Sunday, January 31, 2010

Terrence on Dressing for the Occasion

"I grew up in D.C., 14th and Randolph St. Northwest. I spent most of my life in D.C. until I moved to Montgomery County and then joined the Army. I served for eight years, including tours in Germany and California. I came back to D.C. in 1985 after being discharged. I had a brain aneurysm in California and now the left side of my body is paralyzed. I came back because this was home and pretty much all of my family lives here. This place had changed a lot while I was away and continues to change all the time. Just look at some of our neighborhoods. I mean Chinatown is completely different than how it was when I was coming up.

"Today, I had a job interview doing security so I had to dress for the occasion. I woke up this morning and this is what I felt like wearing. Come on man, I got this job. I have been in the Army for eight years. I know what I am doing when it comes to security."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jose on Being a Part of It

This interview was translated from Spanish.

"I came to this country in October 1988 from El Salvador. Over time, my whole family came over to America, except for one or two people. This country has been good to me, and I thank D.C. for all of the opportunities to work and raise my family here. It is difficult to be so far away from my home and culture, especially as I don't speak much English - just a few words. I still go back to El Salvador every year to see my friends and family and keep a connection to the place. But my life is here now.

"I came here in my late 30's and went straight to work. It is hard to learn a new language when you are older and don't have the time to do much other than work. I originally came here to make money for my family and go back to El Salvador so I didn't really worry about the language. But I ended up staying and got my citizenship. I am still trying to learn English, but I am 57 and it is even more difficult now than when I was a younger man. But I make do.

"In 1995, I took a job at the National Building Museum. I work as a janitor and keep the building clean and look after the outside. Because of my English, I don't know as much about the museum as I wish I did. Still, I find the museum beautiful and like to see all of the people, including the school children, come and enjoy themselves in the space. It is nice to be a part of that."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kamel on Free Hugs

"I was born in Algeria and came here twelve years ago when I was twelve. Life here was completely different than Algeria. I lived in Virginia at first. It was just like the movies! But, when I spent more time seeing the inside of life there, I didn't like it. My family moved to Columbia Heights a number of years ago. I like it better here and can do stuff like this - give out free hugs outside the Target. I decided on this location because it is near my house and there is a lot of foot traffic. The diversity here is great, so I can hug all kinds of people.

"I thought that giving out free hugs was a nice way to share the love and interact with strangers. A lot of people go through really hard days and, if I can make their day lighter, I know it will make both of our days brighter. Plus, everybody loves hugs! If you can't express something through words on the street, then expressing something physically is at a whole 'nother level. I have gotten a few negative response, but the positives definitely make up for them. I say one-out-of-ten people come and get a free hug from me. And once someone gets a hug, those watching want free hugs, too. I am pretty good at feeling the other person's energy and responding with the right kind of hug. I also do fist bumps for those that don't want hugs. It's just about the connection.

"From here, I am probably going to expand and give out more hugs around the city. I actually have a couple of friends who are going to get involved. Why wouldn't people want to give and get hugs? It makes you and other people feel good. I also have a sign in Spanish because you have to target the Latin community. You gotta give them the opportunity to get some love, too."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Matthew on Asking the Right Questions

"I grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When I graduated from college, I couldn't get into graduate school and rather than be drafted into Vietnam, I joined the Navy and went to Officer Candidate School. I spent a year watching the war and two years in Scotland as a diplomatic courier. I came to Washington in the early 70's. I had G.I. money and went to get my MBA in computers at American University. My first job in town was in the information business. I was a paper boy and delivered the New York Times at 5 a.m. everyday.

"I always knew that I wanted my own business. I would sell hot dogs on the Mall if I had to. I started a few businesses that failed. Then, I became a consultant. Funny how when people fail, they become consultants! So, I started with a phone and a desk down at Foggy Bottom. I was getting free government information and selling it to Fortune 500 fat cats. It shocked me that a schmuck like me from Wilkes-Barre could make a free phone call and turn around and sell that information for thousands of dollars to some rich person who was too lazy to get it. It was basically a shoe shine business. People spend $5 to shine their shoes when you can get a $2 can of shoe polish at CVS that will last your whole life. That mentality is what this town is all about. After helping rich people for a number of years, I figured that I would spend the rest of my life helping the rest of the country find out how to get useful government information. 

"Now, I look back on my failures and realize that they were the result of me not doing things my own way. I thought if I failed that I would have a permanent 'F' on my forehead, but people don't give a shit. They are too worried about themselves. It took me a couple of failures to figure that out. When I started this business, I wanted to have fun. I figured that the worst that would happen would be failing again. When I started having fun, things became different. I realized that I was good at acting foolishly on television. My parents did not admit that I was their kid for the first ten years of my career! They wanted me to act like Henry Kissinger. I wouldn't sell shit if I acted like that. Life is trying to realize who you are. The more you go through this education system, you are told to be like everyone else. We should be bringing out the best in everyone and encouraging people to do what they are really good at. 

"To me, that is what the question mark suits are all about. About ten years ago, I was in a down cycle and bought a cheap suit and had someone embroider a question mark on it. I always wanted to have a suit like that. Had I been a teacher or accountant, I would have gotten the same suit. To me, the philosophy behind the question mark is that we live in a society where we have more accessible information than at any other  time in history. You can go to Google and get a million answers. The answers are easy, it is the questions that are hard. I really believe that we need to struggle in life to ask the right questions." 

