do it or inaction or bureaucratic logjams. That’s almost worse than dealing with oppositional forces that just have completely different values, or that are just completely biased or wrongheaded.
Aiyi’nah Ford is many things. By day, she’s the executive director of the Future Foundation, a nonprofit that serves traumatized teens and their families. At other times, she is a queer, cosplaying beauty queen, a Ward 8 resident, community organizer, and the “community baby mama.” —Mitch Ryals
You wear many hats, including the literal hat you’re wearing right now. Talk to me about your work with the Future Foundation.
So I am acknowledged as the community baby mama. This is a term that came up as part of my work at the Future Foundation, which is the only trauma-informed youth drop-in center in Ward 8. In one of the super parent support circles, they came up with that term because I show up and fill the spaces as everybody’s baby mama.
And your own upbringing has played a role in your work with this organization?
Yes. My mom was 15 when she had me.
Are you close with your mom?
My biological mother and I are being diligent about our healing journey. My mom’s own childhood trauma as well as my childhood trauma is part of the reason for founding the Future Foundation.
Talk about the kind of programming you offer.
We have our LGBTQ and You—our LGBTQ-specific programming, but the Y-O-U means a lot of other youth still come. We also have Stay Woke DC, which is our formal social justice organizing program. And then they have their Stay Woke Radio—their online radio show where they can talk about all their issues, play whatever music they want, and whether you actually come to programming or not, they can mobilize around what’s going on. And we serve three hot meals every day, so that helps given that we are in a food desert.
You’re involved in beauty pageants, too, right?
Pageantry is my biggest hobby. I am the director of the Miss Pure Sparkle DC pageant, which is for young girls between 0 and 18 years old. The whole point is to inspire, educate, and empower, and they are really focused on leadership development, and there isn’t this focus on beauty standards.
And you’ve participated in a few pageants yourself?
Currently I’m Miss D.C. Pin Up 2022 and also Miss D.C. Plus America 2022, and my platform is transforming childhood trauma into triumph. So I literally go to these pageants where everybody thinks that D.C. is like the Lincoln Memorial and cherry blossoms, and I’m like but here’s the murder rate.
You say that from the stage?
In nice ways, with makeup and glitz and glam, but yes.
What’s the biggest benefit you get from these pageants? What do you take and hold on to?
Pageantry has put me in rooms with people who, I swear to god, would have never noticed me. But I put that sash on, put that crown on? Oh, can we talk tomorrow? And I’m going to leverage that so there is access and opportunity for the youth, their families, and the educators I work with.
Nobody told me at a young age, you can get college scholarships, you can get endorsements, you can get free shit. There’s all these things that are open to you by standing for something. And it’s not about changing yourself to be beautiful for a system, at least for me. I am presenting my beautiful, queer, ghetto ass, Black self. There isn’t a different pageant wardrobe. I bring my full self to the space. If I’m dating, whoever’s face I’m sitting on, come on to the pageant. There isn’t a switch. And I know that everyone isn’t afforded that opportunity.
You have a tattoo on your chest. What is it?
It’s me, a self-portrait. It says “Still I Rise.” And I got it before Maya Angelou died.
And you have Winnie the Pooh on your arm, too?
Yes, at some point I tried to take my life, and I’m a big Winnie the Pooh fan. So this is the new Winnie the Pooh (pointing), and this is classic Winnie the Pooh. [It means] I’m always a work in progress. You’re going to evolve.
It was very important to me because my grandmother, Christine Ford, may she rest in peace, noticed my stitches on my arm [after I attempted to end my life]. And we sat across from each other, just like this, and she would drink her tea and she was like, “Why did you do that?” That was the last time I tried to hurt myself because I didn’t want to hurt my grandmother’s feelings. And what I realize now is, instead of us talking about our pain, we’ll build more with beauty.
(If you are considering harming yourself, you can get support by calling the NAMI HelpLine at (800) 950-6264. In D.C., you can also call the Department of Behavioral Health’s Access HelpLine at 1 (888) 793-4357.)
Talk more about this link between pain and beauty. Does that also apply to your work in the pageant world?
