(L-R) G. Lee Aiken, Robert White, and David Garber addressed residents’ questions about job preparedness, unemployment and underemployment among east-of-the-river residents, high levels of lead in the water, community-police relationships, and small business ownership during the Equitable Economic Development Forum on May 31st./ Photo courtesy of Kymone Freeman

During the evening hours last week, Southeast resident Jennifer Blocker left her home and walked up the street in search of answers at what was anticipated to be the largest community forum to take place during this election season.

Not long after entering THEARC on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, Blocker, a community member of more than a decade, told a panel of Ward 8 D.C. Council candidates about her precarious living situation and the constant threats of eviction coming her way amid impending development and rent hikes.

Each person on stage that night addressed Blocker’s concerns. Bonita Goode stressed the importance of proactively engaging developers years before their plans come to fruition. Aaron Holmes briefly explained the difference between development and gentrification, stating the former could benefit the community if done correctly. Trayon “WardEight” White decried regulations that shut out low-income residents based on fluctuating measurements of “median income.”

None of those answers, however, appeased Blocker.

“There’s so much development going on and I haven’t gotten an answer about what [developers and elected officials] are doing. I want them to let us know,” Blocker told AllEyesOnDC at the end of the Equitable Economic Development Forum, a three-hour gathering that attracted more than 100 community members, activists, and grassroots organizers on May 31st, the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Riots.

“If developers are coming through, people should be able to keep their home at the price they currently got on the books. Some of the laws they said they have in place aren’t really there. Folks aren’t equipped [for this] so we have to be educated,” Blocker added.

Guests who attended the forum have long shared similar apprehension to the changes coming to economically struggling communities of Wards 7 and 8. For nearly a decade, much of the District has undergone an urban renaissance at the expense of Black residents whose history in the city spans generations. As upper and middle-class whites flocked to D.C.’s gentrified neighborhoods, more than 40,000 residents got pushed out to the suburbs, succumbing to the burden of rising rent and property taxes.

In 2011, D.C. lost its Black majority for the first time since Home Rule, an event some described as a sign of the changing tide in “Chocolate City.” Until recently, areas east of the Anacostia River remained virtually untouched but construction projects underway, including the Wizards’ practice facility and Mystics’ arena on the campus of the former St. Elizabeths hospital, have raised eyebrows among residents who fear that they too will be displaced.

That Tuesday evening, Kymone Freeman, co-owner of We Act Radio, and WPFW 89.3’s Jennifer Bryant moderated forums and Q&A sessions between residents and candidates for the At-Large and Ward 8 D.C. Council seats. Community member-submitted questions touched on job preparedness, unemployment and underemployment among east-of-the-river residents, high levels of lead in the water, community-police relationships, and small business ownership.

“This event is our effort to bring the goals outlined in the 2015 City First Foundation Community Development Conference to fruition by including the very people who are affected by policy,” Freeman told AllEyesOnDC.

During the event, he lectured audience members, imploring them to gain more of an understanding of how politicians and developers often collude to displace them. “These solutions presented work toward a collective vision for the development of housing, small business and employment in D.C.’s most vulnerable communities,” Freeman added.

That evening, a cadre of At-Large D.C. Council candidates, including David Garber (D), Robert White (D), and G. Lee Aiken (D.C. Statehood Green Party), sat on stage on a long table alongside Belluve resident “Ms. TJ” as they weighed in on issues of the minimum wage, the D.C. public school system, and rising housing costs. When an audience member asked candidates if they would work to get rid of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson if elected, all except Garber answered “yes.”

In spite of some of her well-articulated points, audience members often reacted negatively to Aiken, an elderly white woman, with loud coughs, particularly after she referred to them as “you people,” in her pleas for them to get involved in the political process.

Garber also became the center of slight controversy when an audience member took to the mic and recounted a negative experience he had renting living space from the D.C. Council candidate. As the night went on, focus shifted more to policy issues, with candidates giving wonky solutions to residents’ most pressing problems.

In response to inquiries about the possibility of the minimum wage rising to $15 per hour, White, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, said it would be a good start, adding that a viable jobs program would give residents the tools needed to advance professionally and earn more. On stage, he pledged to improve programs he said suffered under Orange’s control.

“Vincent Orange has been [on the Council] for a decade and we haven’t been a decade better. $15 an hour is good but you’re still living in poverty,” White told audience members. Throughout the evening, he showed strong support for D.C. statehood, reflecting on his work with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to further that cause and pointing out that the District loses out on millions of dollars because commuters can’t be taxed.

“If we pay federal taxes like every jurisdiction, we should have the same voice and a say in the direction of this nation. We [also] have to train our people up. We have a failed jobs program under Orange. We’re not even spending the millions of the federal money [given to D.C.]. We need someone who can pick up the ball Vincent Orange dropped and run with it.”

The Ward 8 candidates faced similar pressure to answer questions about lead water, public safety, jobs, schools, and economic development.

Throughout that portion, Holmes and Trayon White reiterated talking points about their community experience and knowledge of the political process. The former suggested bringing schools together to share best practices and providing long-term tax relief to residents most likely to be affected by gentrification. In his responses, White recounted bringing attention to lead water in D.C. schools early on and drew a connection between the public health debacle and the school-to-prison pipeline.

In a performance comparable to that of Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential election, Goode often challenged residents to take their communities into their hands, positioning herself as a conduit between them and D.C. Council, rather than a “savior.”

“We need to start educating and changing ourselves,” Goode told the audience in an effort to dispel the notion that Ward 8 doesn’t have community institutions that can address violence, employment, and other issues. “This thing has mostly been a popularity contest and money campaign. It’s important for us not to lose interest. I want people to read and get that knowledge. We need to change our mindset, support ourselves, and strengthen our own communities.”

To Freeman’s chagrin, not all contestants for the June 14th Democratic primaries showed up.

Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander and her challenger, former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray declined to attend; their absences automatically cancelled that segment. Others missing that night included D.C. Council members Vincent Orange (D- At-Large) and LaRuby May (D- Ward 8). May and Gray sent letters expressing their commitment to equal development and stopping resident displacement.

Sirraya Grant, Ward 7 resident and Gray supporter, seemed unmoved by the Ward 7 candidates’ absence. She told AllEyesOnDC that the time for debating has passed.

“I can see why they didn’t show up. At this point, forums should be over,” Grant said. “It’s about getting early voting and getting the candidates out there. Candidates should be able to galvanize their voters. We need new leadership. Yvette Alexander hasn’t really addressed a lot and you don’t really see her engaging residents and getting stuff done until campaigning time. It shouldn’t take an election to get the streets fixed,” she added.

A lifelong Ward 8 resident who went by the pseudonym Malcolm X had different thoughts, saying he cherished any opportunity for those hoping to be elected officials to address the people.

“I’m very happy that we’re having conversation about economic development. It’s appropriate for Ward 8,” Malcolm, a baby boomer, told AllEyesOnDC. “If the agenda is political, let the candidates have their say and show that they’re doing their best. Too often, we’re quick to criticize, but we don’t take the time to listen. It’s great that the floor was open for residents to ask questions.”

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