Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cyndee on Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive

“I was born in Utah and then traveled around the country with my folks while my Dad was doing graduate school. I moved to the D.C. metro area when I was 8. I left for college and then ended up back in D.C., but did not plan on staying here. Bikini Kill, a band that I was really into, did a benefit concert for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). Throughout my life, I had really close friends who chose to do informal sex work because working the graveyard shift at 7-11 sucks. In doing that, many of them got into abusive situations and did not have the resources to get help. HIPS seemed like the right place for me to volunteer at the right time. I started as a volunteer in 1994 and have been here in different capacities every since. I became the executive director in 2001. 

"At HIPS, we are working to improve the health and welfare of sex workers rather than trying to 'save them' from what they were doing. We work using a harm reduction strategy. At HIPS, we work with sex workers to help them decide what is and is not working in their lives. It’s all about self determination. There are few people who we interact with who are doing sex work in whatever capacity for a new purse or a $600 pair of shoes. Most of the people we work with are trying to feed themselves and their families or pay the rent. Some have chosen to do this over other forms of employment. More often than not, they are doing this because it is a last resort. Some are also supporting drug habits and some have not had access to education or job counseling. It is very hard to live in this city on minimum wage. The myth about upward mobility in employment does not play out all that well. As much as we work with job training, it is challenging for many of these people to find regular employment. 

"The more we push sex work underground, the more dangerous it gets. Since the institution of the prostitution free zones in D.C., which are similar to drug free zones, and gentrification, sex workers are working increasingly in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. Now, we are also seeing how technology is changing sex work. When I started at HIPS, it wasn’t really safe to stroll without working for an established pimp or manager. In some ways, technology gives sex workers more ability to work independently if you have the access and knowledge. Yet, in some sense, it has made sex work less visible and more underground. Now, you don’t have that person on the corner who is going to make sure you get back from your date alright. We do outreach to both those on the corners and online to help them stay safe and informed. 

"We have varied interactions with the powers that be in Washington. We are funded publicly by the health department for HIV prevention, needle exchange and victims services. Thanks to their support, we are able to make sure that our clients, sex workers, have the tools they need to reduce the public health problems normally associated with this work. Obviously, our goal is different than law enforcement and sometimes, we can be at odds. Our goal is to help empower sex workers. The only real tool that the police has is mass incarceration, which is a success story to them, but in our view is not a success story in the long run. 

"Our approach is that we want to live in a healthy community that is free of violence, coercion, and disease. Unfortunately, those in sex work get the brunt of those things. By working with that population to address their health and wellness, we are raising the bar for this city. Because we make those conditions less miserable, sometimes sex workers have the ability to do something different. We find that the less coerced and dependent people feel, the more they are able to make informed decision about sex work. The more we can improve their lives, the more they will settle on a job that they like that gives them agency." 

Cyndee Clay is the executive director of HIPS.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bijan on the Basketball Capital of the United States

"I came to D.C. in the first grade. My family moved around Washington a couple of times, and we eventually settled in Brookland when I was 8. Moving to that neighborhood got me really interested in sports. One of my neighbors was McKinley Armstrong, the famous basketball coach from McKinley Tech High School. He had a son my age and a hoop in his yard. I always played sports in the neighborhood and eventually started playing on intramural and school teams as I got older. Where I grew up, if you didn’t follow sports, you were out of the lunch-room conversation. Sports became the all-consuming pastime in my life, whether it was playing them, following them, or watching them on TV. 

"After high school, I was playing less, but I was following all of the sports in D.C. religiously, especially basketball, and got interested in writing about sports. Through that, I really learned about Washington's amazing basketball history. Little did I know when I was a little kid that high-school basketball in D.C. is as popular and well-played because of something that happened in a century ago. There was a gentleman with a doctorate from Harvard named E.B. Henderson, who learned basketball from James Naismith, the inventor of the game. Dr. Henderson introduced basketball to schools in the D.C. area, especially the segregated schools, and to the first historic YMCA down on 12th Street, which won a colored national championship in 1910. While D.C. did not have the size, it became a hotbed of basketball. Because of that, by the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, D.C. had some very good teams. Great local players like Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry, and Len Bias are largely an outcome of the growth of the game here, and of the great local high-school basketball programs like Armstrong High, McKinley Tech, Cardozo, De Matha Catholic, and St. Anthony's. Recruiters started beating a path to D.C. to find the next great players. 

"D.C., for its size, has produced more elite college basketball players than any other city. We have also had over 200 players drafted to the NBA from the D.C. area. When Street and Smith's did its 100 greatest college players of all time, ten were from D.C. No other metropolitan area had even close to that many. The former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach once said that D.C. has the best schoolyard basketball in the country, and he is from Brooklyn. It was a lot of local talent that built some of the great D.C. collegiate basketball programs, like American and Georgetown. When John Thompson left St. Anthony's High School to coach at Georgetown, he brought some players with him to build the nucleus of his first successful team. 

"D.C. athletes, whether in the NBA, college, high school, military, prison, or community leagues, are always some of the most outstanding basketball players. As a writer, I am trying to draw attention to the fact that basketball is an important part of the history of this place, just like the music history, the civil rights history, and the home-rule history. D.C. is not only the capital of the United States, but the basketball capital of the United States."

