Leadership Profile: Rahsaan Bernard

What is your role at Building Bridges Across the River? 

I am the president of the organization. 

Tell me more about BBAR. What are your visions/goals for this program in the D.C. area? 

Our north star—our theory of change—our desire for communities east of the river is to reduce the barriers to social and economic mobility, for a more equitable city. We do that by providing what I call our value proposition to this community in three categories: arts and culture, economic opportunity, and health & wellbeing. When you distill these three buckets down to their logical extensions, you find our programs, which fill those buckets: 

  • Our theatre resides in our arts & culture bucket. 
  • Our workforce center, our ICAN technical internship program (our workforce development program for the theatre), our D.C. Central Kitchens program (our partner nonprofit, that does culinary arts training)—these fill our bucket of economic opportunity. 
  • For health and wellbeing, we have a farm that’s 2 acres here; as part of our programming, we have a CSA that happens every Saturday. We distribute food from our doorsteps on Wednesdays in partnership with Martha’s Table and the Capital Area Food Bank. But in general, our partnerships with Children’s, with the David Lynch Foundation, and others fill our wellbeing bucket. 

What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to you? 

Every single vision requires some catalytic form to move things more speedily or sustain them. BFF’s ecosystem has helped us with not only the resources to sustain these programs, but with the partnerships and the networks and the intellectual capital and the ideation we’ve leveraged over the years—to strengthen, improve, and fuel the programs. In many ways, the foundation is the lifeblood to many pieces of this work. Without that energizing element, we can’t get this work done.  

For a specific example: in the middle of our pandemic, we had elections. They were looking for super centers in D.C. where people could come, socially distanced, to vote—not only socially distanced, but feel safe and secure: a trusted location. In communication with Ami and Mauree Jane, one of the things we had aspired to do was to become a super center. That conversation really catalyzed our efforts to press forward—to create a voice about needing a super center, here, in the heart of a black and brown community that didn’t have a center available to them. One of the disparities in the city is that they had these mega voting centers all over the city, but they weren’t located here, east of the river, where black and brown voters also needed a safe place to vote. That conversation catalyzed my conversation with the D.C. voting board, that led to various voting boxes being placed strategically on our campus so we could facilitate voting. We then paired our efforts of food distribution with voting registration information, encouraging members of our community to vote. We hadn’t paired that before; we hadn’t had that apparatus for our residents before. So that conversation—and the resources that were supplied by the Foundation—catalyzed that movement during that voting period of time.  

Has Covid changed the way you work or view your role in society? If so, how? 

Absolutely. TheARC (Town Hall Education Arts & Recreation Campus) has always served this community as an enrichment hub—a humanitarian mall, of sorts—where the best-in-class programs and services are provided to the community in a multi-sector approach. The pandemic really changed that. We went from enrichment—best-in-class, providing music and dance and arts and culture—to a basic needs model and a resilience hub. We pivoted to become a place where people could come not only for safety, but for basic needs and sustenance. We provided food, very early on; we still do that, to this day. We became a digital hub; there is a significant digital divide east of the river. Families who wanted their young ones to connect to school would come to our campus because our campus is connected. Later on, we became a vaccination hub and provided over 5,000 vaccinations; community residents could just walk across the street and get a vaccine shot. We learned from this that people not only needed vaccines, but also needed to stay healthy through household supplies/toiletries/wipes/hand sanitizers, so we began to provide that; and, in many ways, became a humanitarian hub for the community.  

We are strong, permanent, safe, trusted by the community. People know they can come here for all those aforementioned things in addition to what we’ve delivered over the last 15 years, which is the best-in-class programs. So now, it’s a force-multiplier of access and support for our community, and it is absolutely a magnifying of the work; it’s been amplified in manifold ways to support the community. 

Your work seems to center on health—of the individual, and of the community. How can this focus on holistic health/wellness be a tool for social change? What role does BBAR play in this? 

There are several pieces to this puzzle. One of the things we hold dear is our trusted voice in the community. The way that we can continue to play a role in the context of health and wellbeing is to continue to sustain/provide the health/wellness programs that are culturally sensitive, meet the neighborhood where they are, that are always iterating based on listening to the neighborhood—getting feedback to do feet forward and get better and better.  

It’s also to use the platform for amplifying the message of the inequities that reside here east of the river. We have a platform and a voice because of who we are: this anchor institution that has been here for a very long time. To this day, our community still has the highest level of deaths from the COVID virus. We also have, very notably, the lowest rates of vaccinations. We still do not have in our area a strong healthcare system or hospital. Continuing to SPEAK UP for the community alongside the community about these issues—to provide that level of advocacy and agency is a role I think we’ll continue to play. 

How can people get involved in BBAR? 

I learned a very long time ago that to really love your neighbor is to engage in what I call a “proximate strategy”: you engage by COMING HERE. Come to the community; come to the campus; see, touch, feel, hear—stimulate the senses about the difficulties we’re tackling and the opportunities you can provide solutions for. Visit the campus; get a tour; learn the neighborhood; learn about the people/staff; volunteer. 

You can also get involved by visiting our website and learning more about our organization. We never turn away financial contribution, so you can always give. But at the end of the day, if you’re gonna love thy neighbor, you’re gonna have to walk in thy neighbor’s shoes—and the only way you’re going to do that is by relinquishing your right to be comfortable and getting proximate—getting close to the issues. That’s why I’m here; I can’t run this organization unless I’m locking arms with the members of the community that are trying to solve their own problems, and I’m helping them with solutions to solve their own problems—and you can’t do that from afar. 

There is always pressure to measure the impact of an organization’s work based on traditional metrics like return on investment. As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success?    

My premise has always been, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Yes, a lot of our work in the social sector has a lot of moving parts that are more qualitative in nature; we spend a lot of time thinking about impact anecdotally. But thoughtful consideration has led this organization—at least under my leadership—to think about the quantitative pieces. How many families have access to our fresh produce? How many people did we get during our civic engagement process to register to vote? How many people did we help get into family-sustaining jobs? How many people are impacted through cultural experiences we present on our theatre stage? All of our programs have representative metrics that we use to guide our progress towards bridging this gap of equity across the city. 

My advice to other leaders: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—and you shouldn’t do it. 

We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can BBAR be a leader in this environment? 

We have a natural disposition in our DNA to be a convener not only of organizations, but of ideas and solutions and people. By definition, this campus is a hub of ideas and intellectual capital. It is a convening space for the brightest minds in the nonprofit space here in Washington. Also, by our very disposition here as a humanitarian mall: we’re not a strip mall—this is not a bunch of co-located nonprofits working in silos. All our nonprofits share ideas, funds, and enrollees. 

How do we do that better? With a level of intentionality—by rejecting the prevailing disposition that there’s only one pie. My own disposition is that we can make as many pies as we want. The pie is not static; it’s always growing. The stage is already set for that. We need to pull together our foundation/corporate partners and get them to understand the ideology of partnerships; they, too, are part of this equation. We have the raw material—convening hearts, minds, ideas, and solutions. We just need a level of intentionality and a plan to do that continually. 

What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you? 

I’m in the gym 4-5 days a week. Exercise has been great for me. Prayer and meditation have been wonderful settling/fueling things. I play a lot of golf, so I do a lot of walking, and I stay connected to nature/the outdoors. Reading, exercising, prayer, meditation, playing my favorite golf game—these things really balance me and refuel me. 

What is your mantra? 

I have several; I think the one that is the most relevant today is that we must do what we seemingly don’t want to do to achieve everything that we desire to be. 

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