The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A unique class teaches the seemingly powerless how to make changes

Clockwise from right: Chearie Phelps-El, Martin Smoot, Alice Scales (with dog Diamond), Shana Potter, Joan Williams and Patricia Harris. (Photos by John Kelly/The Washington Post)

I met Chearie Phelps-El on a cold morning in Southwest Washington so she could show me that she practices what she preaches. And what she preaches is organizing.

“I just think everybody needs to work together,” she said.

It’s what Phelps-El and her neighbors in the Greenleaf Senior Building did when the construction of a new church at Delaware and M streets SW removed a nearby bus stop. The bus stop didn’t come back after the construction ended in 2019, forcing residents to walk another two blocks.

“I didn’t think that was fair,” Phelps-El said. “The bus stop was there longer than the church.”

Phelps-El is an instructor at a fascinating program run by the charity Bread for the City: the Terrance Moore Organizing Institute. With the nonprofit’s advocacy director, Aja Taylor, she and others train their fellow Washingtonians in the skills needed to get things done.

If you’re rich — in wealth or in political connections — you may find it fairly easy to get things done. But Phelps-El and her neighbors aren’t rich. That’s where the Terrance Moore Organizing Institute — named in honor of a Bread for the City client killed by gun violence in 2015 — comes in.

“If we go down to the Wilson Building, the power isn’t in the money,” Phelps-El said. “The power is in the numbers. We’re trying to teach people in the community how to organize.”

The organizing institute is a six- to eight-week class that meets twice a week at Bread for the City’s Michelle Obama center on Good Hope Road SE. Students learn how the District works — the council, the mayor, the advisory neighborhood commissioners, etc. — and get trained in the different tools organizers can employ, such as petitions, protests and “walk-throughs.” (That’s when a group walks through the Wilson Building during budget season, knocking on the doors of council members to make their case.)

“A lot of folks don’t know how to voice their opinions or allow their voices to even count,” said Joan Williams, one of Phelps-El’s neighbors and a participant in the institute.

Shana Potter is another Greenleaf neighbor taking the class. The three women have formed a group called the Ward Warriors to spread their activism around the city. The bus stop was an early effort.

“We started by joining forces,” Potter said. They circulated a petition and enlisted other residents in their cause. They contacted the powers that be.

Success came quickly. Within a month, a new bus stop was constructed.

Students at Bread for the City’s organizing institute are introduced to a mnemonic for structuring their approach, CEVA, which stands for connect, engage, vision and ask.

Williams thinks “vision” should come first. Whatever the order, success “makes you feel good inside,” she said. “It makes your spirit happy that you’re learning things that you can teach others.”

A bus stop is a tangible thing — a small thing, even. Phelps-El and her students have their sights set on larger things.

“My first challenge was banning the box on job applications for returning citizens,” she said.

That question — asking whether an applicant had ever been convicted of a crime, before an offer of employment had even been made — stopped many job seekers before they could get a foot in the door. Phelps-El was among those who lobbied to strike the question about convictions, which was removed in 2014.

“I feel like the more organizing we do in this city, the more we can put the fire up underneath the politicians,” Phelps-El said.

Said Williams: “We advocate for the low-income, the disabled, the seniors, the underdog.”

There seem to be more underdogs these days. A big issue in the District is affordable housing. There isn’t enough of it. The three women know that’s their next quest.

“You should be able to live in D.C. whatever your income is,” Phelps-El said.

On the morning I met her, Phelps-El brought some of the neighbors who had worked on that project. Besides Williams and Potter, there were Patricia Harris, Martin Smoot and Alice Scales, with her tiny dog, Diamond.

The new bus stop was different from the old one, they said. It was better: a shelter with a roof to protect people from the rain.

“I’m going to do a training with all the seniors in my building,” Phelps-El said. “They’re rebels. They’re ready.”

Helping Hand

Terrance Moore was a returning citizen who first raised the notion of an organizing institute with Bread for the City. He didn’t have a home and was shot while sleeping in his car on North Capitol Street. Moore’s death remains unsolved.

Bread for the City is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To support its work, go to and click the link that says “Donate Online Now.”

To give by mail, make a check payable to “Bread for the City” and send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.