They are the perpetual fingers in the eye of the establishment, the PTA presidents and and lawyers and environmentalists who spend their days and nights shuttling between meetings of their local civic associations, the County Council and the Board of Education.
Often they are referred to as "community activists" and as "gadflies," although neither term gets to the heart of what they do, often for no money and with little fanfare. They keep tabs on their neighbors' interests, whether the concern is traffic congestion, drug dealers, crowded schools or a developer's vision for remaking the landscape.
At times they are as busy as the politicians and builders whom they sometimes confront. Yet most concede no interest in seeking public office, preferring to maneuver outside the political system. "This way, I'm free," said Elsie Jacobs, a high school administrator who is known in some circles as the unofficial mayor of Suitland. "I can speak the truth, and I don't have to worry about it."
What follows is a look at a handful of the most active of Prince George's activists, the ones who, more often than not, drive debates and help keep the pressure on.
Scrutinizing the Schools
For nine years, Donna Hathaway Beck attended every Board of Education meeting, not as a member but as a self-assigned, unpaid watchdog who sat in the same seat behind reporters and absorbed the policy debates and squabbles. Almost a year ago, Beck, 47, decided she had had enough and told associates she was retiring as an activist. Only she didn't. Instead, she found herself attending County Council meetings, because she wanted to monitor the policy-making process "from a different playground."
Beck's path to the role of agitator can be traced to her high school days in Tempe, Ariz., where she and more than a dozen of her friends boycotted the prom because tickets were sold at discount only to students who bought them as couples. She moved with her husband in the late 1970s to his native Prince George's County, where she became a computer technician for the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1982, Beck, who was six months pregnant, was driving on Suitland Parkway to her mother's funeral when a drunk driver hit a car that then rear-ended her truck. The collision propelled Beck's pickup into a tree. Her injuries were severe enough to require reconstruction of the lower half of her face. Her daughter, the second of her four children, was born healthy a few months later.
A friend of Beck's who was a PTA volunteer at Melwood Elementary School visited her while she was homebound for four months and encouraged her to attend PTA meetings, if only to get out of the house. "The next thing I knew, I was pouring punch at the PTA meetings," she said. Her title: "hospitality assistant." Eventually she became the PTA's president.
Beck made her first public splash in 1995 when she discovered that a mentoring program for black boys offered by the county public school system was closed to girls, including her daughter. Beck, who is white, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Less than a year later, Superintendent Jerome Clark ordered that clubs and programs be open to all students regardless of gender.
More recently, Beck has focused on forcing developers of residential projects to pay substantial fees to finance construction of schools to ease crowding. She has never earned a dime for her activism, but Beck said she has received a number of entreaties to run for public office. So far, she prefers agitating as a private citizen.
"When you're in the public arena, you have less time to focus on one thing because there are so many issues," she said. "I just like focusing on the silver bullet."
Standing Up to National Harbor
Their principal opponent has derided them as "hornets," accusing them of trying to deprive Prince George's of what it needs to transform the county into a destination suburb: top-flight commercial development. Donna Edwards and Bonnie Bick, two activists who have railed long and hard against the National Harbor project, are tickled by such remarks by developer Milton V. Peterson and his allies.
It is evidence, they say, that the lawsuits they file and the protest signs they post have irritated the developer. "There's a great value in advocacy," Edwards said. "It's what makes democracy work."
Edwards, 46, a Fort Washington lawyer, and Bick, 60, an Oxon Hill environmentalist, met while joining forces to battle Peterson's proposal to transform 500 acres along the Potomac River into a hotel and conference center.
Both have spent years as civic activists.
The daughter of a career Air Force officer, Edwards grew up at military bases around the country before attending Wake Forest College in North Carolina and Temple University Law School in Philadelphia. She worked as a volunteer in Jimmy Carter's 1980 presidential campaign and for Jesse Jackson's White House bid eight years later.
Edwards has worked as a lobbyist for Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, and started the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an advocacy group. She is the executive director of the Arca Foundation, a philanthropy that provides funding to policy groups around the country. She is the mother of a 15-year-old son.