Read more about D.C. basketball's past, present, and future on Bijan C. Bayne's website and blog

Monday, March 29, 2010

Craig on Dragging Washington into the 21st Century

"I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. There was nothing really extraordinary about my childhood. I played little league and ate Twinkies, Ho-Ho's and Cheez Whiz. You know, typical stuff. I always had this urge, though, to leave Ohio. I went to college on the east coast and then went to teach English in Eastern Europe. After that, I went to law school and moved to Washington. When I was moving, everybody said, ‘You don’t want to live in Washington. It is dangerous.’ So, I joined all of the other young, white, upwardly mobile people and lived in my little enclave in Arlington, Virginia where I still am. But I have always worked in downtown Washington.  

"My first job was practicing tax law, which I did for seven years. When I look back, it was worse than a bad marriage! Where did my life go for those seven years? I used to travel a lot to sustain myself and also spent a lot of time on the Internet. Without the Internet, I would have killed myself. I am a master of web surfing and minimizing the screen when your boss comes into the room. I used to joke with a colleague of mine that I have read every site on the Internet. During that time, I also started buying and selling art that I would buy on eBay and Craigslist and resell at auctions. I have always been into art and I also started getting into design. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just started buying pieces that I liked. 

"My first idea big idea on how to leave law was to open a wine bar in Washington. This was way back before they opened one up on every street corner. My business partner and I passed around the idea for five years, but things kept falling apart. We never found space and ultimately me and my business partner broke up. At the same time, art was becoming like a drug to me and I thought about opening a gallery. There was no one doing  unique and museum quality 21st century functional art. I hate to call it furniture, but that is a simple way to describe some of the pieces. 

"I put together a business plan and went to go and see the Cultural Development Corporation, who told me about this space above Conner Contemporary Gallery. I drove by last summer and my first thought was that I did not want to open a space in Trinidad. Last year, there were police blocking people from bringing guns into Trinidad because it had the highest homicide rate in the city. But I really liked the space and think that Conner Contemporary is one of the best galleries in the country. So, I decided to pursue it.  I only told my family and a couple of friends about the gallery. With the wine bar, I told everyone under the sun and ultimately it got to be embarrassing because people thought I was all talk. With the gallery, I didn’t tell anyone until the lease was signed. People thought I was crazy for doing it in this economy and in Trinidad. But people's second response was, 'I am really proud of you. That’s amazing that you’re opening a gallery.' 

"I found artists who were receptive and were very interested in Washington. No matter what you think about Barack Obama, he has brought a lot of energy to this city. My first artist was a guy named Shlomo Harush. When the show opened, my law firm sent out an email to every single lawyer, almost 250 lawyers, in my firm. Only three of them emailed me back to congratulate me! Even better, one of partners I work with daily to this day has never said a word about it. I was stunned, but it opened my eyes, too, that I made the right decision. Now, I am still doing two jobs, but the goal is obviously to transition into doing this full-time. Even if I lose everything, at least I can say that I did it. I did not want to have any regrets. 

"So far, I have been getting a great response outside of Washington. But, in Washington, things have been slower to catch on. I always joke that Washington is ten years behind what is happening in New York. For example, this whole cupcake fad, come on! Wow, Congratu-fucking-lations Washington, you have cupcakes! New York had them ten years ago. We need to catch up with the rest of the nation. People in New York just think we must be a bunch of backwards hicks because we are so behind the times. I live here and love it, but I want to drag people, myself included, into the 21st century with my gallery. I want this gallery to have a national focus, but to also make it clear that Washington can be an important design  resource."

Craig Appelbaum is the owner of the Industry Gallery at 1358 Florida Avenue NE.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shahid on the Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency

"I was born in England and my family moved to rural Missouri when I was two. We lived there until I was ten and then moved to the suburbs. I went off to Chicago for college at 16 and stayed there for ten years. I spent a lot of my time there down-and-out. My parents lost their house. I had to leave school and couldn’t really hold down a job or an apartment. That time in my life was very disempowering. Starting law school was the first time I really felt hyper-empowered. It’s an amazing transformation to go from feeling like a passive observer to being an active participant in the world around you. 

"After law school in California, I moved to D.C. in 2003. I’d been organizing anti-war resistance on the west coast and wanted to take it east to D.C. I came here with a fancy-shmancy law firm job and immediately began organizing street demonstrations. I felt like there was a lot of possibility here professionally, but what rooted me here was the artistic community. Once I got exposed to the local counter culture, I really developed a sense of hope about this city. A lot of people come here from all over the world, inspired to work on all kinds of different causes. If any place reflects a collective action dilemma, it is those of us in the “non-profit industrial complex”: we’re all zoomed in on our respective issues, so a movement uniting those causes gets ignored.

“For me, art has been a way to pull people out of that insularity and draw them together. After co-founding some artist collectives on the west coast, at Stanford in 2002 and then SF in 2003, we started the DC Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency in Dupont Circle in September 2003 as a way to bring people together. It’s political theater and an arena for people to speak their visions creatively. What we do is sort of like spam marketing: we are going to bring issues to you, whether about troop deaths or climate change, whether you want to hear it or not. Maybe you won’t listen to a talking head, or read a paper, but you’ll listen to perspective if there’s a beat behind it or if it’s poetic. 

