July 12, 2017

5 photos that show renewal in Washington, D.C.

More than just a seat of federal government, D.C. is also brimming with local innovators and problem solvers

Dreaming Out Loud, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing healthy food systems to D.C.'s marginalized communities, runs an urban farm in the backyard of the South West Arts Club. Photos by Mikhail Klimentov

There are the headlines you can expect coming out of Washington, D.C.—the political brinkmanship and the news of the day from Capitol Hill. And then there are the often untold stories, the ones about the extraordinary efforts made by local entrepreneurs, activists, and innovators that are helping to bring positive change to their communities.

I’ve lived in D.C. for less than a year, but in that time I’ve spoken with a number of dedicated individuals who are working to make this city a better place. I’ve interviewed an urban farmer working to establish a healthy, affordable, and equitable food system in underserved communities. I’ve profiled a former museum director who—nearly by accident—found himself at the helm of an ambitious plan to build a park across the Anacostia River. And I’ve met a group of LGBT former gang members who, despite being cast aside by society, turned their lives around and started a fashion line.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the incredible work being done across the city. But hopefully these five stories will serve as an inspiration to others interested in community renewal, in D.C. and across the country.

Don’t miss our previous entries in this photo series, from Detroit and New Orleans.

Christopher Bradshaw is the founder of the D.C. nonprofit Dreaming Out Loud.

Developing equitable food systems

One summer, while volunteering at a D.C. summer school program, Christopher Bradshaw noticed a problem: the kids would always bring unhealthy snacks and crash soon after eating them. This was because of a lack of healthy and affordable options in their neighborhoods. In 2008, Bradshaw founded Dreaming Out Loud. The nonprofit runs a series of farmers markets and a small urban farm out of the backyard of a historic church-turned-art space. “The idea in this space is to engage folks through education, volunteership, but also to sell some of what we grow,” Bradshaw said. “We try to use the food system to bring people together and create economic opportunity.” Sumayyah Muhammad, a self-taught gardener, works in Dreaming Out Loud’s garden. “My stepmother gave me a taste of her cucumbers and tomatoes—and the taste was incomparable to what’s in the grocery store,” Muhammad told me. “After that I was like ‘I’m convinced, I have to grow my own food.’” Growing her own food also ensures that her family has the safest and healthiest food available: “I can buy a pack of seeds for less than the cost of a bunch and get as much as I want throughout the year to feed my family,” she said. “I wanted to make sure my children had access to good quality food.

Check It members, from left to right: Star Bennett, Erica Bledsoe, and Tray Warren.

Finding renewal in fashion

Check It, an LGBT gang based in Washington D.C., comes from a violent past. The gang came together as a support group for gay and transgender teens facing poverty, homelessness, sexual assault, and violence. Over time, however, people in the community had come to view Check It as “violent, fighting, and ghetto people,” said Check It Enterprises CEO Star Bennett. Eventually, the group chose to forego violence in favor of a safer and more positive future in fashion. At a fashion show in 2012, Tray Warren, a member of Check It, explained the change to the audience. “They say we fight all the time,” he said. “We know we can get along with people. We want to do something better. We want people to look at us in positive ways.” Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton attended the group’s storefront opening. Admittedly, because of the group’s past, Check It still struggles. Erica Bledsoe, the group’s treasurer, said that it’s hard to find support for their venture. But the group is still pushing, and a recent string of successes points to a bright future: a successful fashion show followed by a raving endorsement from comedian Louis C.K.

High-end housing

In January, the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence opened its doors to 60 homeless veterans in the city’s up and coming NoMa neighborhood. But unlike some homeless residences, the veterans here won’t ever be transitioned out of the building; their housing is permanent. The building’s design highlights the importance of these citizens: instead of being tucked away into cheap, run-down housing units, the veterans are being treated to a shiny, new, 14-story apartment building. The building also houses services for the veterans, such as mental health counselors and job and education advisors. Clifford Rowe, one of the veterans now housed in the Conway Residence, described the feeling of having a place of his own as “a gift from heaven.

Scott Kratz is director of the 11th Street Bridge Park.

Bridging communities

When the 11th Street Bridge Park opens in 2019, it will be D.C.’s first elevated park, constructed atop the pillars that once supported the 11th Street Bridge. But it’s also aiming to be more than that. “The Bridge Park could symbolize a new unity and connection between a booming area of the city and one that has been long overlooked and excluded from the city’s economic progress,” reads the Equitable Development Plan, a guidebook that charts a course for the park’s future well beyond its construction. Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park Director, has committed significant resources to ensuring that the park serves both of the communities that it will eventually connect. “We’ve had well over a thousand meetings with the community,” Kratz said. “Even before we began engaging a single architect or a single landscape architect we went to the community and asked: ‘Should we do this?’” By committing to the Equitable Development Plan, Kratz hopes to avoid the pitfalls of similar projects, like New York City’s High Line, which displaced much of the lower-income community it was built in.

Mary's House for Older Adults hopes to be a safe haven for LGBT seniors.

First of its kind

According to NPR, D.C. has “a higher percentage of adults who identify as gay than any of the 50 states.” However, no housing developments exist to serve the needs of this aging population—and in regular senior living facilities, elderly LGBT people can be subjected to abuse and discrimination, or be forced to hide their sexual orientation. LGBT seniors face “heterosexual peers [who] have grown up and marinated in this belief that homosexuality is immoral,” Bob Linscott, assistant director of The LGBT Aging Project in Boston, told Washington City Paper. Imani Woody, founder and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults hopes to change that. A few years ago, Woody inherited her childhood home (pictured above), and decided to renovate it and open it up as a 15-unit residence for LGBT seniors. While the timetable for the project isn’t clear, Mary’s House recently secured approval from the government to raise money for development.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor for The Renewal Project.