A D.C. activist with humble roots has powerful people adopting her cause

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Making of Malika is a five-part harmony. A song of elevation on a capital scale.

She delivers the foundational bass note, if you will -- Malika Saada Saar, the one with all the street cred, all the degrees, all the passion. The activist with the au courant social cause: a small organization called the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, dedicated to reforming welfare and criminal justice policies affecting women and children.

But street cred and degrees, passion and au courant causes aren't enough in this town of overachievers and self-promoters. The place crawls with gifted givers, and most of them struggle to be heard.

In order to become a player here, to have a Washington-style coming out -- an electrically charged unveiling like the one Saada Saar is suddenly lighted by -- you need an ensemble to sing the notes you can't hit. This is how a star gets made inside the Beltway.

In the days and months before Saada Saar's recent kaboom into an everywhere, all-the-time voice and face, her ensemble grew handshake by handshake, a product of Washington's distinctive fusion of social and professional worlds. Alliances formed and friendships sealed in capital fashion over hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and air kisses, during birthday bashes and book parties. Saada Saar, a striking 39-year-old with high cheekbones, Cleopatra eyes and a sharp nose, captivated her audiences of intimates with professorial musings and an oh-so Outside the Beltway look, her head studded by pointy twists of hair. When she talked about vulnerable mothers, she rubbed her own belly -- the mother of two is now 8 1/2 months pregnant with her third -- and laughed about her aching feet. A woman once indifferent to meeting-and-greeting came to embrace these rites, but not without coaxing.

She's guided, tugged, nudged by the other voices in her ensemble, a cross-section of Washington mojo and cachet: A former Republican insider sashays her from party to party, a Democratic insider navigates her through Capitol Hill, a media muse connects her to people carrying notebooks and microphones, a hostess situates her at center stage. Each is drawn to the cause, but also to the woman behind it -- charisma counts! -- and to the challenge of transforming great promise into great impact.

Saada Saar beguiles them with insights honed during teenage months spent in a kind of apprenticeship under Mitch Snyder, the iconic Washington activist for the homeless; and during her post-college days chilling with such enigmatic figures as Van Jones, one of the Obama White House's first fallen stars. Saada Saar's world -- "at the intersection of Southwest D.C. and Northwest D.C.," as she maps it -- is a place of unconventional men and women, nuanced assessments, uneasy truths. Even an acclaimed film like "Precious," the story of an obese black teen who is raped by her father, comes off as somehow facile in her mind's eye.

"The reality is that Precious isn't just black," Saada Saar writes in an e-mail one recent afternoon. "There are too many white, rural, and middle-class girls who are also Precious."

Saada Saar's is a jarring message: The same American society that talks so much about valuing families often destroys them by tarring drug-addicted mothers, runaway girls and sexually abused teens as criminals, rather than finding ways to heal them.

But before she could take this message to the masses, before she could be properly introduced to Washington, the star-in-waiting needed to be convinced that the capital game was not only worth playing -- it was essential.

"For a long time, I believed that connections were based on merit, on being smart and working hard," Saada Saar says one day over lunch across the street from her Dupont Circle office. "I'm learning the importance of knowing people. I'm learning how D.C. is a small town."

Voice 1: Activist

Like so many back stories in this city of transplants and careerist nomads, Saada Saar's starts someplace else. Growing up in Pennsylvania towns such as Upper Darby and Haverford, she learned about "otherness." She was a mixed-race child in a mostly white school. Her North African father left when she was 7, and she was raised by her white Jewish mother and grandmother in an environment she calls "fragile," a home with "a constant sense of struggle."

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