"At our events, we see the full range of responses, from right-wing types who heckle us, to people who stand thoughtfully and listen. My favorite interaction is when someone walking by randomly grows moved to take the mic and share something on their mind, or pick up a drum and play. We want to collapse the distinction between audience and participant, which is maybe the biggest lesson I took away from my years at Burning Man. Sometimes, a few of us guerrilla poets take the Poetry Insurgency on the METRO, spitting revolutionary rhymes or doing call-and-response chants. You see different attitudes on different train lines: on the blue and orange lines heading into Virginia, people are usually very cold and just try to ignore you. On the red line, you have a 50/50 split, where some people will engage you and others will look away. But the green line rocks! We’ve even been asked not to leave the train – it’s amazing.

"People say that 'the antidote to despair is action,' and that seeing the momentum of a social movement can inspire more energy. Art gives a chance to get back to the basic principles that get lost a lot of the time in policy discussions. I think that what drives people to this town is not the minutiae, but the grand vision that they carry with them from whenever they came. It’s important for people, especially here in our seat of government, to recognize the opportunities we each have as individuals to speak our minds and get back to that vision."

See some of Shahid's poetry here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Katie Balloons on Being a Balloon Artist

"I grew up in Newport News, Virginia. Professional entertainment has been the bulk of my income since I started working. When I was 19, it seemed like a good idea to drop out of college and become a go-go dancer, as I wasn’t interested in college. In my naïve mind, I thought that go-go would be a good acting challenge as I was also doing dinner theater at the time. So Lacie, my go-go girl character, was a great role for a couple of years. My parents didn’t like it too much. 

"At the time, I was earning at least 30% of my income in professional entertainment. I thought, why can’t I make it 70% or 100%. So, I did. I got a job at a haunted house. I was also working at dinner theater and I took a job as a storyteller at a children’s theater. I was not looking for artistic jobs, but the jobs that paid the most. Someone at the haunted house said he was going to make $50 an hour as a clown. That was more than I was making in a night there, so I decided that I was going to be a clown, too. I looked in a phone book and found the ad that I thought was the classiest and told them I wanted to come in for an audition. They asked if I could do balloons and I said, 'Yes' because I remember mastering the balloon kit my Mom got me when I was seven years old. For the audition, I did the best clown face that I could and learned how to make some basic balloons animals. I also decided that at my clown audition, I would wear my five inch go-go heels. In acting, it is important to have special skills and I thought that the high heels would show my versatility.  

"Afterwards, the guy said, ‘Kid, you’ve got what it takes to make it in this business. But I am not going to train you to be a clown, but a balloon artist.’ I went to his house everyday and he taught me balloons. A few months in, I was making an extra couple of hundred of dollars a week. I thought that balloons were a nice way to make some extra money as I pursued a career as an actor. It turns out that there was a big balloon convention the same time as the opening weekend of dinner theater. My boss said, 'You go with me or you are not working with me anymore.' On a wing and a prayer, I quit acting to pursue balloons. At the convention, I met some amazing people who eventually took me to China to work with some of the world’s most important balloon artists. I also met my fiancé there. These experiences introduced me to real balloon art. Before, I thought it was just for kids in a restaurant. I realized that not only was this a field I could conquer, but it could fulfill my love of sculpture and art. 

"After my fiancé and I broke up, I was sitting around for a few weeks feeling sad. While I was in China working the festival, I met a lot of artists from the D.C. area. Some of them told me to come to D.C. because of all of the balloon opportunities in D.C. and Northern Virginia. Just like that, I moved here in 2008. Before I moved here, I made a balloon dress and walked around town passing out cards just to make my presence known. The first week I got here, I made no money, but from the second week on it's been coming in steady. Most of my work is kids parties, but I also work for corporate clients, like Boar’s Head and Harley Davidson. I've always worked a number of jobs, so I also stilt walk, fortune tell, and do singing telegrams as Marilyn Monroe. I love making art, but this is also my business."

Learn more about Katie Balloons here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ray and William on a Parent and Four Kids Living on the Streets

Ray - "I was born in Salisbury, Maryland in 1959. My wife died a little while back of an aneurism. A vein popped in her brain and she died. I was there when it happened. I tell you, I am a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and this was the hardest thing I have ever been through. I didn't know how to handle things and started drinking heavily. I still love her so much.  My wife took care of all of my paper work and kept things in order because I don't know how to take care of myself. See, I am under-educated. After she died, I lost my job and me and my four kids lost our house. I have two boys and two girls who are 13, 15, 17, and 19. My sister helped us out at first, but then she threw us out. Three and a half months ago, me and my kids ended up on the streets of D.C.. We live on the steps of a church. We tried the shelters, but got bed bugs. It is better on the streets. 

"Living on the street means I have to do a lot of panhandling, a lot of begging, and sometimes I steal to get food for my kids. Now, I don't drink as much, but when I get stressed, I may have a beer or two. And it's a lot of stress being one parent with four kids on the streets. Whatever happens, I don't want the system to get no part of my children. They are not going to take my kids and put them in a foster home. These are my children."

