Young woman, saved from a violent life in D.C., seeks to empower others

Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 17, 2011

Davina Callahan was a troublesome girl. She talked back to her mother, got into fights at her high school in Southeast Washington and seemed destined for a life of turmoil and drama.

So when she graduated with honors from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina this past weekend, her family gathered to celebrate her academic achievements.

And marvel at a remarkable transformation.

“When I call her on the phone, there’s a big change in her voice,” Vida Callahan, Davina’s mother, said during a recent lunch at Uniontown Bar and Grill in Anacostia. “She talks more maturely, not just make grunting sounds. I said, ‘This is my baby talking?’ ”

A seemingly small change, but one with a big impact, as any parent — or prospective employer — can attest.

Come June, Davina, 20, begins graduate studies in social work at Smith College in Massachusetts. That’s a long way from the neighborhood brawls that sometimes involved baseball bats and crowbars.

“Wherever we bumped into someone we were [feuding], a fight might break out,” Davina said. “Metro stops, shopping malls, neighborhood festivals — it didn’t matter.”

To single out a turning point in her life would be an oversimplification. But in 2004, when she was in ninth grade, Davina got an opportunity to join a life skills program called Saving Our Sisters. It was funded by former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams and Brenda Walker, his deputy for children, youth and families. The program was run by a conflict resolution group known as Peaceoholics.

The group, co-founded by Ron Moten and Jauhar Abraham, has since lost most of its city funding and is being audited amid allegations that money has been misspent or can’t be accounted for.

Davina’s successes by no means count as exoneration of the group. But to hear her talk about SOS and the Peaceoholics does shed light on how unconventional ways can sometimes result in breakthroughs.

“They sponsored retreats just for girls from rival neighborhoods,” said Davina, who was regarded as the leader of a group from Anacostia known as the Choppa City girls — Choppa meaning an AK-47 assault rifle. “We went to Atlanta for a civil rights movement tour and were exposed to things that began to raise self-esteem and stop girls from degrading themselves.”

At age 17, during her freshman year at Winston-Salem, Davina’s father died of lung cancer. It appeared she would have to drop out of school for lack of funds. But Peaceoholics came to her aid.

“When I didn’t have enough for tuition, they made up the difference,” she said. “They paid for my books, and they paid for my travel so I could attend my father’s funeral.”

All totaled, the group has spent a substantial amount on Davina. Whether she can come up with the funds to get through Smith is still an open question.

But the Peaceoholics argue that the money spent so far should be weighed against the long-term benefits of Davina’s blossoming — and the cost to society if she had failed.

“I see a huge change,” said Medina Callahan, 21, one of Davina’s two sisters. “When she was young, she was very judgmental, not encouraging. Now, before she says something, she takes time to evaluate it.”

The eldest sister, Melvina Callahan, 23, disputed the notion that the Choppa City girls were a gang. “Just a group of friends trying to look out for one another,” she said.

“More like family,” Medina added.

That Davina emerged as the head of this female protectorate suggests that a strong will had been there all along, just aching to be molded one way or another.

“The biggest change I see is that today I care about others,” Davina said. “Before, I didn’t care about the impact my behavior had on others.”

Davina now wants to empower other girls who are at risk of ruining their lives. She recently worked with some of them as an intern with Communities in Schools in Raleigh, N.C.

“It was a challenge,” she said. “While we were issuing snacks to kids, a girl took an extra one, and I called her on it. She got angry and told me, ‘I’ll fight a college student.’ Fortunately, I was able to restrain myself long enough to realize that I was looking at how I used to be.”

And if she could change, so could that girl.

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