Bick grew up in Oxon Hill before attending the University of Maryland, where her interest in activism was kindled in 1964 after a boyfriend took her to hear political philosopher Hannah Arendt deliver a lecture on individual responsibility. "It was a wake-up call for me," she said. "It was different than anything I'd ever been exposed to."
Bick demonstrated against the Vietnam War and later against U.S. involvement in Central America. She focused on local issues after moving from New York City to Maryland in 1985 and joining with environmentalists to oppose a plan to build 4,600 homes at Chapman's Forest in Charles County.
Bick joined the opposition to the National Harbor project in Prince George's shortly after Peterson purchased the property in the mid-1990s. Edwards also joined the cause, although she urged her allies to press for economic growth in the area of downtown Oxon Hill as well as to stress environmental concerns.
The opponents have filed five legal challenges. Although most of them have failed, each lawsuit required Peterson's time and attention. So, in recent months, the developer has tried a new tactic. He reached out to his opponents, principally Edwards, with whom he has met and talked on the phone. Although the two sides are mum on the details, Edwards said their conversations are a sign of progress. Instead of being scorned, those who have fought for changes in the project are now at the table with Peterson.
"It's very new to me," Bick said. "We're getting the ability to influence what happens."
Policing the Police
From his perch in Seat Pleasant, Eugene W. Grant has emerged as a voice for the blue-collar neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway. Grant, president of Global Developmental Services for Youth , a nonprofit organization that mentors teenagers, has focused on Prince George's police force and its senior officers for fostering what he believes is a culture that tolerated misconduct.
Grant, 37, was born in California and raised by his grandparents, both ministers, until he was 12. He then moved in with his mother in the District. His penchant for challenging the status quo became evident in eighth grade, when he scolded a teacher for holding Bible readings in a public school class. When the teacher refused to take the Bibles back, Grant went to the principal and threatened to go even higher up in the school system. "The next day, the Bibles were collected," he said.
Grant moved to Seat Pleasant in the late 1980s and was appointed to a local police advisory panel. In the mid-1990s, then-Police Chief John Farrell appointed him to a countywide police advisory board.
Much of Grant's criticism of the police came during the administration of County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), while other civic activists remained largely quiet. Curry, Grant believed, "was more interested in the concerns of the affluent than the less affluent." Grant endorsed Jack Johnson (D) for county executive in 2002, and Grant is "more optimistic" that the current administration understands the concerns of inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods. However, Grant also said that "the judgment for Jack is still out."
"He had to come in and make some sweeping changes in the administration. The transition is always difficult," Grant said. "Now is the time to begin the evaluating."
Based on his experiences and from what he hears from residents in his community, Grant said he is not certain that the police force has undergone substantial reforms since Johnson appointed Police Chief Melvin High last year. "The attitude of the officers still hasn't changed," he said. "If that hasn't changed, you're a statistic waiting to happen."
As for his own political ambitions, Grant said his aims are strictly local. He is on the verge of launching a campaign to oust Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Kennedy, to whom he lost in 2000. That may be as far as he wants to go. Higher office, he said, would require him to be too careful in what he says.
"I wouldn't run for county executive or County Council -- it's too much into the system," he said. "I wouldn't want to be tarnished where I have to do too much compromising. The higher you go, the more compromising you have to do."
A Voice for Latinos
He has defended day laborers cheated out of their wages, fought for legislation that would allow immigrants to obtain driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status and sought to find ways to reduce violence in poor neighborhoods.
Gustavo Torres's myriad causes include persuading Prince George's lawmakers to allow street vendors to sell pupusas in the largely Latino community of Langley Park. "It's very important to the community," he said, recounting how the vendors had presented lawmakers with petitions signed by 1,500 residents supporting them.
Torres, 43, is executive director of CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit organization based in Takoma Park that provides job training, computer classes and employment assistance to about 12,000 low-income Latino immigrants in the Washington region.
