- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

When 33-year-old Charles Wilson challenged D.C. Council member Marion Barry for his Ward 8 seat last year, the Anacostia resident finished second with less than a third of the vote. However, Mr. Wilson’s aggressive campaign helped inspire a network of young residents. An outgrowth of the network is the River East Emerging Leaders (REEL), created to strengthen bonds among residents, businesses and government in Wards 7 and 8.

“REEL started out of a need to get the progressively focused and young-at-heart residents actively involved in the community-building process,” says Mr. Wilson, who works for the accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP. “There was a need, and it wasn’t happening.”

Part of the need grew out of reality - underdevelopment, socioeconomic stigma - and the perception that neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are unsafe and the people who live there are bad.

Regan Ford, Ward 7 representative on REEL’s steering committee, says the organization is “returning that old-school feel of community,” and the group’s greatest strength is “empowering folks with information.”

REEL is working to “rebrand” Southeast Washington and enhance its positive qualities, Mr. Wilson said.

“We want people to talk about our historic neighborhoods,” Mr. Wilson says. “Our great views of downtown, community activism and the potential of our communities. And most of all, our great residents.”

In November 2006, Mr. Wilson co-founded the Historic Anacostia Block Association, which he still serves as president. The group recently received the Vision Award from the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and has been awarded grants from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office to assist residents with home improvements as part of the city’s historic-grant program.

“Since its inception, passers-by can really see the change in the look and feel of these 100-year-old homes,” Mr. Wilson says. “It has helped improve the morale of the community.”

Today, he has expanded his attention on building REEL into a broader organization.

Late last month, REEL held its first public membership drive. Membership currently stands at 55 who represent “the entire city,” Mr. Wilson says. There are no residency restrictions for membership, even though the focus is on Wards 7 and 8. REEL’s primary outreach is by traditional word-of-mouth and the use of social media.

The president and chief executive officer of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., Butch Hopkins, says he is happy to see REEL spark grass-roots interest in Southeast.

“REEL is encouraging younger residents in Anacostia and Far Southeast to take a proactive role in the future of their communities,” Mr. Hopkins says. “We are very happy to see this organization come to fruition.”

Mr. Hopkins envisions a symbiotic relationship in which “energetic young folks” from REEL would potentially serve on the development corporation’s board.

“REEL is undeniably a positive sign,” says Duane Gautier, CEO of the ARCH Training Center, an award-winning program with the ARCH Development Corp. ARCH was established in 1986 as Action to Rehabilitate Community Housing.

Mr. Gautier calls REEL a “dynamic” group that asks good questions and is committed to a diverse neighborhood. “They represent a grass-roots social, civic and economic movement,” he says.

ARCH’s Honfleur Gallery, in the 1200 block of Good Hope Road Southeast, will serve as the background for REEL’s Cupid Shuffle on Oct. 8. The event is aimed at young singles and, according to Mr. Gautier, is an example of the new energy REEL is bringing to the community.

Amy Cavanaugh, ARCH’s director of arts and culture, says she hopes the creation of REEL means good things will come to the community.

“REEL has created the perfect networking environment for individuals and residents east of the river to work on positive change for their neighborhood collectively,” Ms. Cavanaugh says. “This only strengthens ARCH’s mission for revitalizing this great neighborhood.”

Removing the misperceptions about Anacostia and other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia is one of REEL’s chief goals.

“If you based what you see in the news and read in the newspapers to form your opinion about Southeast Washington, D.C., you would be stigmatized,” Mr. Wilson says. “The negative news associated with our community impacts not only how the outside region looks at us, but how we look at ourselves in our own community.”

John Muller is a writer living in Washington.

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