"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.