Seventh graders in Claire Smullen’s art class hunched over posters, tracing the lines of color on the stock paper as their pencils and crayons filled in the details.
During a mid-morning class on a Wednesday in January, the Stuart-Hobson Middle School students were intent on finishing the posters that they had designed to show symbols and pictures of unity, tolerance, respect, diversity and community. They would later walk each of their posters to local businesses and ask the owners to place them in their windows as a show of support for the grassroots Unity on the Hill movement in the Capitol Hill community.
“A lot of new people will be coming to DC, and our artwork shows what we stand for in our community,” said Jamie Morris, a seventh grader in Smullen’s class.
Morris and other sixth, seventh and eighth grade art students created their posters as a part of the Unity on the Hill campaign, which started in early January. Stickers with the words “Unity in the Community” started popping up in the windows of Capitol Hill shops, restaurants, schools and residences on Jan. 13. The idea: to share with DC residents and visitors what the local — non-political — community believes in.
A Grassroots Beginning
Hill resident Laelia Gilborn and former Hill resident Soyun Park started Unity on the Hill to give neighbors a way to show what they value in a post-2016 presidential election environment. Gilborn started the effort after hearing about the incidents of hate in the news and in the neighborhood following the November election. In one case, a black worker at a construction site on the Southwest waterfront found a noose hanging from the building. On Dec. 13, other Southwest neighbors found leaflets filled with hateful comments toward Democrats on their parked cars.
Gilborn decided to ask local organizer Park to help her bring community members together and find a way to give a voice to the community.
“It’s for anybody already living in our community feeling threatened and vulnerable,” Gilborn said, “to know that we have their backs and will stick together as a neighborhood.”
The effort has continued to gain supporters since they announced it and began handing out posters and stickers. The effort has extended to churches and schools like Stuart-Hobson.
But Gilborn and Park remained clear on one fact to community members — it’s a non-partisan campaign.
“This is not about anti-Trump; it’s about making sure this neighborhood continues to be the neighborhood it’s been for awhile,” Park said. “And to become even more understanding.”
Giving a Voice to Those Who Couldn’t Vote
There’s been a lot of violence on the news lately, said Stuart-Hobson student Nyela Brown. Back in her art class with Ms. Smullen, the seventh grader paused as she picked up another pencil to fill in her unity poster. She and her classmates were excited to put them up for everyone to see what they — students — think of the community.
“It’s a way to express ourselves,” Brown said, “so we aren’t afraid.”
Smullen doesn’t tell her students what she personally believes. In her art class, what they believe comes out in the work they complete each day. Students in middle school aren’t old enough to vote in the United States, but that can’t stop them from expressing what they truly feel. And these posters are their way of getting that message out to their neighbors.
“This is a good opportunity for them to participate and to feel like they’re a part of the process,” Smullen said.
She added: “At this age, they want to move, get out, have their voice heard.”
They succeeded in doing so. Each of their posters got a spot in a business’s window or on the windows and walls at Stuart-Hobson. The community now knows how those sixth, seventh and eight graders view their home.
Businesses Place Unity Stickers in Their Windows
Stores like Metro Mutts (508 H St. NE), The Cupboard (1504 East Capitol St.) and the Pretzel Bakery (257 15th St. SE) joined in the efforts to unite the Capitol Hill community under those shared values of peace, tolerance, diversity and respect. Most put up the light blue and orange stickers before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, but some said they hope the movement continues.
It’s a chance to show people visiting or new comers to the District that the community values its diversity, said the owner of Metro Mutts Kelly Hartshorn.
“We understand it’s a very diverse community, but that’s also what makes us strong,” she said.
Metro Mutts opened on the Hill in 2009, and Hartshorn said she wants people to know that they stand behind the local community to ensure everyone is respected. For her, it’s not OK to tolerate discrimination.
“It’s to show the nation that we’re more than just ‘Capitol Hill’ as far as politics goes,” she said. “We are a community that is not going to tolerate any sort of hate.”
Across the Hill at The Cupboard (1504 East Capitol St. NE), owner Mary Ann Brazell stickered her windows in time for the thousands of inauguration attendees and Women’s March on Washington supporters that streamed past her business on Jan. 20 and 21.
“Capitol Hill is a really special place and I want our beliefs and things we value to be respected,” she said.
Looking Beyond Jan. 20, Growing Support
President Trump’s unexpected win in November left many in the District shocked and adrift, especially the roughly 94 percent of residents who voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Though the election results sparked the Unity on the Hill campaign, it gives the Hill’s and City’s residents a chance to speak up for their community that people often mistake as an extension of the federal government.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) has voiced his support of Unity on the Hill, calling the movement an “important” and “visible” expression of the Hill’s values.
“For those feeling vulnerable or fearful in the face of hatred and violence, the Unity signs in storefronts, residences and places of worship across the neighborhood will be a powerful message to both residents and visitors that all are welcome here,” Allen said.
Many DC locals have expressed anxiety over Trump’s incoming administration and how it has presented itself so far, he said. This movement gives neighbors the chance to reinforce the values in their lives, and he said he hopes to see it continue beyond the inauguration.
Smullen, Park, Gilborn and several other participating businesses agree — the significance needs to live past Jan. 20.
“That’s a message that we should be saying in every corner of our community every day,” Allen said.