Learn more about Matthew Lesko here

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Abrahatsiyone on Being Her Own Boss

"I came to D.C. 24 years ago. I am originally from Eritrea. I own this food stand and have been in this same place for seventeen years. Always on 4th and E Street Northwest and always selling the same things: hot dogs, chips, soda and candy. I decided on this space because my family used to run another food business here. When I was ready, they gave this to me so I could run my own business. 

"After all of this time, I have a nice relationship with the people here. When I need to use the bathroom, I can go use the building across the street. I lock the door and the other vendors and people on the street look after my stand. I have been here so long that we all know each other. 

"I am here five days a week, no matter the weather. In the winter, it is very cold and there is not much business because people don't want to come outside. But still, I have to be here. It is difficult to be your own boss, but I like that no one tells me what to do. I decide whether the business is open or not. I am out here to earn money for me and my family. That makes me work harder." 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Wale on Sneakers and Hip-Hop

"D.C. has influenced a lot of my music. The call and response, the drums, the beats, basically all of my tracks are directly impacted by D.C. It is important to incorporate your hometown in Hip-Hop because it is such a regional sport. I love D.C, man. I was born in Northwest. I moved to Maryland at ten years old and have been moving back and forth ever since. Some of the most influential things for me here have been the shoes and the music, especially Go-Go. 

"Shoes have always been a part of my life. I used to work at a sneaker store up in Price George's Plaza. That was kind of when the sneaker culture jumped off in connection to Hip-Hop. Working at the store, I had the inside plug and always got shoes a week early. I even remember skipping school to get the Air Jordan Space Jams. I used to save my money to get the latest sneaks. It has always been a part of the culture out here. This has always been a big shoe city. I think that being a trendsetter with sneakers really helped me with Hip-Hop because people would check out my sneaks and my style. 

"With Hip-Hop, I still remember going to certain places to buy mixtapes when I was little. I used to look up to all of those rappers and now I am on their level. It's humbling. I feel like I've come a long way, but still got a long way to go. You know, I'm just a regular dude. I don't want to portray no images like I'm a street dude or nothing like that. I'm far from that. I'm just a guy who wears his feelings on his sleeve and I'm proud of it. I let my music reflect that."

Learn more about Wale and listen to his music here

Friday, January 22, 2010

Omotayo on Rebuilding What He Broke Down

"I was two or three when I came to D.C. from Nigeria. I remember going to elementary school in Southeast. It was a new experience. It was a rough experience. The neighborhoods were not the best, but I tried to keep myself right and do good in school. I didn't really travel much outside of my neighborhood, but I decided to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts to get a different experience of this city. It was there where I got really serious about school. Now, I am in the National Honor Society and want to go to college in fine arts. D.C. kind of helped me with my artistic development because it is a small place and has a good reputation for art. A lot of my art is about my own story.

"In D.C, it was, like, kind of rough fitting in because everybody mispronounced my name. My name means child of joy. This was a hard environment for me. Usually, I would do what everybody else was doing. At the same time, I kept my Nigerian identity by going to the Nigerian churches here. My Mom spoke Yoruba, our language, a lot. At home, we would greet people traditionally. The funny thing about all of that is that I rejected those customs when I first moved here. These customs were what made me different. I didn't want to be seen as the African kid, I just wanted to be seen as another kid. I kind of regret doing that because I feel like I lost some things in that process. But now, I am trying to take all of that back in and rebuild what I broke down. My art represents a lot of that process. It's funny, after all of that time, I am now seen as an African-American kid because unless you know my name and story, you just assume that I am that, but I feel African. Interesting how age has helped me come back to who I am. Now, I feel African. Actually, I take that back, I am just an individual. I don't like being boxed into a category."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cousins Diamond and Lavaya on the President's House

Lavaya - "I'm seven. Today, my Dad is taking us to the president's house and the Washington Monument and the library. I think a lot of work happens in the president's house. He makes laws there that impact everybody. The president's house is a big place that has two parts - one part for living and one part for working. I hear that each president gets to keep a room so that all the presidents can live together. My favorite part of Washington is Barack Obama. Did you know that he can speak seven different languages? He speaks English, Hawaiian and Illinois, but I forget the rest." 

Diamond - "I'm seven, too. I know that the president also has his cabinets. His cabinets are full of people who help him. The cabinets sit at the table with him and they coach him a lot. But, these aren't cabinets like in a kitchen. In his kitchen cabinets, he probably has food and cereal and other good stuff to eat. My favorite part of Washington is Michelle and the kids. I think that Michelle Obama sleeps a lot because she is so tired after taking care of Sasha and Malia. I think that Barack and Michelle think their girls are really special and call them both angels." 

Diamond, left, is pictured with her cousin Lavaya. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Elijah on the World Famous Florida Avenue Grill

"I grew up in Philly. I came to D.C. in 2004 to work at the Florida Avenue Grill. One of the managers asked me to come and help him run this business. I knew about this place in Philly. Everyone knows about this place. 