William - "I am 17. It was pretty nice growing up in Salisbury. We lived in a small town and I love the country life. My Mom and I had a good time together before she passed. We used to sit back and talk about a lot of things together. Back in the day, my Mom took us to D.C. all of the time to see the monuments and parks. Since she passed, I have been spending a lot of time with my Dad. I am trying to help him get his act together and slow down his drinking. Sometimes, I feel like I am a parent, too. 

"My friends probably don't know that I am here living on the streets as we just upped and left one day without saying nothing to nobody. It is tough living out here on the streets, but I am trying to make things better for us. Sometimes you have to take things one step at a time. Now, I am trying to find some type of job as some of my brothers and sisters are too young to work. I will do whatever: cleaning, selling papers, construction, stock clerk, security guard, whatever. I miss the country life now that we are in the city, but this city seems to be pretty alright. Everybody is so nice. Sometimes, it even reminds me of Salisbury. "

Ray, left, is pictured with his son William.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dan on Seeing Washington from a Piano Bench

“I was born in Buffalo, New York in 1935. Of course, I’ve been lying about my age and telling people that I am 38…Celsius. Those were some tough times. We're talking the Depression, now. My father had a job pumping gas. He used to wear a leather bow tie to work. Can you imagine that? I tell you, he was just lucky to have a job. To have babies during that time when you didn’t know what you were getting into was a big deal. But we laughed a lot and played music as a way to keep things positive in our family. One of my father's great passions was the piano and now me and my brother are pianists.

"My parents would have their friends come over and we would perform for them. If we were naughty, they would send us to bed without applause. Even now, we still put on the same act. It hasn’t changed at all. I got my break when we moved to Miami. At the time, the coaxial cable had not come down from New York, so the only way you could get television programs was by mailing them on kinescope from the studios. So, Florida was always a week behind in television. That gave a great break to kids who had a lot of moxie to be local entertainers. At the time, I had my own radio and TV shows and a column in the paper. I even played in Miami Beach at the famous Sagamore Lounge of the Sagamore Hotel. Get this, we would do punch lines in Yiddish and we didn’t know what we were saying. Then, I got a national commercial for cigarettes, which was a huge deal. I look back now and that was crazy, as cigarettes killed everyone in my family. 

"I always thought that I was going to be an actor. Music was very easy to me, so I didn’t respect it. I moved to D.C. to go to Catholic University and stayed for many years after as an actor. We were doing a scene from Henry IV, Part 1 at the Mayflower Hotel the same night the French singer Edtih Piaf was performing at the hotel. Her piano player didn’t show up, so they asked us if anyone knew how to play French music. Of course in show business, when anyone asks you if you do something, you say. 'Yes!' That was how I got my start at the Mayflower Hotel back in the Eisenhower Administration. That’s how long I’ve been here. 

"People call the Mayflower Washington’s second best address after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. All of the President’s have stayed here. We have all of the Inaugural galas. There is a lot of history here. Listen to this true story, the hotel used to have a strolling fiddle player named Julian Altman. He got sick at 85 and on his deathbed, he tells his wife, 'This fiddle is pretty important.' Turns out it was a Stradivarius that had been stolen out of a dressing room of Carnegie Hall. I don’t think he stole it, but it's an amazing story.

"Now, I work at lunch at the Prime Rib and evenings at the Mayflower.  Both places get the same kind of  lobbyist and Congressmen crowd. You can always tell the difference when they’re at dinner because the lobbyists picks up the check. When I play, I look at people and think about what was popular when they were 18. That is the key. I also get a lot of requests. Guys usually want As Time Goes by from Casablanca. Women always like Memory from Cats. Late in the evening, after people have had a few, they usually come and sit on the bench with me, crying about how they wish they had practiced piano when they were little. I tell you, I've really seen a lot from this bench."

Catch Dan Ruskin playing lunch daily at the Prime Rib (2020 K St. NW) and in the evenings at the Mayflower Hotel  (1127 Connecticut Ave. NW.)  Listen to one of his original tracks here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nora on the Nation's First Certified Organic Restaurant

"I was born in Vienna. In Austria , there is a lot of emphasis on fried foods, heavy sauces, and desserts. My parents were unusual in that my mother cooked very light and my father was into yogurt and fruit. He was also very much for outdoor exercise, which is typical in Austria . He always said that health is the most important thing that you have and you need to preserve it. From a young age, I was taught that food is important and you need to combine it with outdoor activity.

"I came to D.C. with my French journalist husband as a young bride in 1965. Here is where I first became conscious of what the food situation was like in America . I always say that D.C. was a culinary wasteland in the 60's and 70's. My first exposure to how awful food here was going to a supermarket. There were shelves and shelves of Wonder bread. When Pepperidge Farm bread finally came around, it was like a gourmet statement! The produce department was the smallest department. The biggest department was frozen foods. There were the same fruits and vegetables all year-round. Nothing seasonal or local. It was a shock to realize that this country, which was supposedly the richest country in the world, had no food culture.

