PHOTO: (L-R) Ward 8 D.C. Council candidates Aaron Holmes, Trayon White, Maurice Dickens, and Council member LaRuby May answered questions from Samantha Davis of the Black Swan Academy during the City Council Candidates Forum at FBR Boys & Girls Club in Southeast on Wednesday, May 25th./ Photo courtesy of LeVar Jones 

Not even the cries of teenagers and young adults eager to have their voices heard could compel Ward 8 D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D) to stay through an entire public campaign event.

Less than halfway into last week’s City Council Candidates Forum, May, the incumbent in June 14th Democratic primary, slowly crept out just as Samantha Davis, founder of the Black Swan Academy and moderator of the discussion, read a question for the candidates.

Davis’ warning of May’s prior engagement moments earlier didn’t sway those perturbed by what they described as the Council member’s disregard for residents and her opponents.

“The most important part of the job is showing up. Either Council member May doesn’t show up or she always has to leave,” Ike Foster, Southeast resident and head of local nonprofit Out of the Mouth of Babes, told AllEyesOnDC.

Foster, along with nearly 60 young people, parents, residents and community organizers, converged on a neatly organized meeting space located in the main lobby of the FBR Branch Boys & Girls Club at the ARC to hear the candidates’ takes on issues of great concern to Ward 8 youth.

The Wednesday, May 25th function took place more than a week after the Ward 8 straw poll at Anacostia High School, an event May missed to Foster’s dismay. For him, both episodes, along with conversations he’s had with neighbors, speak to May’s inability to connect with regular people.

“It seems kind of crazy that when I’m with people and I talk about her, they don’t know who she is,” Foster,a vocal supporter of Trayon White, a community organizer and one of May’s opponents, said. “If you’re popular, you can walk through any one of these neighborhoods because the people got love for you. She goes places but only in certain areas of Ward 8 that believe they’re not part of that ‘East of the River’ stuff.”

The stigma following Ward 8 derives, in part, from a barrage of socioeconomic barriers plaguing youth. In an interview with the Washington Times, Brenda Donald, D.C. deputy mayor for health and human services, said a vast amount of social services to children goes to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Young people have also counted among the victims in a recent string of killings plaguing Wards 7 and 8.

For nearly two hours, May, along with fellow candidates Aaron Holmes, Maurice Dickens and White, weighed in on a bevy of issues including youth homicide, unemployment, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline, cutbacks in sports and arts programs, and the lack of Black instructors in the classroom. After Davis read questions submitted by the youth, each candidate had up to 90 seconds to give an answer.

In response to questions about violence and lack of youth jobs, May cited her legislative achievements and commitment to helping young people succeed, saying that she hired D.C. summer youth employees in her office once their term ended.

“It’s important that young people get in the process,” May told audience members. “This year, I challenged all of my colleagues to not just say that we want more programs. It’s about putting money into services. We have to get the community involved. Crime is a holistic issue. We’re providing opportunities to make sure we’re giving you something to do other than commit crimes.”

White, a former employee of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, touted his nearly 20 years of community work and criticized IMPACT teacher evaluations and standardized testing, saying it bores students and keeps them disengaged. Throughout much of the night, supporters wearing highlighter green Trayon White campaign shirt clapped as he talked about his youth and highlighted his experience.

Holmes, who had his parents in the audience that evening, expressed a desire to change others’ perception of Southeast and improve youth-law enforcement relationships.

“We’re fighting for you and your future. We need someone to combat the stereotypes,” Holmes told the youth as he walked around the room. “Ward 8 is more than that. I want to make sure its true essence is shown. We need to make sure police are engaging you instead of arresting you. There are far too many who don’t know the difference.”

Though Dickens, a coach at Johnson Middle School in Southeast, connected discipline issues to mental health problems, his seemingly shallow responses failed to move audience members.

Other candidates found better luck in making their case to the youth.

Ward 8 youth Rasheda Twitty said she went into the event supporting May but switched over to Team White after hearing his diatribe about the lack of engagement in schools.

“I’ve seen posters of Trayon but this is my first time seeing him in person. He seems like he’s more focused on the youth and education,” Twitty, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, told AllEyesOnDC. Next fall, Twitty will attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. “School’s boring and there’s nothing that interests us. I hope that they can bring back more interesting clubs and sports, which the city took out because of funding,” said Twitty, 18.

Regardless of who wins on June 14th, a good number of the young people said they would like to see changes to the status quo, especially when it comes to education.

“These candidates should help bring more Black teachers who want to teach in Ward 8 schools,” Isaac Winslow, a student at Ballou Senior High School, told AllEyesOnDC. During the forum, Isaac, a football player, decried the dearth of Black male teachers in his school.

“I always ask this question in class about why we don’t have someone who’s Black,” Isaac added. “This affects me because I can relate more to someone who shares my skin color. [The] teachers [I have now] try too hard to fit in and want to be cool more than try to give us what we need.”