"The Grill was established in 1944 by Bertha and Lacey Wilson. When they started off, there were only two stools in here. The restaurant was only a fraction of what it is now. They used to share this space with two other stores. The Wilsons eventually bought the whole building and then sold the restaurant to their son. During the 1968 riots, most of the black businesses burned down except for this one. The owner was a Marine and he protected this restaurant. There were a couple of fire bombs thrown in the restaurant, but nothing that really stopped the business from running. After the riots, the business was really booming. Everyone started coming here to eat. That is how it got the momentum to stay here this long.

"The customers are a big part of this history. Learning about them is learning about the history of this community and of this restaurant. To me, working here is the best introduction to D.C. Everyone eats here, politicians and prostitutes and everyone in between. Through working here, I get to know a lot of people. When I started law school at the University of the District of Columbia, a bunch of professors knew me from the restaurant. Here you have white and black people, old timers and those who just moved into the neighborhood.  This place has it all and has seen it all."

The Florida Avenue Grill is at 1100 Florida Avenue NW. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Melissa on Bus Drivers

"Public transportation has been a big part of my life for 12 years now. Since college, I’ve always relied on public transportation. Now, I work in Silver Spring and live in Adams Morgan. So, not having a car, I’m relying on my feet and on public transportation to get around. One thing that I’ve really appreciated about D.C. is the incredible metro rail and bus system. I think they run efficiently, especially compared to Boston where I was living before D.C.

"The friendliness of bus drivers here is something that many of us don't acknowledge. The bus drivers in DC - it’s like they’re friends with you! It’s pretty amazing. There’s been a lot of times where I’m on the bus and I’ll get into really long, in-depth conversations with my drivers. A couple of my drivers I haven't seen in a while and I really start to miss them. It is funny the relationships that you have in life. As a commuter, your bus driver is as much a part of your life as anyone else. At the same time, with a bus driver there is that inconsistency as you won't always have the same driver. But when you do, it is like running into a friend.

"It’s very easy as a commuter to not acknowledge the people whose job it is to take us around. Many of us only acknowledge these people when the bus doesn't come or is late. Otherwise, we don't really acknowledge the role that bus and metro drivers play in our lives and how reliant we are on them to function and get us where we need to go. And what a responsibility it is! Unfortunately, because of a couple of accidents lately, that has been more of a conversation, but we put our lives in their hands everyday. We do it without seat belts and they still get us where we need to go safely and on time! And in this city, I find that they do it with a really great attitude.

"There is a guy who drives the S2 or S4 bus. He is the sweetest man. He knows everybody by name and he will greet you like he is your best friend. There is this one mother and young daughter who I see on the bus who always get off past Spring St and 16th Street. The whole way, the bus driver talks to the little girl. 'Are you excited about school today? Did you read a book last night? Did you like it? What are you going to be learning at school today?' He really engages this girl the whole time and when she gets off the bus and says goodbye to him, it is like his own granddaughter is leaving. He blows her kisses and she blows him kisses while she walks across the street. That is just a nice way to start your day. I've never seen that from a bus driver anywhere else."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tony on Dr. King's Assassination

"My father and mother and the older people used to always tell us about Dr. King when we were children. They told us what he stood for, you know – about peace and non-violence, and just everybody, every human and every race coming together and being as one. I remember when Dr. King was assassinated. I was about ten-years-old and living on Capitol Hill. His assassination touched a lot of people and that's why his death hurt a lot of people real bad. There was a Safeway behind my house and people started breaking the windows and rioting and, you know, looting. So, I took my little red wagon, went and sat at the Safeway and loaded it up and went back to my house. When my father got home, he made me take it all back and put it right back in the store!


"After Dr. King’s assassination, I remember H Street Northeast. Man, talk about smoke and glass and people, oh man - it was something that you really didn’t want to see, but it was real. To me, he brought a lot of people together – whites, blacks, and Hispanics. And he eliminated a lot of hatred, you know. That’s the legacy that I got from him. From what I believe, in order to achieve something sometimes you’ve got to give something, you know, and he had to give his life.

"In my life, I’ve seen a lot of the city change. A lot of the city being torn down and remodeled and a lot of people moving in and out of here. I’ve been here for 52 years of my life. It’s a nice city – I love it! I was born and raised here, so I got to love it, you know."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Concepcion on Washington Being Corrupt

“I am originally from Spain. I came to New York in the 1960's. I have had a lot of difficult situations in my life. I left New York because of abuses and threats to me. No one would help me so I came to Washington. When I came here, I had nothing and found a job taking care of Eunice Shriver's wardrobe. The Kennedy family didn't help me either and, with the money I made there, I started printing fliers and then moved out in front of the White House in 1981 to protest the injustices happening to me. 

"To me, Washington is corruption and the Zionists are responsible for everything. Jewish people practice Torah and Talmud. They are waiting for the Messiah and are forbidden to have a state until the Messiah comes. Zionism is the biggest problem in the world today. They are destroying this country. As the administration changes, nothing changes. We have the same people, the same Nazi police and the same Zionists who control this nation. I’m not against the Jews, but against the Zionists.

“Out here, the police bother me all the time. I have been arrested and beaten and told to be silent. With all of my time here, I have no relationships with the police. They are all Nazis and Zionists. Today, there was a Chinese group demonstrating for human rights in China and the police were depriving my rights here. So much contrast, China asking for human rights help and a policeman on a bike harassing me. 

