Empowerment in D.C.'s Ward 8
I wrote in Saturday's column about the different takes that President Obama and DC's Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had on the word empowerment. To no surprise, I was critical of Barry. At noon on Saturday, I fulfilled a longstanding engagement to deliver the "African American History Month" address before the Ward Eight Democrats in Anacostia, a Marion Barry stronghold. "In for a dime, in for a dollar" was my thought. Barry wasn't there, but I chatted with his girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. And this is what I said to the group: (I got out with my life, a plaque, and much applause.):
When Phil Pannell extended an invitation to join you for this celebration of African American History Month, I eagerly accepted.
First, because there is no way to say "no" to Phil, and live to talk about it.
More importantly, this is a critical time for us pause and reflect upon how far we have come as a people in the nation's capital, and to consider the challenges that remain.
President Obama chose for this year's National African American History Month the theme, "The History of Black Economic Empowerment."
In his proclamation, the president called upon the nation to honor African Americans who overcame injustice and inequality to achieve financial independence and the security of self empowerment that comes with it.
I would like to use this occasion, however, to look beyond economic empowerment. We need to assess where we are as heirs of earlier generations of African Americans who helped build this city.
But first, I want to make it clear that I am not going to stand before you and suggest that African American life in the past was so much better than it is today.
I remember the day when black kids in Anacostia had to travel west of the river to attend high school, because the only secondary school in this part of town, Anacostia Senior High, was for whites only.
I remember riding the street car with my father, brother and sister from our West End/Foggy Bottom home to the end of the line at Glen Echo, Md., and not getting off the car, because Glen Echo was not for people who looked like us.
I remember a day in this city when we had no vote, when the president appointed city leaders, and when Congress had, not only the final say, but the only say.
I remember the dual school system. The one for African Americans, with older buildings and older books. It was called Division Two. And the other system, with better buildings and books, appropriately named "Division One" for white kids.
I remember a D.C. police force filled with white officers, some recruited from the South; and racially segregated fire stations; and fleets of taxi cabs that, as a matter of policy and practice, would not pick up blacks.
I remember those days all too well.
But I also remember streets where there were grocery stores owned and operated by African Americans. Where you could find tailors and shoe repairmen. I remember a time when our teachers, lawyers, doctors and preachers lived in our own neighborhoods.
I remember when we considered it part of our duty to make sure that a neighbor wasn't going hungry or getting put out on the streets.
I remember a time when we gave what we had without thinking about it too much, because we knew others would do the same for us if we were in their shoes.
And I remember a time when we may not have had much, but what we did have belonged to us: The places where we lived, our churches, our neighborhoods. Nobody took care of our children. Nobody.
I remember a time when we had pride. When we were too proud to beg, too proud to look for sympathy, too proud to make excuses, too proud to let our own people down.
Let's be clear. I defer to no one in being able to catalogue the reasons why the American Dream is still beyond the grasp of so many of us, even as we celebrate African American History Month 2010.
I don't have to be told about the bitterness of slavery. I heard about it, not from books, but from the mouths of my elders.
My great-grandfather's name is there at the Civil War Memorial museum on U Street. He was a member of the 5th Colored Cavalry in Massachusetts that fought in Virginia during the Civil War. Fighting, by the way, for the North, and in a Union Army that would not recognize his humanity. The 5th Colored Cavalry was segregated from the white Union soldiers and it was commanded by white officers.
Racial prejudice? We've all had a taste. Institutional discrimination. We know that, too.
And the remnants of bigotry are still around.
As for economic inequality?
I know what it's like to not have enough money to buy new shoes and clothes…to wear hand-me-downs from the families where our mother did days work as a domestic.
I know what it's like to make do with meals of stews, and beans, and biscuits, and to be thankful that our parents could even put food on the table.
I know what it's like to take in "roomers" in your house, and to sell chitlin' and chicken dinners to make ends meet.
We never applied the words "poverty" and "poor" to ourselves. But we knew there was a lot of stuff…a whole lot of stuff…that we didn't have, and that our parents couldn't afford to get.
The King family never had a car. Not until I finished college, got married, went into the Army and with my first pay bought a used Chevrolet Corvair.
Growing up, it was-for us-the street car, the bus, or walk. We walked everywhere. It wasn't crowded, either.