"In response, I did a lot of research in the Yellow Pages and found ethnic markets and local farmers to get healthy and fresh food for me and my family. I read a lot, too, especially Elizabeth David and James Beard. Those books really inspired me. I also became interested in American agricultural practices. I remember finding a farm in Virginia where you could buy sides of beef. The woman there proudly told me that they fed the cows corn, so that they would fatten up. Then she went on and told me the cows were kept inside and regularly given hormones. That was the first time I realized that chemicals were used in agriculture. Then I learned about pesticides in fruits and vegetables. Things like this were not happening in Austria when I was growing up.

"At the time, I was cooking a lot and we were having people for dinner once or twice a week. A lot of people really liked my food and friends asked if I would teach them what I had learned through my little culinary journey. At the beginning, it was informal, but I also realized that I needed to make some money. I eventually opened a cooking school in my home in the evening. On the weekends, I did catering. It was very simple. I cooked something at home and brought it to someone's house, and they pretended they cooked it.

"I did that for about three years. Then one of my students asked if I would be interested in opening a restaurant in a small bed-and-breakfast in Dupont Circle called the Tabard Inn. First, I was a little scared, as I had never really committed myself to being a professional, but I realized I had to do it because my husband and I split up and I needed to support myself and my kids. The restaurant started off with only lunch and became very successful. We served natural meat, and I picked up vegetables from farmers in the area. The word got around that I was purchasing fresh and local items, so farmers starting coming to me. At the end, I was one of the first to do the farmer-chef restaurant connection. This was back in 1976. At that time, if you said organic, no one would come to your restaurant. It sounded like a biology class and people thought it would taste disgusting. It is only in the last ten years that people stopped associating health food with bad food.

"Two colleagues from the Tabbard and I opened Restaurant Nora in 1979. We found this location through pure chance. We wanted to stay south of Dupont Circle, near the Tabbard Inn, because there was already a group of people who supported us, but we couldn't find anything affordable. This space used to be a Yugoslav restaurant run by the father of some of the kids who were in school with my children. Sadly, he was ill and ended up selling us the restaurant. We all worked 24/7 and lived off of the tips. My kids would come here after school and do their homework, so I could watch them while I was cooking.

"For the first 15 or 20 years, people thought I was completely nuts and the whole organic business was not true. Restaurant reviewers criticized me for telling people how to eat. Still, people came to eat here because the food was good. When environmentalists became prominent was when I started to get more serious support for what I was doing with health and food. Things also changed when Fresh Fields came to D.C., which is now Whole Foods. The supermarket did a lot to educate people on where food comes from. We live in a very chemical world, and there are so many chemicals in our society. I think that people need to take responsibility for their own health. Now people tell me that they can't afford organic food. I tell them that they can't afford to be unhealthy. Would you prefer to spend your money on food or the doctor?"

Restaurant Nora became the nation's first certified organic restaurant in 1999. Nora Pouillon is the author of Cooking with Nora.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Trita on a Collective Voice for Iranian-Americans

"I was born in Southern Iran. My father was a university professor and twice got in trouble with the Shah's government for making critical comments. He was thrown in jail and tortured. By the time he got out, we realized that it was time for us to leave the country. We left forSweden when I was about four-and-a-half years old, which was months before the revolution. After the Iranian revolution, my Dad was put on a list of people to be executed on the spot should he return because of false accusations made against him. Still, he returned toIran to clear his name. He was put in jail again, but did manage to clear his name. After he was released, he never went back to Iran. Meanwhile, in Sweden, we were all glued to the TV watching the images of the revolution and its aftermath. Those were the first experiences that really shaped me and my brother's personalities, and I suspect that they had  something to do with why we are so passionate about politics. 

"I was days into my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins when 9/11 happened. At that time, the Iranian-American community was united in its opposition to the attacks, but had not found a way to collectively voice our opposition to the terrorist attacks or to organize politically. Many Iranian-Americans' experiences in politics were rooted in their experiences in Iran, where nothing good came out of speaking up. There was a sense, therefore, that, in America, you should keep your head down, study, and buy a big house and as many BMWs as you could. But if you don't get involved in politics in this country, you do not exist and have no voice or influence. 

"After 9/11, a lot of Iranian-Americans were concerned that their children would go through the same thing they did during the Iran hostage crisis when it was tough to be an Iranian in this country. It was because of all this that we created the National Iranian-American Council. We started by educating the Iranian-American community on how to get involved and be influential. People needed to stop arguing with their TVs and start doing something. As we grew, we became politically involved and started taking positions. The first big was one was standing against war with Iran in 2006. 

"We also work to educate policy makers and the media on Iran. Iran's problem is that it has not been a sufficiently important country to get approval for American universities to get funds to do Persian-language or history courses. One has to couple that with the absence of diplomatic relations and the fact that the Iranians grant something like 300 visas a year to Americans. We live in a country of 300 million.  Thus, knowledge of Iran is at a very low level. To the extent that the knowledge grows, it is usually due to negative developments in Iran because of the Iranian president saying something outrageous about the Holocaust or because of what they are doing with their nuclear program. 

"NIAC works to make sure that the impression of the Iranian-American community is not dependent on news coverage of U.S. views on Iran, which 99 times out of 99 is negative. The Iranian-American community has made significant contributions to this country. Those stories have rarely been told and won't be told until Iranian-Americans tell those stories themselves." 

