The Advoc8te was heading home last week enjoying the warm weather when she passed this charming little entrepreneurial enterprise being run by some young boys who live on her street. They told me they were inspired by their father's tales of having a lemonade stand growing up. The boys -- entrepreneurs in training -- decided to expand on the idea. They didn't have any lemonade but they had set up a pretty diverse little shop with Popsicles, sodas, candies, cereal, beef jerky, toilet paper and other dry goods and treats. I told them if they had some dog food they would pretty much have all I would need! It was a nice little group of them running the dry goods stand, packaging the goods for the customers, making change and ringing the bell for every sale. The proud father stood by encouraging the young boys to do an informal market study to find out what products their customers (in this case me) would like to see stocked at the food stand. (In case you were wondering The Advoc8te will never pass up lemonheads -- the original not the chewy please.)
That got me to thinking today about the perception of east of the river communities -- what many like to label as "underserved" and only underserved. Are there real challenges facing wards 7 and 8? Absolutely. Are there areas that need to be addressed and improved? Without a doubt. But does this mean that the people who live here should always (and only) be labeled as the "last and the least"? I hope not. The problem I have with that type of one sided storytelling is that it brands the Southeast DC community as victims instead of victors. That we are in constant need of being "saved" without acknowledging that we have real value, real purpose and most importantly real pride. Sometimes it feels like wards 7 and 8 have become a prepackaged product of the undesirable, the poor and the helpless. In certain circles, "east of the river" has become synonymous with "underserved and undervalued."
Contrary to media reports there are many things to love about living east of the river. I see them every day. Some perks are small, others large but most add to the charm of living in an urban village. Many of the very things that one would assume are exclusive to more affluent communities or suburbs are things I encounter on my Southeast streets regularly.
While I am glad that "Southeast" is appearing more in the news these days it feels bitter sweet. For every great #SoutheastLove story there are 50 "those poor helpless people" stories. Not only does it present an incomplete and one sided view of our communities but it also sets us up to be used as props for press conferences for groups looking to score brownie points (or funding) on the backs of our real needs and challenges --- without really giving back at all. What's that saying, "beggars can't be choosers"? The Advoc8te can't tell you how often she has been invited to participate in those dreaded poverty tours or contrived press conferences for this or that initiative. It kills me a little in my soul every time I am asked, particularly when I am aware of so many real east of the river organizations and programs that could use more attention and frankly some funding. How do we leverage partnerships when we aren't seen as real and valued partners?
I don't think the residents of Ward 7 and Ward 8 are beggars and while we may be "underserved" I don't think we are helpless either. The real story is much more complicated. I think east of the river residents should absolutely be choosy...and inspired...and empowered and that starts with changing the narrative and the sound bites that are used to define us.
Perhaps it is time to look closer.