It was hot in the Potomac Gardens Recreation Center (700 12th St. SE) the evening of Thursday, July 18 –in more ways than one.
Outside, the temperatures reached 90 F, and inside at the Youth Chew and Chat Open Mic, an open mic night that was part of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) Summer of Safety, the air conditioning rattled as about 40 kids from one to 16 years old took the opportunity to share pizza brought by officers from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and to perform for their peers.
The July 18th event was organized in a partnership between DCHA and the Potomac Gardens Resident Council. Council President Aquarius Vann-Ghasri said the council, including herself and Sergeant at Arms James Green and Treasurer Carol Proctor, aimed to take advantage of the opportunity to work with the family community, and especially to engage with kids. Youth attending included residents of Potomac Gardens, friends who hang out in the area, and those invited by the service providers.
The Summer of Safety was initiated by DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett in 2018 to ensure that residents have a safe and productive summer, as well as to make MPD officers a more visible presence in communities during the summer months when crime generally increases.
“My top priority is for DCHA customers to live in safe and healthy communities and to create greater economic opportunities for them. I want them to be successful in every aspect of their lives,” said Garrett.
‘Learn How to Ask for What You Want’
The Potomac Gardens Resident Council has been working with DCHA and on-site providers My Sister’s Keeper, Momma’s Safe Haven, Little Lights, Brotha’s Huddle and Rashidun DC, all of whom provide services to youth at Potomac Gardens, to provide increased youth engagement.
In the introduction to the performances, Brotha’s Huddle co-founder Frank Muhammad spoke about the importance of self-determination and positive role models. In particular, he highlighted that there were people in the room who should be considered resources, and the kids should know who they are and learn how to ask for what they want. DCHA official Denise Govan, Community Liaison for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen Naomi Mitchell, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area Kelly Waud (6B07) were asked to introduce themselves and how they can be utilized as resources.
“I saw the event as an opportunity for kids of all ages to have fun and express themselves in a safe space,” said Waud after the event. She noted that the Potomac Gardens family building has similar programming throughout the year to engage and highlight kids in the community. Waud said she appreciated group efforts to engage the kids.
“They do a lot with limited resources –the loud and leaking air-conditioning unit and the borrowed microphones, for example,” she said. “Summer can be long and boring, and this immediate area doesn’t have a lot for kids to do, particularly the older kids. I think it’s important to offer them constructive entertainment and engagement.”
The Show Must Go On
While the night’s activities were carefully planned, not everything went according to script. As the heat rose, a scuffle broke out amongst different groups, but Vann-Ghasri quickly took the crowd of young people in hand.
“The show must go on,” she said, getting everyone to put the chairs back into orderly rows and sit so the program could begin.
Vann-Ghasri said the event was a chance for the youth to get together an express themselves, whether through spoken word, art or rap –even if it contained profanity. She said that music, and rap in particular, is a language for youth, and it is important to provide a place to let them speak.
“It’s not that you’re going to join them because you can’t beat them,” Vann-Ghasri said. “But what we’re going to do is you’re going to treat them with respect. And if respect means having a place for them to play the cussing words, we do that.”
Vann-Ghasri said that it was important to have a place where all the youth who occupy space at Potomac Gardens can interact with one another, with trained people present to help kids learn to work things out if tensions boil over.
“The concept is, that the youth will be on the mic, and it’s like an ice breaker,” she said. “They engage with their issues.”
The open mic showed what kind of talent is living at Potomac Gardens. One young man teamed up with a young woman with blue-ombre hair for a song they called “Dirty.” The talented duo was cognizant of the multiplicity of meanings of the term. Asked by MC Frank Muhammad to describe the meaning of the song, the young rapper simply said, “It’s all dirty.”
The performances were also a chance for the younger attendees to show their stuff. Two elementary-school aged young girls performed karaoke power ballads, with a young girl called Courtney belting out a tune to a rapt first row. As audience members ate pizza, officers danced along the wall.
The night was a chance for Emily Bakker to shine. The seven-year-old triple-threat not only performed a song, she followed it up with a dance.
Her mother said the Friendship Chamberlain PCS student is always performing. “She loves it,” said her mother, “You can see she’s super talented.”
Bakker was enrolled in Chamberlain’s Summer Learning Academy of the Arts, and her mother said that she is now searching for a theater program for Emily. “She’s not shy,” said her mother. “She belongs on stage.”
As the event wound down, Muhammad encouraged the youth to fold and stack the rows of chairs, cleaning up the rec center. In the corner, the event that had started out with a scuffle was ending with a group dance as the last group of kids refused to stop dancing together, like a scene from a family wedding.
For this night, the music had succeeded in uniting the youth.