Trita Parsi is the President of the Washington-based NIAC and the author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


"I was born in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Falls Church, Virginia. I started playing soccer at age seven. That was the earliest you could play soccer then. Now it is three years old. I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone played in the street. I started playing recreational soccer and then went on to play on travel teams, including the Virginia State Team. Sports was pretty much all I did growing up. Sports is and was a large part of my identity. 

"My college decision was 100 percent informed by soccer. I went to North Carolina State and loved it. The college athletic experience for a non-revenue sport was very familial. I had this group of 20 women who were my best friends, and we spent 40 hours a week together. After college, I coached a lot of youth soccer while doing a number of Master's programs. After my second Master's program, an opening came up at Bryn Mawr, a small Division III women's college, to coach. The college is not exactly an athletic bastion of talent, but it was fun. I felt that my challenge was to harness their natural instinct to be competitive with their moderate soccer ability, to create a fun and competitive experience on the soccer field.

"After Bryn Mawr, I moved to D.C. because my husband, who is from D.C., was living here and I got a job with DC SCORES. D.C. SCORES is one of the largest after-school programs in D.C. We have about 730 kids in our program. Our goal is to get students involved in school and physically fit through soccer, and to bring up their self-worth and sense of belonging in the community. There is a natural complimentary skill set between a sport like soccer and self-expression. When kids trust each other on the soccer field, they feel comfortable to write about their communities, share stories about their lives, and work on group projects to figure out how to change their communities.

"One of the interesting things about working here is seeing how soccer is viewed differently in different neighborhoods. In Columbia Heights, some of these kids grew up around soccer, but have never played in an organized league. East of the river, many students have never heard about soccer before they join our program. Some of the coaches at those schools have basketball and football backgrounds and are new to soccer, so they will tell the kids, 'Okay, you've got the ball. It's like you're the quarterback, go boost the ball.' 'Quarterback' in soccer? 'Boost' the ball? But it works and the kids really love playing." 

Amy Nakamoto is the Executive Director of DC SCORES.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Skip on a Different City

"I came to Washington. D.C. as a student at Georgetown University in the fall of 1968. At that time, Washington was a very different city. There were virtually no cars in the city on the weekends, and my classmates and I would walk from Georgetown up to Capitol Hill and barely encounter anyone. In those days, there was no security and all areas of the Capitol, including the subterranean chambers and hallways, were all open. We would spend hours walking around those areas and admiring the beautiful frescos and marble floors. Back then, the Capitol was truly open to all people. That period of D.C. has some very precious memories for me. It is a pity that we have to live in such fearful times, and we can't have access to government buildings like we used to. 

"Another thing that I notice is the changing role of the suburbs. When I first lived here, the suburbs were very small and there was definitely a feeling of Washington as a self-contained place. People used to live and work in the city. Now, I think there is more of a mentality that one can work in the District and live out in Maryland or Virginia and feel less of a connection to D.C. I have known people who only know how to get from their suburban home to their office and don't know how to get anywhere else in the city if their life depended on it. I think that is sad as this is such a great city."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ann and Mike on the Reagan Assassination Attempt

Mike - "I was in the press pool the day of the assassination attempt on Reagan. We had four people at the Associated Press covering the White House. We would rotate and it just happened to be my turn that day. I was sitting in the basement listening to his speech, which did not divert from the release given to us beforehand. Reagan spoke for a few minutes and then went to the VIP suite and holding area, which had an unmarked door that exited onto the street where his motorcade was waiting. I was standing with the rest of the press pool in a rope line outside of the VIP entrance.

"The story of the moment was the Solidarity Movement in Poland and whether the Soviets were going to clamp down on them. There had been some development in the story, and I wanted to get the President's comment. When the door opened and he stepped out, I shouted at him, 'Mr. President. Mr. President.' At the same time, I turned on my tape recorder to get his answer. I had barely said 'Mr. President' the second time when there was this loud pop,pop...pop,pop,pop,pop. Just like that.

"I knew it was gunshots, but I didn't see Reagan get hit. The Chief of Detail, Jerry Parr, grabbed Reagan and hurled him into the limo. Another agent slammed the door and the car took off. When I saw the wheels of the limo start to spin, I realized that now that the President was leaving, the story had stopped happening. I ran into the hotel to find a phone to call into work. I then went on to report that, 'Several shots were fired at President Reagan today as he left a downtown Washington hotel. There was no indication that the President was hit.' 

Ann - Mike, my husband, called me and said, 'Get over to George Washington University Hospital. That's where they are taking him.' When I got there, the Presidential limousine was in front and there were gunshot marks on the window. There were quite a few people outside and people were arguing about whether he had been hit or not. Some said Reagan was carried in and some said he walked in. Both were actually true. While we were waiting, I went running down Pennsylvania Avenue and took the microphone out of the closest phone booth and put it in my pocket, so no one else could use it. After 30 minutes, I saw Shelia Tate, who was Nancy Reagan's Press Secretary and yelled, 'Sheila, get someone out here to tell us what's going on! The stock market is going up and down. We need to know what's happening.' A few minutes later, Lyn Nofziger, one of Reagan's aides, came out and said, 'The president has been wounded. He is not in surgery at this time.' Meanwhile, the gurney was racing to the operating room, so he was technically right, but still misleading. I went running back to the phone booth with my microphone in my pocket. There was a drunk in the booth, so I went to a bar and screamed, 'Telephone!' I dictated a story that President Reagan was shot today and would be going into surgery. Mike and I were first on the story and we were right. I was especially pleased that my bulletin beat Sam Donaldson's.