"This place is my home. I live here, but have many rules. We can’t move more than three feet from our tent. It is hard, especially when you have to go to the bathroom. To make money, I paint peace rocks. Now, I can’t paint because of the weather so it is difficult and rely on donations from tourists and friends."

Read more about Concepcion's history here

Friday, January 15, 2010

Josh on the Little Pieces of the Puzzle

“I was technically born in D.C., at Sibley Hospital, but I grew up in Kensington, Maryland and have lived there all my life. While Maryland is home, D.C. is home, too. D.C. has always been a big part of my life. As a kid, I came down to the museums. As I got older, I started going to the 9:30 Club, in the old location at 930 F Street Northwest, to see shows. My first show at the club was Shudder to Think. I don’t know exactly when it was, but probably sometime in high school. My sister was dating a guy who took us down to the show. From then on, I went to shows at 9:30 whenever I could. This was a really unique place. I had been to see the 80’s and early 90’s hair bands at Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Cap Center, but this place was simply hundreds of sweaty, dirty people going crazy. It was a nice change of pace and there was something about it that just spoke to me. I knew that when I was old enough, I wanted to get a job here.

“When I started at the University of Maryland, my parents gave me a hard time about getting a job. In the student newspaper, there was an ad looking for campus security staff with the words ‘size or experience a plus.’ I had no experience whatsoever, but I went in and got hired because I was big. I’ve always been bigger than everyone else. When you are the biggest guy around, you can either be a bully or go in the opposite direction and develop a slow fuse. I made a conscious decision as a young person to not abuse my size. Hurting someone is the last thing that I want to do. It turned out this was a good mindset for this work. Remember, we are not bouncers, we are door staff here.

“Just before I turned 21, I was coming down to 9:30 for shows all of the time and started talking to everyone. I made a good of impressions on people. I helped break up a couple of fights when I wasn’t even working. One time, I had my septum jewelry ripped out and was bleeding all over the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone else clean it up. I went and asked for more paper towels so I could clean it up myself. That stuck in their heads. I was technically hired before I turned 21, but I think that’s just because they wanted to shut me up so I would stop asking them for a job! Three days after my 21st birthday, I worked my first show. That was over 12 years ago.

“This place is a family and we have a lot of love for each other. This is the antithesis of a chain. The 9:30 Club is in the walls and the stage, it’s in the people who work here and those who come to listen to the music. It’s a unique environment built on 30 years of history. There is no way to replicate that. After 12 years, I am honored to be able to work here and help people have a good time. If I see people leaving happy, that is a reward for me. It’s a little thing, but if you make one person’s night a little bit better then maybe the next day they go and do something great. It is the little pieces of the puzzle that all add up to something cool. I think that is what this place is all about.

“You know, this city is so divisive with politics, race, sexuality, and religion. All of that goes away when people come in here and the lights go down and the music comes up. Everyone has a good time together. That’s what this city is about, that togetherness with the goal of having a good time. Maybe the next day everything goes back to how it was, but for those few hours in the house that I help take care of, we create a spot where something amazing happens every night. That is pretty cool.

“One last thing, I always tell people that if they want to talk to me, just come and say, ‘Hi.’ A lot of the time, people see me here and get intimidated, but I am not going to bite your head off. Don’t be afraid to come up and say hi to me or the other people here. We are people, too.”

The 9:30 Club is located at 815 V Street NW.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brenda on Loving the Redskins

"I grew up in Baltimore and went to the Briarwood School for Women in Connecticut to take a two-year college course in the legal field. After school, I went back to Baltimore, but it had changed for me. I was ready for a new city. I worked as a secretary in a law firm in Baltimore for a few years and then moved to D.C. in 1975. Most of my career has been spent in the field of law. In D.C., I worked at Williams and Connolly for 21 years. I left there to to work for a Federal District Court Judge who was a former partner in Williams and Connolly. I left her in 2006 to work in the Executive Branch. You know, I really miss the law and still read the Legal Times online. I witnessed so much history with the law firms. I worked on the Hinckley case and Oliver North. Most of what we did was white-collar crime, which I really liked. I don’t have a master's degree, but I have been around the block a little bit. I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people, including Presidents Bush and Obama.

"One of the greatest things about working for Williams and Connolly was that, at the time, Edward Bennett Williams, the founder of the firm, was also the owner of the Washington Redskins. At the time, he also acquired the Baltimore Orioles. Well, he couldn’t have major stock ownership in two major teams so chose to give up ownership of the Redskins. Before he did that, I was able to purchase season tickets through Mr. Williams because any employee could buy tickets, all you had to do was ask him. So, I did, and have been a season ticket holder since 1981. That is when I became a real Redskins fan. As I am from Baltimore, I was, and always will be, a Baltimore Colts fan. I was really angry when they moved to Indianapolis. In my heart, they are still the Baltimore Colts. I still follow them and they remain my true love, but I love the Redskins, too.

"Now, I have a daughter who is 27 and a die hard Redskins fan. I can’t do the cold, but she is out at the stadium no matter how cold it is. She absolutely loves the Redskins. For Christmas, I gave her a Redskins key chain, socks, toothbrush, pajamas, earmuffs, cap, coat, and tennis shoes. I have had my tickets since 1981 and will probably turn them over to her. I have been through so much with that team that I will never let the tickets leave my family. I remember my proudest moment was when they won the Super Bowl in 1982. I was working at the law firm and they let us go to the parade. It was raining and I was still out there. Meeting some of the Redskins was like meeting God! My saddest moment was when Lawrence Taylor took out Joe Theismann and the death of Sean Taylor. He was just too young.

