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 (our theatre, our workforce center, our CSA farm, and others), which fill those buckets.
What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to you?
BFF’s ecosystem has helped us with not only the resources to sustain these programs, but with the partnerships, the networks, 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. That conversation catalyzed my conversation with the D.C. voting board, which 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 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. 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. We have a platform and a voice because of who we are: this anchor institution that has been here for a very long time. The way that we can continue to play a role in the context of health and wellbeing is to continue to provide the health/wellness programs that are culturally sensitive and are always iterating based on listening to the neighborhood—getting feedback to do feet forward and get better and better.
We can also use the platform to amplify the message of the inequities that reside here east of the river. 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; visit the campus; get a tour; learn the neighborhood; 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—you can’t help with 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 on 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. 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 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.