I think for me with pageantry, I know I go into a space as someone who is very much traversing the poverty line. With my background, with my lack of family support, with the amount of fundraising that I do, it’s a miracle that I even get there. And I’m able to meet so many girls, and some suck, don’t get me wrong, but the majority of them are such amazing people.
Why do some of them suck?
When I met those girls, at the workshops we went to, some of them hazed me.
What do you mean?
I was asked was I the help? Was I the makeup girl? I had another girl tell me, “If you’re going to do pageants…” and then named all the ways I needed to assimilate.
That I might want to consider wigs, I might want to consider changing my style. My purple glitter lip has become a signature. Now this is unsolicited advice as we were backstage changing clothes, and we went right back out for [the judges] to announce who would be the final five. And myself and this same unsolicited advice asshole were in the same top five.
Dave Dildine broadcasts area traffic conditions from 2 until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, six times an hour on news radio station WTOP, knitting together an array of rush hour wrecks and traffic jams. The 38-year-old Northern Virginia native says he didn’t grow up hoping to be a traffic reporter—he loved weather and wanted to be a storm chaser. —Tom Sherwood
What kind of car do you drive?
I own a 1983 240D [Mercedes]. When I bought it 12 years ago, I aspired to re-chrome it and rebuild it, [but] never got the garage to justify doing that. It might rust out from the bottom one day. It’s not exactly the most fuel efficient vehicle. It has an acceleration of zero to 60 in about 20 or 25 seconds. Merging on to the Beltway is a white-knuckle experience.
I read somewhere that if you’re in a traffic jam to just remember, you’re part of the problem.
If you want to get philosophical, that’s absolutely true. We are all traffic. It’s a reflection of us. Sometimes it’s an ugly reflection. It’s easy to employ a cliche when describing traffic. It’s a mess, it’s a disaster. It’s a nightmare. Those cliches are pretty tired.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County. My family previously had lived in Tenleytown, Palisades. I’ve lived in Northwest for about 12 years now. I went to school at [George] Mason and worked in Texas, but I’ve lived for the most part in the D.C. area.
“Traffic and Weather on the 8s” is WTOP’s well-known slogan.
I didn’t aspire to traffic reporting from 6 years old on. I was obsessed with construction vehicles and road signs, as a lot of kids are. I was much more interested in weather. But when the opportunity came about for a traffic reporting gig here at WTOP, a flagship station, it was an offer too good to turn down.
WTOP’s Bob Marbourg retired in 2019 as the chief traffic reporter after 40 years. You spent nearly 10 years by his side.
I was always impressed by his ability to generalize traffic in a way that was meaningful. We [still] speak frequently. Sometimes our conversations last for hours.
You do traffic from 2 until 7 p.m. each weekday. What do you do before you go on the air.
I like to read-in at least an hour early. The midday work zones are already in place and having a varying impact on traffic flow. Traffic reporting is very spontaneous. By necessity, we have to triage the information.
How do you get your traffic information?
That’s a really good question. It’s not nearly as straightforward as a lot of people think. The truth is, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of incidents that affect people every day that are very difficult to pin down. The bulk of our best information comes from our listenership on the tip line. (To report a traffic problem to WTOP, listeners can call 202-895-5047.)
It’s not like you report a couple of times an hour, it’s on the eights, six times an hour.
It is exhausting. Marbourg always used to employ the art of “vague,” saying just enough to give the audience a sense that the condition is known, but not saying something that’s wrong. He was masterful at it.
Politicians are very good at that, too.
The motives are a little different, but yeah.
How important is radio when people have traffic and way-finding apps in their vehicles and on their phones?
The apps do a fabulous job. The way people are getting around has changed markedly. But I really do believe there is a place for traffic reporting on the radio … because the apps don’t tell you why you might be diverted. And it’s that reassurance that we try to offer. I think it’s still important to have a human touch.
How important is it for you to have something new every 10 minutes?
There is no time to write a script. It is all ad-libbed, starting with the tie-up that affects the highest number of drivers and working down the line.
Is there a top spot that you know you’re going to be reporting on every day?
I try to focus on what is abnormal and what is robbing people of most of their time. We all know to expect heavy traffic on the Inner Loop at the American Legion Bridge at 4:30 p.m. Congestion is just a fact of life.
Your station bio says you like running, tennis, and photography in your off time. Are you a real runner?
