Friday, March 5, 2010

Councilmember Tommy Wells on Getting the Love Back

“I first came to Washington in 1983. I was about 27 years old and was just graduating with a Master's in Social Work from the University of Minnesota. I couldn't figure out where I wanted to go, but I knew that I didn't want to go back to Alabama where I grew up. I went to talk with a professor whom I thought very highly of to ask what he would do in my situation. He said, 'I would go to Washington. Washington is the most exciting place I have ever lived.' Being quite easily influenced, I worked a little bit that summer and then sold my car, a little Honda station wagon, and bought a one-way ticket to Washington. As I walked out from Union Station on September 6, I just fell in love with Washington that very moment. It was a beautiful day and the buildings were such heroic structures. My heart raced a little bit then and hasn't ever stopped.

“In 1985, I took a job as a child protection social worker for D.C. That early experience taught me a lot about Washington and the neighborhoods that most people had never been in. Starting in 1985. the city essentially went broke and that was the beginning of crack and the AIDS epidemic. That led to an explosion of kids coming into foster care. At the same time, because the city was going broke, there was a hiring freeze on social workers, so the caseloads were exploding. I had over 40 kids and families in my caseload, but had colleagues who had from 200 to 500 kids.

“I remember that there was a young man in my caseload who tested positive for HIV at 15. I needed to find a home for him, but group homes would not take him. I found a gay AIDS activist in the city who said, ‘I will do it.’ I took that information to the government, but the city never paid him or did its part to support him. We had a crisis and the government could not respond. The system wasn't there to help kids with HIV and AIDS. These kids ended up in group homes, which are essentially orphanages, instead of foster homes. In response, when I ran the Consortium for Child Welfare, one of the first things I did was to write grants to create a recruitment program for people who were willing to be foster parents for children affected by HIV. That was a powerful experience because I was just moving a couple of gears and it changed the whole machine. Now kids were going directly to families. Some of those kids were even adopted and most went on to live healthy lives. Experiences like this made it clear to me that I was more drawn to systemic change rather than helping people one at time.

“There are two things that ultimately impacted my decision to run for political office. One is that, with time, I was providing more of a leadership role to social workers in the city, which made me more of a public person. The other thing is that during the late 80's/early 90's, D.C. became the murder capital of the world. I would read the paper on Monday morning about the egregious things happening in my ward and didn’t want to leave the house. I would feel so dark, gloomy, and fearful that these awful things were happening.

“I wanted my neighborhood to be better, so I ran for Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Even though it is only Advisory, I really felt like I was making a difference. It introduced me to a lot of public policy issues that affect our world. Because of my concern about kids, I ran for School Board and won in a District that was over 75 percent African-American. It gave me hope that if people recognize they want a better future in D.C., they will give you a chance regardless of your race. I love Washington and to get the love back was just an extraordinary experience.

“At the school board, I mandated that all students had to be fully immunized. At the time, 20,000 out of 60,000 kids had not gotten their immunizations. It was a powerful feeling to see how you could have an impact on a child's life through elected office. When Sharon Ambrose was not running for reelection in Ward 6, I saw an opportunity to continue to make major systemic changes. I felt good about electoral politics and ran to be a member of the Council.”  

Councilmember Wells was first elected to the City Council in 2007. He is the Chair of the Committee on Human Services and currently sits on the Committee on Economic Development, the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, and the Committee on Health. Tommy is also Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Human Services Planning Committee, Chair of the DC Safe Routes to School State Network, and the incoming Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Local Government Advisory Committee. Learn more about Councilmember Wells here

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