"After Nofziger spoke, they informed us of additional briefings that would take place. I remember running down G Street with the other reporters because we wanted to get a good seat for them. The thing is that none of us knew exactly where we were going, but everyone was running in the same direction. We could have been running into the Potomac River! We eventually went into an auditorium at George Washington University Hospital, and they started briefing us on his developing medical condition. By that time, the most exciting part of the story was over and you had to fill it in with the boring little details. But so much of a story like that is about the stakeout and waiting for things to develop.

Mike - "I was still at the Hilton while this was going on. At the time, I knew that Jim Brady and a secret service officer had been wounded, and was telling a colleague what I knew. As I was describing this to her, an FBI agent asked me to come with him, as I was going to be held as a material witness. The United Press International guy, Dean Reynolds, who was our arch competition at the time, saw me being escorted into the building and followed me because he didn't want to miss anything. He also ended up getting arrested! After I was released and eventually got back to the office, I was told to write a first-person account of the story. We had computers at the time, but I was not yet comfortable using them. I was just about done writing, when everything disappeared from the screen. There was nothing to do, but start over. I got home about 2 a.m. By then, Reagan was out of surgery and there was a statement made that he was out of danger and things he said like, 'Honey, I forgot to duck.'

"As Reagan's recovery began, it was one jolly briefing after another. No one gave any clue as to how close he was to bleeding to death. Months later, we found out that we almost lost him on the operating table. The very dramatic story was of Jim Brady, Reagan's Press Secretary, because he was seriously injured and suffered brain damage. He was really well-liked by the press and had a good sense of humor. He survived and didn't lose his sense of humor, but, sadly, he was never the same again.

Ann - "One of the things that has always bothered me since that time is Jim Brady has a son who was the exact same age as our son. It could have been Mike who had been hit and not Jim Brady. It was just dumb luck. I know how this kid has been affected all of his life. Jim Brady is still alive, but has had a very tough time."

Mike - "By sheer dumb luck, we were so often in the right place at the right time during our careers in journalism. From Vietnam to Watergate, to the Reagan shooting to Reagan having cancer, to going to Moscow just as Gorbachev took power and the Communist Party was beginning to lose control, we were there and reporting. It made for a very exciting career!"

Ann Blackman is the author of "Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright," "Wild Rose" about Civil War spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow, and co-author of "The Spy Next Door," about the traitorous FBI agent Robert Hanssen. In her long career as a news reporter with Time magazine and the Associated Press, Blackman covered American politics, social policy, and the powerful personalities that make up Washington society. Mike Putzel covered the war in Vietnam, Watergate, the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and the fall of Communism during an award-winning career with The Associated Press. He also served as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, covering the Clinton White House.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dr. Shoe on his Ph.D in Shoeology

"My uncle taught me how to shine shoes in 1980 when I was 25. He started shining shoes when he was nine years old. During his time, it was illegal to shine shoes on the street. He used to sit out on a big string-bean can and keep the shoe polish in his pocket. When the cops came, he'd lose his chair, but still keep the polish. We call him Sugar Ray Liquor because when he got drunk, he used to think he was a prize fighter. He would also get so stinking drunk, he would shine your damn socks. But he was so damn good that people would still let him shine their shoes. They would just go home and wash their socks! He stopped drinking now and is still shining shoes. 

"I started off shining shoes at the car dealerships up on Georgia Avenue. After that, I wandered down near Dupont Circle and have been here for over 20 years. The thing is that you can't be by the Metro because everyone wants to move fast around there and no one wants to stop for a shoe shine. I set up a few blocks away in the morning, so people can slow down a bit. Then, I work all of the clubs on 19th and M St in the afternoon. After 5:30 p.m., I go by the Palm Restaurant and then head out by the bars until midnight. I get most of my shoe shines at night because, after happy hour, everyone is happy and wants to get a shoe shine. I put that glow on their toe. They call me Dr. Shoe because I have my Ph.D. in shoeology. See, I went to Shoe U. to make those shoes look new. My motto is that if you don't like your shine, you don't pay a dime. I want to make everyone look shiny and bright because, when I finish, everything's going to be alright. 

"In my years here, I have shined everyone's shoes from Muhammad Ali to Arnold Schwarzenegger and a lot of politicians and ballplayers. Anybody is a celebrity in my book when they get a shine. I like my first shine for the day to be brown because that gives me luck. No matter the color of the show, though, you know I'm gonna make 'em look good when they put that shoe on the wood. I want to show everyone my shine and make it worth their dime."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Charles on Building Relationships

"My Dad was in the Air Force, so I moved around a lot during my childhood, but went to high school in Largo, Maryland. I really started to figure out who I was when I went to Hampton University in Virginia. Back then I was a shy and quiet kid, but decided to try something different when I went to in college, I wanted to step out the box a little. I ran for class president and was actually the first person in Hampton history to be elected class president all four years. After I left Hampton, I went to law school at the University of Baltimore. There, I ran and was elected to the Student Bar Association. It was at that time, I thought to myself maybe I’ve found something that I really enjoy.