No, I’m a fraud. I consider three miles a success.
Where do you stand on the bike-automobile war?
Do you really want to do that right now? [Laughs] Everyone is so inflamed now. Social media has just wound everyone up. Varying modes of transportation are just a fact of urban life. To make it safer for everyone is paramount.
And traffic, five or 10 years from now?
It’s the phenomenon of induced demand. It does seem like the way we travel, especially in urban areas, is unsustainable. The congestion is lasting for longer hours of the day and eventually it will, if not already, have a negative impact on our quality of life … unless we don’t just re-engineer our roads, but re-engineer our expectations and our way of living.
Few of the coterie of young activists organizing in D.C. are more involved than 23-year-old Kush Kharod. He got his start helping organize students at his Montgomery County high school to kneel before football games, and carried that energy, through his time at the University of Maryland, into political work after moving to D.C. He’s focused some on electoral politics, volunteering for Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and incoming Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker, but most of his work has been with outside groups like the Sunrise Movement. Though Kharod’s day job as an electrical engineer takes up much of his time, that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most effective organizers around progressive causes in the District, working especially fervently to boost Lewis George’s Green New Deal legislation from a pipe dream into policy. —Alex Koma
What made you want to get into political organizing?
I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Montgomery Village. And I grew up in a rough neighborhood. The struggles you see happening with Black and Brown people you see right in front of you and it isn’t unusual, right? You walk outside and you’ll see someone who’s homeless, you’ll see people not having a grocery store near them or you’ll see, like, five cop cars outside of our high school. That’s something that we grew up with, and you’d be like, this is wack. This doesn’t make any sense. It really changed my perspective.
The Green New Deal has gained some traction nationally, but it has yet to register much at the local level. What made you want to take it on?
When Janeese Lewis George got elected, we saw a lot of opportunity. We were like, “OK, this is someone that really wants to bring some form of bold, visionary legislation into D.C.” And so we started thinking about what that could look like. And for us, I think it was the two issues of climate and housing. And you know, we can’t create something that’s visionary that isn’t housing, right? That is the crisis that we’re facing in D.C. with gentrification and displacement. But we can’t avoid the fact that a lot of these buildings that are very deeply affordable are poorly maintained by landlords … Bringing that intersectionality with climate change just makes it easier. People are like, look, these buildings are going to be renewable energy anyway, right? They’re gonna have energy-efficient windows, they’re not going to break down, you’re not going to have a flood, right? You’re gonna be able to live in an apartment for several years, grow a family there, and thrive.
You also organized around passing a bill to let noncitizens, including undocumented residents, vote in local elections. That effort has been proposed for decades but never gained much traction. How did your efforts succeed where others failed?
A lot of times we were seeing organizations putting their names on it, and it tended to create more of a problem for this bill specifically. Because a lot of opposition comes out and attacks the organization for what it is, right? So really, our goal was to organize around this, keep it low-key, bring in a lot of people who are impacted, but leave it at that. And I guess that’s where the lobbying comes in. We were talking with councilmembers about this, answering their questions about it … They would raise their concerns about it and we would try to comfort them. And, you know, nine out of 10 conversations, people are gonna be like, this makes sense. We could show that there’s other jurisdictions that do this. And most simply, the simple premise is that if you live in a place, then you deserve to decide what happens there.
D.C.’s progressive movement has faced plenty of criticism over the years for too often centering White voices and not making enough inroads in poorer communities in wards 5, 7, and 8. How do you think that can change?
From my experience knocking on doors in Ward 5, I do hear that. I think people are like, “I don’t know where the city is moving. I feel a bit scared about what this means for me and my family, and no one’s talking to me about this stuff.” And I think it really does come down to two things. One is explaining things in ways that people understand and connecting with their lived experiences. And two is having people who are trusted in these communities to share your vision and empower and spotlight … I think connecting with those people and really bringing them into the conversation about what these bills, what this legislation, what this movement looks like, is like the best way forward for us. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Democratic Party being there, and really uplifting these voices. But there’s a lot of voices that are not in these Dems meetings that need to be heard. There’s a lot of renters, there’s a lot of Spanish-speaking individuals, right? And I think we need to bring those people in.
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