"Now, it is pretty depressing to be a Redskins fan. I only went to two games this year because they weren’t playing good enough for me to go sit in that parking lot for two hours trying to get out of the stadium at the end of the game. But, I don’t care if I miss every other game, I will never miss opening day at the stadium. People are so ready for football, I know that I am. I feel like you can explode when football season is back. I get so excited. To me, that is the number one best day of the year, opening day. I am hoping that Shanahan, the new coach, will bring renewed hope and spirit to the city of Washington."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hatim on People Knowing His Country

"I grew up in Sudan. My father was a university professor. He is retired now. My mother is an art teacher. I grew up in a typical, sometimes overprotective, Sudanese middle class family. I had to study all week and could only go out on the weekends. After high school, I continued to live with my parents. In our culture, we don't have that concept of leaving the home after school. I enrolled in medical school in Sudan and came to the U.S. to do additional medical training. My brother lives in Houston and tried to get me to live there. When I went there, I didn't like it. I started to travel around the U.S. looking for another city. I came to D.C. and this was it. Now, I am studying medicine and working in a hotel at night. There is a degree of discrimination in transferring my medical degree here, but it is natural. It is fair that you give priority to those in your own country. 

"This city is great. Here, people know where I am from. In Texas, people used to say to me, 'Sudan, where is that?' Or, they would ask if I was one of the Lost Boys. In D.C., people know my country. This place is so diverse and intellectual. You see the best of the best of every culture. You meet almost anybody and they can engage you in a deep conversation on politics or the economy. There are a lot of enlightened people in D.C. 

"Still, this place is not perfect. I like to joke about some of the things that happened to me in D.C. I met a girl who had spent time in Africa and we were talking about Nubia, the region where I am from in Sudan. One of her friends wanted to join our conversation and asked me where I was from. When I said Sudan, she said, 'Oh really! Oh my God, you must be better off here.' I was really shocked and angry. I said, 'What a horrible thing to say to somebody. Nobody is better off out of their country. I am here to pursue a career and then I want to go back to my country.' Another myth is that everyone in Sudan is impacted by Darfur. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and Darfur is the size of France. France is huge! It's like something happening in New Orleans and your family lives in D.C., but people still ask if your family is okay. I don't blame people and appreciate the interest, but I joke about it. 

"The other big shocker for me was meeting African-Americans. They assume that because I am African we have a lot in common, but I found out that we don't. When they find out I am thirty, they ask if I married. I am not. Then, the next question is usually if I have children. This is outrageous to me because in our culture if you are not married, you are not supposed to have children. Still, despite all the differences, what makes me happy about D.C. is that people know my country." 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jason on Staying Involved in Political Life

"I've had three lives in Washington. I came here 30 years ago to work on Capitol Hill. I started out as a press secretary on the House side. I did that for two-and-a-half years or so and then went back to journalism, which is what I had been doing before I moved to Washington. I worked as a correspondent and columnist for a Connecticut newspaper. Then, I started a news service and did some freelance work. I did that for five years or so and then was lured back to the Hill. I was offered a job as a press secretary for Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT). I did that for a few years and that grew into being his chief of staff.

"After a total of seven years on the Hill, I figured that I wanted to try something else. I was still pretty young and had a new family and wanted to make a transition. I wanted to do something that was less carrying the coat for someone and more doing things on my own. I didn't want to do what a lot of people did, which was to leave the Hill and make money. So, I thought that I would work for a cause. I didn't have any one particular cause singled out, but looked around and talked to some people who talked to some people. I ended up getting offered a position with the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization I had had no contact with. It was a cause, or I should say multiple causes, that I had had some contact with. And it was an introduction to a community with whom I had had very limited contact. Before AJC, I worked for a Senator who was more involved in Latin America than the Middle East.

"But, I liked the people and the spirit of the place. It was an intriguing possibility to run the D.C. office of an organization that was based someplace else. There was a certain range of autonomy and a broad range of issues on which to work. The organization has stature and the position made sense to me. I took the job never realizing that I would be sitting here 18 years later still talking about it. This is a position that has allowed me to write, do politics, dabble with policy and stretch into diplomatic areas, which is fascinating and sometimes frustrating. The job provides limitless possibilities to help and learn from people and move policy.

"This job continues to be a merging of interests and talents that I have developed over my life. The work that I do keeps me involved in political life. And I live on Capitol Hill, which is a great place to live and to stay involved in political life, also. I have the same house that I bought when I was married 25 years ago or so. I raised a family here. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and always assumed that the only place to live was New York. It was the center of the universe. But, I learned that Washington was actually a great city. It is smaller and okay, at two or three in the morning there are not as many things do to as Manhattan, but the quality of life here is great. The rich-poor disparities are not as big as in New York. And I like the sky and green of Washington. The only problem is that the school system is not so great. But, I really love Washington and I love the Hill."

Learn more about the American Jewish Committee here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Noor on Being a Builder

"Every person comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Most of them don’t understand that true happiness is in the journey, though. Along the way, life presents us with a number of tests so that we can arrive at who we are. Some people become givers and some become takers, some build and some destroy. But, history shows us that the greatest people were builders. People like George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. They built this society and invented things. We need to follow them and not let people tear this society down.

