Asked to speak last week at a luncheon sponsored by the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, I was supposed to offer insight about the city government and the current political landscape. But the lesson that day was all mine. I was reminded, sotto voce, of the critical role played by seemingly ordinary citizens in creating an ethical government, growing a vibrant city and refurbishing our democracy.
A couple of decades ago, the District barely had two nickels to rub together. Wall Street rated its bonds as junk, exacerbating the city’s downward trajectory. Unsurprisingly, some residents escaped to the suburbs and parts unknown. Others — Anne Renshaw, Marie Drissel, the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, Robert Brannum, Dorothy Brizill, Gary Imhoff, Terry Lynch, Greg Rhett, Sam Bost, David Mallof, Ellie Anderson, Ron Drake, Helen Haggerty, Paul and Barbara Savage, for example — never gave up on the city.
They demanded better management of D.C. finances, construction of more downtown housing, enhanced neighborhood commercial corridors and improved delivery of government services for the poor and working class. They helped fire residents’ imaginations, inspire new leadership and create an exciting vision of the city’s future. The District blossoming before our eyes today owes much to the work of ordinary citizens, some of whom sat last week in the ornate and elegant upper room of the DACOR Bacon House in Northwest.
It’s easy, sometimes, to be swirled by the pontificating and gesticulating of politicians in an election season. Sometimes it’s difficult not to be caught in their self-aggrandizing delusions, assertions of being once and future architects of all things good in the District, which get amplified by their insistence that people spend their days counting construction cranes in the sky.
An element of municipal growth, undoubtedly, can be tracked by brick and mortar. But a city’s true greatness is its people: their diversity; their shared values; their spirit; their willingness to work on behalf of the collective, setting aside superficial differences often manufactured by ambitious, sometimes corrupt, politicians; their determination to shape their destinies.
Chatting with attendees at the federation’s luncheon and other residents around the city, I was struck by their keen awareness of the moment in which the District finds itself. They were anxious about the mayoral race, understanding that a wrong choice could have devastating consequences, but not necessarily on those cranes or other physical components of the city. Rather they were worried about possible injury to the people: their psyches, their belief in government and politics.
It was refreshing last week to realize that at least one of the District’s elected officials understands that. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) endorsed Brianne Nadeau, who is vying for the Ward 1 seat held by Jim Graham. Graham was lambasted last year by the city’s ethics board and reprimanded by the council for behavior in 2008 connecting the city lottery contract with a Metro land development deal.
Grosso went against a tradition: D.C. Council members do not publicly endorse a colleague’s opponent. I have not always supported his public policies. I am against his push to legalize marijuana in the District. I am not convinced of the need for public financing of local political campaigns. But I have admired his determination to help create a new politics in the city.
Integrity is not a sometime thing, practiced in one venue but not another. The common aphorism warns that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In other words, we are, indeed, our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
The gray hairs have multiplied on more than a few of the heads I saw at last week’s affair. The strides of some — once energetic — have begun to slow. No worries. A new generation of citizen-leaders has been forming across the city; people like Eboni-Rose Thompson, Josh Lopez and Daniel del Pielago, for example, have moved in, advocating around various critical issues. Equally important, federation members also have reached out to some of those young professionals who have been arriving in droves, claiming the District as home. They hope to persuade them that seeing something and tweeting something is simply not enough.
Citizenship has never been a spectator sport. Engagement and sweat equity are demanded.