In his native Colombia, Torres worked as a journalist and as a student and labor organizer. He drew enough attention, he said, that he became the target of threats from a paramilitary group with ties to the government.
"It was very scary," Torres said. "They said they were going to kill my family and me."
His fear drove him to move to the Washington area 12 years ago. He started at CASA as an organizer, before rising to become the organization's leader. Over the past decade, the group has grown more influential in Annapolis as the population of Latinos in Maryland has grown to about 200,000, according to census information. Two years ago, state Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Mount Rainier) became the first Latino to represent Prince George's in the General Assembly, and one of the first two Hispanics to serve in the House of Delegates.
One of Torres's main tactics is to train immigrants about community organizing so that they understand the political process. In the case of the pupusa vendors, Casa organizers gave them a tutorial on the key players on the County Council and the legislative process.
Before the legislation was introduced, the vendors held meetings with each council member.
"I want to bring a voice for people who don't have a voice," Torres said. "I don't want to be the voice of the community. I want the community to have a voice."
Sticking Up for Suitland
Suitland has no mayor or local council because it is not an incorporated municipality. But Suitland does have Janice Euell, Elsie Jacobs and Sylvia Quinton. The three have made a name for themselves in the community because they monitor everything from teenagers hanging out on street corners to new residential and commercial development.
Euell, 55, a widow and the mother of two adult children, was raised in the District. She worked as an executive assistant for the federal government and for a private company before founding Reaching Objectives Through Joint Actions, a Suitland-based nonprofit organization that provides job and computer training to young adults.
Euell traces her switch to full-time community advocacy to her waking up 14 years ago and hearing a newscast about a shooting involving young men at a carwash on Branch Avenue.
"There were 120 rounds of ammunition," she recalled. "It was like a war. I said to myself, 'Someone needs to do something with these children.' And little voice answered back, 'Why not do it yourself?' "
Jacobs, also a widow and the mother of eight adult children who is the mentoring coordinator at Suitland High School, had a similar awakening five years ago after several students she knew were killed in a rash of violence. She began attending civic association meetings, where she got to know Euell and Quinton. Soon, the organization's members elected her vice president, then president.
Quinton, 42, a lawyer who helps nonprofit organizations seek federal grants, has been enmeshed in local politics since she graduated from the University of Maryland. She became active in Suitland as a member of Hunter Memorial AME Church, which she helped apply for federal grant money to open a day-care center. In the mid-1990s, she formed the Suitland Development Corp. and joined the campaign to plan an $80 million county-sponsored revitalization project in the center of Suitland.
In recent months, the activists have begun to see evidence of change. The county is tearing down Suitland Manor, barracks-style apartments that in recent years formed a pocket of poverty and crime, and hoping to replace it with residential and commercial development.
In time, the activists say, Suitland will be a destination for young professionals seeking a vibrant community with easy access to the District and for families who want quality neighborhoods in which to raise their children.
"I'm not leaving until Suitland looks like Baltimore's Inner Harbor," Quinton said. "I know it's going to happen."
Getting Her Message Out
Theresa Dudley's interest in politics dates to when she was a teenager and canvassed her native Springfield, Mass., for presidential candidate Edward M. Kennedy. Dudley, 41, wound up in Prince George's County a decade later when she moved to Landover. She became incensed by the drug dealers who commanded corners in her neighborhood and by what she considered the inattentiveness of her local representatives. So what did Dudley do? With a $25 donation from a friend, she ran for the County Council in 1994. It was the first of her three unsuccessful bids for the council.
Dudley, a public school teacher and the mother of two children, believes she keeps alive important issues such as school improvement, crime reduction and development control by running for public office. Perhaps the biggest battle she joined, as an opponent, was over the building of FedEx Field, the home of the Washington Redskins.
She is mulling another political race, this one against Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), a six-term U.S. House member she says meddles too often in local politics.
Dudley no doubt would be the underdog, but that has not stopped her before.
"I don't look at it as losing. There's great strength in being a powerful political activist," she said. "I would never want to get up in the morning and say, I wonder what would have happened if I had stood up and done more."