"Within the city, we have a whole lot of people who make and give out the law. All we need is the golden rule to get on the right track and lead the world. In time, we will arrive and I believe that there is a lot of learning that we can do through Islam. Now, with Islam, they talk about the terrorists, but in this city you have the greatest militia of police anywhere in the world. Here, you have the FBI, the CIA, and all kinds of police you don’t even know about. I have lived in this city 61 years, all of my life, and have seen people terrorized on a daily basis by those here to protect them. Unless we become builders and love one another, we can’t live in harmony."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Paul on Real Talk DC

"I grew up in Southeast, Anacostia and Congress Heights, those two sides. Now, I am a youth advocate and peer educator. I represent the youth in Southeast and educate my peers, kids from 13 to 23, about HIV and AIDS. I talk to them about how it is contracted and how to avoid it. I am also an entertainer. I rap and sing. I can't really dance, but I try. 

"I got started with this because one of my friends told me that there was a campaign call Real Talk DC that does peer education, passes out condoms, and gets people tested. I figured I would get involved because I like doing things to help people. This is also important to me because I actually know people who are HIV positive and I wanted to learn exactly, you know, as much as I can about it to help them and help people that I don't know. 

"Before this, I ain't really know about this stuff. First time I had sex, I was 12 and the girl was 18. And nope, I did not use a condom. I learned all of my moves from watching Real Sex on HBO, but didn't know anything about HIV and AIDS. My way of staying clean was only messing with a girl if she looked like she was clean. To me, that was enough. I really didn't know. I mean, I graduated from Anacostia High School and we never talked about HIV at school. To be honest, there is a lot we didn't learn at that school. First time that I used a condom was when my older brother told me to. That's what got me using those. 

"Now, I live this. I talk to my family and friends about this all the time. I be messing up the mood when people be talking about something else and I just cut them off and talk about condoms. But, a lot of people be afraid to talk about sex. You talk about sex and people don't want to hear it. On top of that, when you try and get people tested, there is a stigma. You know, you must have something if you are being tested. But, that is not the case. People are getting tested because they want to make sure they don't have something. The other stigma is that parents don't want to acknowledge that their children are having sex. And then there are all of the rumors about sex. If you have black nails, you have AIDS. If you are real skinny, you have AIDS. The government is pocking holes in condoms. There is a cure for AIDS. You can just get AIDS without HIV. There are a thousand myths that I hear every day. I believed them, too, until I got educated." 

Learn more about Real Talk DC here. Hear Paul's music here

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Denise on Making a Living out of Art

"I have been selling at Eastern Market since 1992. In some ways, the market hasn't changed that much although there are more imported items for sale now. Otherwise, the street wasn't closed off and most of the vendors were up on the plaza. When I started, people from outside the area used to tell me this place was full of crime and someone once told me it was the worst part of D.C. Even before they revitalized Eastern Market, I certainly never thought it was the worst neighborhood in D.C. Most of these people had never been here, but because of the Southeast label, so many people just assumed it to be the ghetto. It had its rough times, for sure, but you see how it has changed now. Just look at the kinds of people who are coming to and living around the market.  

"When I started, I was selling hand-made journals and paper products. I knew a lot of people who were artists or made jewelry, but they did it as hobbies and for their friends. Many people don't think about making a living out of art. I don't remember the exact point when I thought about converting my art into a job, but I just always knew that I wanted to do it. At some point, you should just do what you want to do and see what happens. It has been hard for me at times because D.C. is an expensive city, but when I need, I supplement my work here by bartending or waitressing. Otherwise, I am out here most every weekend. I mean, today is windy and 29 degrees and I am still out here. Although I have to say that 20 degrees is probably my breaking point. 

"You know, it is hard to make a decent wage when you are selling your own art work. But, I think that Eastern Market is a unique market because many artists and painters can make a living selling their things here. When you say market, many people think it is a place where you spend $2 on something. Here, there are a lot of people who understand the quality of handmade stuff and are ready to put down some money for a quality item. So, it's unique in that sense." 

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dr. Blues on the New Vegas Lounge

“I was a young man when I came to D.C. in 1949. I first worked as a stone setter at the Washington National Cathedral. After a number of years, I decided to go into business. In 1967, I ran a grocery store at 14th and Belmont. Then, the riots happened in 1968 and I bought this place shortly after that. I have been in this location ever since. The New Vegas Lounge has gone through some changes. It was a restaurant, then it was a strip joint, and then I turned it into a rhythm-and-blues club, but it has always been family-owned. I used to go to Las Vegas a lot, so that’s how I got the name.

“Before the riots, there was a car parts place, drugstore, liquor store, and plumbing store on this block. After the riots, everyone moved out. I was here for about ten years with almost no other businesses on this block. I shared the block with a lot of vacant lots and street people. I went through a lot then. It was tough. But, I stayed open because the guys who let me have this place, two brothers from Detroit, told me to hold on and pay them when I could get the money. So, I stuck around and waited out the bad weather. And things started turning around with time.