"When I moved to D.C., I bought my first house in the Trinidad neighborhood. It was a great place and I never had any problems. After three years, I got this epiphany to move out of the neighborhood and see what else was out there. I moved to Anacostia because I fell in love with the history and sense of community. I felt like this was home and where I needed to be. It's funny. When I was leaving Trinidad, I told my neighbors I was moving to Southeast. They thought I was crazy because they thought it was dangerous. When I tell people here that I moved from Trinidad, they thought I was crazy for having lived there because they thought it was dangerous. It's interesting how the news shapes perception of neighborhoods in this city.

"When I got here, my neighbor and I started the Historic Anacostia Block Association. It is a neighborhood civic association created to keep residents aware of whats happening in the neighborhood and serves as a vehicle of folks being able to meet other residents in the neighborhood. We’ve had a lot of success, especially in getting grants to fix up the outside of people’s homes. We brought over $1 million to the community through that effort. That, and other experiences here, inspired me to run for the Ward 8 Council seat against Marion Barry in 2008. I didn’t have a lot of money and support initially, but I did have my two legs. I went to every neighborhood twice and knocked on every single door. When I knocked on those doors, I learned one of the great things about campaigning, which is that you never know who is going to open the door. I had a lot of great conversations with people. I got yelled at, too. Running against Marion Barry, you need to have thick skin. I came up short, but I would do it all over again. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had and has made me a stronger person.

"One of things I learned from running for public office is that it's all about building relationships. People have to get to know you and trust that you will deliver on your promises. There are a lot of people here who appreciate what Marion Barry did for them in the past. What was amazing to me, though, was that when people talked about Marion, they talked about the past, not the present. I ran my campaign on making our future better.

"After the election was over, I reached out to a number of people I met in Wards 7 and 8 about creating an organization to get people involved and active in developing a better quality of life in these communities. In November 2008, we met at my home and talked through the organization concept, which is now River East Emerging Leaders (r.e.e.l). One of the things that was consistent theme during these conversations was that we didn’t like how the outside community looks at Wards 7 and 8. People think of them as crime-infested and poor, with youth hanging out on the street and killing each other. That was not our experience, and we wanted to change the perception of how people look at us and in part how we looked at ourselves in some cases. Our mission statement is to meet people we don’t know and engage them in constructive conversations, learn from each other, and empower residents to improve their communities. We started with no money or political power, just an idea and it has really grown."

Learn more about Charles Wilson and the River East Emerging Leaders here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

John on the D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers

"I grew up in Lansdowne, Maryland, in a house that I believe to be haunted. I was about 11 when my parents and I started noticing a lot of activity there. The cat would attack things that weren’t there. We heard hammering noises in the basement. I would go to the top of the basement stairs and it would stop. As soon as I left, it would start up again. The one that really pushed me over the edge was hearing a large crashing noise coming from the basement that sounded like broken glass. I went downstairs and there was nothing there. That pretty much convinced me that the house was haunted. I asked my neighbors about the former tenants of our house. One was a carpenter who died, which is probably where that hammering sound come from. That was my first investigation.

“I then joined the military and did 20 years of service. I got out at age 38 and was not ready to retire. The experiences from my childhood really stayed with me, and I contacted the head of the D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers (DCMAG), Al Tyas, about joining the team. He was retiring and ended up giving me the team in 2006 after we did a few investigations together. The D.C. area in particular has a lot of folklore and history around hauntings. Some people believe that Abraham Lincoln haunts the White House. There is also supposedly a demon cat near Congress that predicts doom. Since joining DCMAG, I’ve had some pretty intense investigations. Getting my hair pulled by a ghost was my first physical encounter with a spirit. You just don’t believe that it is happening, but, after a while, you get used to it. Each spirit has something that he or she can do particularly well.  Some can pull hair, some can talk, and some can make footsteps. I even played hide-and-go-seek with the ghost of a child once. 

“There are a couple of theories about why ghosts do this. One is that they don’t know that they are dead. Another theory is that they have unfinished business and are not going to leave until it’s done. This could be something like a ghost finding his murderer.  Other people believe that they just don’t want to leave. That’s like the guy who built up his farm his whole life and finally got it to where he wants it to be, and then he dies. Then, someone else moves in and he gets angry. The other theory is the fear of being judged by God. That could apply to a lot of prisoners and people who didn’t have time to repent during life. They would rather stay in Purgatory than go to Hell. Those are all just theories, though.

"In our work, which we do for free by the way, we use a number of tools to search for spirits, but there is no such thing as a ghost detection tool. Some of the tools we use are closed-circuit televisions, lots of audio recorders and parabolic microphones, Geiger counters, and all kind of meters that measure energy. The body runs on electrical current and, according to Einstein, you can neither create nor destroy energy. When you die, all of that energy has to go somewhere, so we look for that. I am also trained in psychic self-defense, which is teaching people to recognize when you are under attack by a spirit. These places where we work are negative atmosphere environments. A lot of times, you can absorb that energy and it impacts you.

"Before doing this work, there was something missing from my life. Now, things feel right and I am doing what I love. I think that ghosts have taught me more about life than living people have."

Learn more about DCMAG here