At Millennial Week DC, working to improve a generation’s image, one selfie at a time


Ebonie Johnson Cooper and Meico Whitlock, both 30, take a selfie while attending the Millennial Week D.C. opening reception at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery on Monday in Washington. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

The millennials are going to prove that they aren’t self-absorbed, and they’re going to prove it by holding a week-long conference to celebrate themselves.

But before you roll your eyes (too late?), the founder of Millennial Week D.C. already knows what you’re thinking.

“ ‘Oh my God, not another thing about that generation,’ ” says 34-year-old Natalie Moss, parroting skeptics of her inaugural millennial-applauding extravaganza, which launched Monday and runs through Sunday. “It makes me cringe a little bit, because I see something that not everyone else sees.”

What everyone else sees, she says, is a slew of unflattering stereotypes assigned by people who feel baffled or threatened by millennials: They’re entitled. They’re attention addicts. They want your job, but they don’t want to work for it. They think they’re special.

But those descriptions didn’t fit the hard-working, philanthropic peers Moss met when she moved to the District three years ago. So she started putting together an event that would turn it all around.

“Why a week for millennials, and why in D.C.?” Moss asks, standing in a black floor-length gown on a stage at Millennial Week’s opening awards reception. “Simply put, I wanted to develop a platform for millennials to define themselves.”

Hey, the rest of you: Stop talking about us, and listen to us talk about us.

And so nearly 200 millennials descend on the Pepco Edison Place Gallery for the official launch of Millennial Week, where four awards — for social good, entrepreneurship, arts and culture, and millennial of the year — are doled out, as a diverse crowd of cocktail-attired 20- and 30-somethings sips the signature drink (The Chill Hustle, of course, complete with black walnut “caviar”), exchanges business cards and fills plastic bags with sweets from a candy buffet bar.

Between June 2 and 8, Millennial Week — which received a ceremonial proclamation from D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — will feature six events, with more than 3,000 people currently registered. They’ll join a panel discussion on policy hosted by The Washington Post, network at a meetup (sorry, a “tweetup”) for entrepreneurs, sample food and cocktails prepared by millennial chefs, and mentor students during a day of community service at local middle schools. Some events are free, and others range in price from $10 to $55, with proceeds going toward the cost of the conference and to the nonprofit organization Capital Cause.

“Let’s hear it for millennials!” bellows the opening event’s emcee, Tommy McFly of WIAD (94.7 FM), and the crowd lets him hear it over the din of clinking glasses, clicking heels and constant compliments — “I love your dress!” “Your hair is gorgeous!”

The ego-stroking is undeniable, but the point is to be taken seriously, so the evening’s speakers and guests are also talking about serious things: peers who have gone to war, philanthropists who launched nonprofit organizations to help their communities, entrepreneurs who created successful businesses despite a bleak economy. Millennials believe they can change the world, and they’re changing this city, too — a transformation that happened to be on display on the gallery’s walls in black-and-white photographs taken by teens as part of an art program in the District.

“In with the new, out with the old,” is the title of one image of a building demolition site, taken by an 11th-grader named Joshua. “This photo shows how people with higher incomes are pushing out those with lower incomes from neighborhoods where they once used to live in,” Joshua wrote.

The irony is not lost on 28-year-old freelance photographer David Hoffman, who lives in the District’s Shaw neighborhood and acknowledges that he appreciates the influx of amenities.

“But it’s important to be mindful of what’s being taken away versus what is given back,” he says. “I wonder if this conversation was going on in our parents’ generation? Were they worried about gentrification?”

He pauses, then concludes: “I feel like millennials are more mindful.”

That’s one way to summarize millennials. The event’s speakers offer a barrage of other options.

“Philanthropic, dynamic, driven, tech-savvy, attractive!” says McFly.

“Incredibly independent and entrepreneurial,” says Ian Moss, a spokesman for the State Department and a Marine Corps veteran.

“Attention-mongering, beer-guzzling, self-absorbed, selfie-absorbed,” says Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, presumably at least half joking.

“A generation that is going to have a profound impact on politics,” says Steven Olikara, founder of the national Millennial Action Project and the winner of Millennial Week’s Millennial of the Year award.

Maybe they are all correct, because when you’re talking about a generation of 80 million people — assuming a birth date range of 1977 to 1995, as Nielsen researchers do — it’s not so easy to describe everyone with the same few adjectives.

“People lump all millennials into one box, and in doing so they tend to play up the negatives and not the positives,” says Jason Dorsey, the 36-year-old chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics who is also known as “The Gen Y Guy,” a.k.a. a resourceful millennial who has made a successful business as an expert on millennials.

“Millennial Week gives actual millennials the opportunity to write their own narrative,” Dorsey says. “It says to the world, ‘Look, we’re not all living off our parents and expecting handouts from an employer or the government or anywhere else.’ ”

But the narrative might matter less than where it is told: in Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram photos — all of the social-media platforms that millennials use, making it especially easy to label them as hopeless narcissists.

Gaurav Tanwar, a 25-year-old defense contractor, says he’s not convinced that Generation Y is really any more obnoxious than previous generations. Most people have had a moment of saying something foolish or self-absorbed, he points out, but our culture has evolved from private journals to public Twitter accounts.

“I think the problem is that our flaws are amplified by social media, and they’re there for everyone to see for all time,” he says. “It wasn’t like that before. If you were self-indulgent, the world didn’t have to know about it.”

As he speaks — noting that he thinks millennials will age well, make a real impact, and show people that they’re not all that bad — the attractive crowd mills about, posing for selfies on the red carpet, ordering drinks and dutifully hashtagging them #MWChill, raising a glass to themselves.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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