“To me, the most interesting thing about this place is its position in history. This place started as a family business and became a national legacy. The New Vegas Lounge is known throughout the world for its music. It has become a point of heritage for this city. When you look at how many things transitioned around this place because of the riots and reconstruction of the neighborhood, this place remained. The New Vegas Lounge also gives you a view into musical history. I have seen everyone from James Brown, B.B. King, Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, War, and Teddy Pendergrass play here. You name ‘em, they’ve been here. This is the spot where people performing in other places around town would just walk in to say hello to Dr. Blues and get up on stage for a few minutes and play. Some of the most famous musicians have played to audiences of only 15 people.

“I am an entertainer, too, and have been singing for a long time. I learned to sing coming up in the church. I sing some of my own songs and then I sing the classics. I know how to sing most anything. I picked up the name Dr. Blues along the way and that name has since been made famous. I’ve played overseas and around this country. You name the place and I’ve been there. I even had a contract in Las Vegas for this past New Year, but I couldn’t go because I had to entertain my people here in D.C. This place means so much to me. Everybody likes this place. You will never hear a bad word about the New Vegas Lounge. If someone gets out of line, people will say, ‘Hey, don’t mess with the New Vegas Lounge. This is our home.’

“Going forward, we will remain a family-owned rhythm-and-blues club. We have been in business for forty years. In that time the whole city changed. Big changes, you know what I mean? It’s good. Someone needed to finally come to this neighborhood with some money after the riots to make some changes. You know, I don’t get a lot of the clients that I had 20-30 years ago, but we get lots of new people and still play the music that people like to hear.”

You can hear Dr. Blues and the Out of Town Blues Band playing at the New Vegas Lounge at 1415 P Street NW.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sierra on Being Herself and Being Happy

"I was born in Colorado and moved here when I was four. I cried and cried when I got here. I called my Mom and said, "How could you do this to me!?' In Colorado, you don't see homeless people, you don't see trash or a lot of poverty. When I got here, it was another planet. I mean, my first memory of this place was the smell. This place stank! But, there were nice things, too. I had never been around so many different kinds of people and things. Everything here was new for me: the bodegas, the metro, the bus, the hair and the style. I still think that the metro is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I don't ever want to get a driver's license!

"Growing up here, I went to a number of different schools and my Mom eventually decided that I needed more structure and sent me to Holton-Arms, a private school in Bethesda. That place was not for me, though. My mind was too all over the place. I really started to find myself when I came to Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

"You know, I honestly don't have that many friends around my neighborhood in Southeast because it has always been hard for me to fit in. This sounds kind of cliche, but sometimes I don't feel black enough. When I went to Holton-Arms, I was one of the blackest people there. But, when I was in my neighborhood, I still did not feel black enough and I went through a couple of stages of trying to be blacker. You know, dressing like a hood rat or acting differently, but that wasn't me. I realized that I had to worry less about what people thought of me and more about what I think of myself. I still struggle with that because identity is perceived as something given to you by other people. That's not true, though, you have to control your own identity.

"Now, I feel like me. I am a junior studying literary media and communications and feel like this is the right place for me. I still go back-and-forth with my identity, but I am much more comfortable with who I am. This school gave me a pride in who I am and what I do. I appreciate this school so much because it allowed me to be happy. I thank D.C. for helping me find Duke Ellington, which helped me to find myself."

Sierra, right, is pictured with a classmate on top of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts' "soapbox."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kasai on His Parents

"I'm seven and in the second grade. What I like most about Washington is my parents. We live together and play together all the time. We have a tennis court in our backyard. My Mom is pregnant now. Soon, we'll be able to play doubles!

"I also like living close to my school so that I can ride my bike there and get exercise. In school, I am learning about production. You know, how to build all kinds of things. I am also learning Chinese. I don't have a Chinese name yet, but we are going to pick one soon. I really like my school."

Kasai, right, is pictured with his cousin, Alannah.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gregory on Seven Marathons on Seven Continents

"I have been fortunate to have two great jobs in a row in this city. First, I worked as Mayor Williams' Deputy Chief of Staff. When we came in, the mayor did not have control over most of the government. We had rotary phones and nothing worked. When you look at this city almost twelve years later, I have tremendous pride in the progress. Then, I went over to the Nationals and became the Vice President of Government and Municipal Affairs. I am not a sports person by training, but I believe that the stadium has the capacity to be an incredibly positive civic expression for this city. Every world-class city in America has a baseball team. It is part of the American tradition. We have had a whole generation of kids who grew up without a baseball team after the Senators left. That changed with the arrival of the Nationals.

"You know, there is an impression that D.C. can't do anything right, but, lo and behold, the ballpark was built on budget and in record time. The stadium has the capacity to mix people of all colors, ages and incomes like very few places in this city. Sometimes, you see three generations of a family coming to a game together and you realize that you are helping to create memories. I remember vividly going to see baseball games with my father. I think that the ballpark has the capacity to do that for this city.

"While I work in baseball, my other athletic passion is running. I started running marathons in my forties. In 2002, I was training with Phil Fenty and he had an extra entry for the Marine Core Marathon. With six weeks' notice, I decided to enter and then got hooked. Marathons are a great way to see a city. When you live in D.C. for almost thirty years and then you run a marathon here, the perspective is totally different. First of all, when you run and are not driving, you become very aware of how far things really are from each other. Also, you see things from the middle of the road. Normally, you view things from one side or another, but how often do you have the luxury of seeing the vista of a city and its streets from the middle of the road? Also, when you go east of the river, you realize that it is the first time that many people are going to Anacostia. I had been there before, but many of the runners hadn't. There are some beautiful parks and neighborhoods over there and the people are so friendly. I would hope that the marathons encourage people to go back to visit those areas.