We had a small patch of grass on our front lawn at 1101 24th Street N.W., in the Foggy Bottom/West End part of town. We couldn't afford a lawn mower, so my father cut the grass with scissors, and I hauled buckets of water from the kitchen to wet the grass.
And we did stuff like that because we were raised to keep whatever we had looking nice.
I say all of this to make the point that all of us have had to struggle in one way or another to get where we are today.
And we can look back and celebrate that we have come so far.
But in the celebration of our triumph of courage and tenacity over doubt and resistance, we cannot overlook the challenges that we still face in this city, and right here in Ward 8.
You don't have to leave the District of Columbia to find disparities marked by race and class. Examine public school test scores, HIV/AIDS rates, criminal records, the ownership of homes and businesses.
The truth is, in the year 2010, even with, as Obama put it, our "rise above the injustices of our time," we, as a people, still have some steep mountains to climb.
The means to climb those mountains -- to improve our schools, to raise children for a future of good jobs and not bad jails, to marshal the resources to buy homes and build businesses and viable communities -- some of those means can be obtained from public and private sources.
But there are some things that government and philanthropy can't provide.
We, as a people, must supply the dedication. We must possess a sense of urgency to reach the mountain top. No one can give us a dose of commitment.
It starts with us having confidence in our own capabilities, as generations before us had.
Which gets me to the subject of today's column and to the challenge before you, Ward 8 Democrats: It is empowerment.
It falls to leadership in this community -- leadership of churches like Mathews Memorial, political associations like this, and other community leaders -- to provide the means to help people in this ward to make the right choices, and to show them how to transform those choices into actions and outcomes. That is what empowerment is all about.
As you may know, I was once the U.S. executive director to the World Bank, where a lot work was done on empowerment -- on finding ways for people who have been pushed to the edges of society to have freedom of choice and action. The World Bank does this kind of work with developing countries.
Freedom of choice and action must happen here, not only in Ward 8, but in our community at large.
And let me say this: Empowerment can't come by way of D.C. government grants and contracts. I don't care what your councilmember, Marion Barry says.
As Mathews Memorial Baptist Church knows: Change starts with spiritual empowerment.
We must overcome fear of the unknown, overcome being afraid of crossing bridges that we haven't even reached.
As I learned from one of my "Day By Day" meditations this week: Anxiety reflects a mistrust of God.
It said: "If anything is needed, ask: and then leave it to God. If he doesn't give it, so much the better. It wasn't really needed."
Don't be afraid. Think positively about our ability to make change. When that happens, that's spiritual empowerment.
Focus, above all, upon developing the skills in this ward that lead to self-sufficiency.
Grantsmanship, hustling city contracts, inside dealing won't get -- and keep -- you there. It is about developing talents and abilities that cause people to grow and become skilled workers and professionals with decision making power of their own.
That's what leads to economic empowerment.
A child who masters a book, solves a complex math problem, speaks up confidently when asked, is a child who is empowered.
A woman able to put down domestic violence and exercise control over her life is a woman empowered.
A gay or lesbian neighbor who can walk our streets freed from the threat of attack is a neighbor empowered.
A community that can come together to make decisions on matters that affect it is a community empowered.
Which gets me to the Ward 8 Dems in this African American History month.
As a political organization, your concern should not be limited to winning elections. As a major community institution, you have to change the perception that some others have about Ward 8.
You must show that Ward 8 is not a marginalized section of the city, dependent soley on the charity of people west of RFK stadium.
Ward 8 must have a positive self-image, clear of the stigma political corruption and self-dealing. Residents are so much better than the face of Ward 8 on display in the John Wilson Building.
You can confirm that statement.
In a few days, Councilmember Barry is expected to respond to the devastating special counsel report on his conduct in office.
I understand that Ward 8 Dems will consider his response and take a position shortly thereafter.
Marion Barry may be the agenda item.
But at stake is whether you will make a difference politically in this ward.
At issue is whether you are strong and courageous enough to hold your leaders accountable -- whether Ward 8 Dems are politically empowered or a marginalized group at someone else's beck and call.
The whole city will be watching.
Much of the history of this city has been recorded. You now have an opportunity to add your own chapter.
I hope that when future generations look back at this month, they will say that the Ward 8 Democrats did their part to move this city forward toward a brighter, and honorable, future.
That will, indeed, mark African American History month 2010 in Washington, D.C. as a time to be remembered.
Thank you very much, and God Bless Ward 8.
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