"My own marathon running has taken me all over the world, including, most recently, to Antarctica. Now, I have run seven marathons on seven continents. There is a really special feeling when you travel to these international cities and meet people from all around the world. You are all equal. You don't need to speak the same language because for 26.2 miles you are all doing the same thing. There is such camaraderie.

"In Antarctica, other people were there for their country and I wanted to be there for D.C. I wanted to do it for the running community here and to represent our city. I wasn't sure if I was the first D.C. resident or not to do it; there remains some dispute. It was an incredible experience. The race that I did has been run by fewer than 80 people. I had no idea it would develop into such a big deal, and I was surprised to see that the Washington Post article written about me made the front page ahead of Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize! I guess my story appealed to people's sense of adventure. What does a middle-age guy do to be different? I recognize that I got all of this attention because I have a passport and means to travel. My reason for going was not solely about athleticism, but about the unknowing part of someone's mind that wants to do something different and seek out adventure."

Gregory is pictured with his medal from the 2009 Antarctic Ice Marathon. Read about Gregory's trip to Antarctica in the Washington Post here and here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Councilmember Phil Mendelson on Maintaining D.C.'s Openness

"I have always been interested in government, which I inherited from my mother and her side of the family. My mother ran for City Council twice in the suburb of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and lost each time. She was also active in the League of Women Voters. Her mother had been active in the Michigan League of Women Voters and served as its president. I thought that Washington was an interesting place and came here for college. I majored in political science and was involved in student government. I originally thought that I would go into the federal government, specifically Congress, when I graduated. Before I finished college, though, I moved to McLean Gardens, which had a very active tenant association because it was going through a series of battles with the landlord. The landlord wanted to evict everyone and redevelop the land with enormous rent increases and condominium conversions. Each time, the landlord was unsuccessful because the tenants were active. Through my involvement there, I got interested in D.C. politics and have been involved in D.C. issues, community activism and D.C. politics ever since.

"My involvement with McLean Gardens led me to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), where I served for twenty years. I got involved in zoning issues and promoting reasonable development in neighborhoods rather than allowing a private developer to redevelop a neighborhood without regard to a larger plan or context. Probably the most noteworthy struggle I was involved in with the ANC was the redevelopment of 4000 Wisconsin Avenue in the late 80's and early 90's. Along with a few other people, I organized a community organization that went to court and significantly altered the approach, or lack of approach, toward the planning of that space. The building eventually got built, but there were a lot of changes that we forced. From there, I went on to run for City Council.

"A striking thing about being on the City Council is that there is a lot of interesting legislation that gets passed and that does not get all that much attention. When I was first elected to the City Council, I authored and got through the Council the Urban Forest Preservation Act, also known as the Tree Bill. Environmentally, it was a big step forward for D.C., although I think what was ultimately passed wasn't as strong as it could have been. Still, it does a lot for the environment, specifically our trees.

"But, D.C. issues like the gun-control legislation get more attention because they are national issues. That's big-time stuff in terms of media attention, but it may not necessarily be the most important legislation for D.C. I am pleased with what we did with gun control because it's a very controversial issue. We were able to build a consensus and get through the Council, in light of the Supreme Court decision, terms that respect what the Supreme Court ordered, but, at the same time, constitute possibly the strongest gun control law on the books. We are far more restrictive in terms of weeding out people who will potentially misuse guns in violent ways than any other city. We have some other measures in place to weed out the more dangerous guns, like the cheap Saturday-night specials. We also have a renewal provision that will continue to keep our registration procedures up-to-date. After the Supreme Court decision, the police had to go and dust off gun procedures that hadn't been used in thirty years. In the process, they learned that the police had no clue where most of the people were who had received the 30-40,000 gun permits issued before the gun ban. It was rather embarrassing. Now, I think that we're making progress and have alternatives that are pretty good compared to other cities.

"Reflecting on my time here, there is one other observation that strikes me abut being in D.C. This city, because of the federal presence, is much less open than it used to be. There are far more restrictions on the ability to travel around and go into places.

"The most obvious example is Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. I think that's a metaphor for the direction this city has gone in, which is unfortunate. The city spends more time being frightened and, in its fear, restricts its citizens rather than remain open. That openness has always been a hallmark of this city. You used to be able to walk onto the White House and Capitol greens and have a picnic. We have slowly chipped away at that, which is unfortunate. Some of it, though, is pervasive across America, as we think we need to make things ever more inaccessible to protect ourselves against crazy people and terrorists. The remarkable thing about crazy people and terrorists is that what motivates them will motivate them to work around the restrictions we put in place. We ought to look at different approaches towards dealing with them. Rather than seal off areas and search people, let's look at alternatives that deal more directly with those threats and maintain the openness that has been a trademark of our society."

Councilmember At-Large Mendelson was first elected to the City Council in November 1998. He is the Chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary and is a member of four additional committees: Health; Housing and Urban Affairs; Human Services; and Libraries, Parks, and Recreation. Along with representing the Council at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, he is also the Immediate Past President of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO). Learn more about Councilmember Mendelson here.