09/17/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Empower DC Is 21st Century Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

Empower DC utilizes much of the same honored tried and true methods of empowering low and moderate income DC residents, on the issues of affordable housing, education, childcare and public property use, via the same grassroots community organizing that is the root effectiveness of our American Civil Rights Movement.

Empower DC is a 501c3 non-profit organization "dedicated to effecting social change through a democratic, self-help empowerment approach to community organizing." Empower DC works "on issues including affordable housing, quality affordable child care, preserving public property and improving public education."

Empower DC has been in the local news a lot over the past year. They are the champions of an aggressive city wide grassroots campaign to save our hacked down public education system here in D.C. During former mayors Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, and current Mayor Vincent Gray, the D.C. public school system has been virtually destroyed as our society has transformed from governing to the benefit of all people's need, to governing people of all economic situations like retail. In this model of "governance" there is only one real economic class that is allowed to benefit from public policies and decisions -- the rich.

The result is a D.C. that has been suffering a declining black population for over a decade now. In case you don't know, Washington, D.C. is also affectionately known worldwide as Chocolate City due to its majority Black Population since the last century. Where this is of significance, and with regards to the work of Empower DC, that means that Empower DC's 21st century civil rights work most directly impacts and champions Black American citizens living the Nation's Capitol -- the city belonging to no state and therefore disenfranchised from the full promise of democracy guaranteed to all Americans. This is with no doubt due to its majority black population and the legacy of discrimination against the descendants of enslaved African citizen's living in America.

And it is for these reasons of advocacy on the behalf of low- and moderate-income black Washingtonians that Empower DC is stereotyped as being a "radical" and/or "disruptive" organization to by city government officials and, unfortunately, even amongst some of its peer organizations.

Empower DC is sometimes criticized for its direct action campaigns to get the attention of public officials who patronizingly ask for, but ultimately ignore authentic community input in the decision making process of D.C.'s city governance. Empower DC has produced concert rallies on Freedom Plaza featuring authentic community leaders and D.C.-based artists to get the attention of city administrators. They have organized brilliantly artistic and soulful demonstrations of community dissatisfaction with the continued disenfranchisement of all city residents at city officials and private developer's public events. A few months ago, at Mayor Gray's unveiling of his vision for the future of public education in Washington, D.C., Empower DC once again made headlines as members organized their children to drive home the point that the Mayor's plan for education is destructive to D.C.'s existing and struggling low and moderate income communities. Commercial media reporting on these direct non violent actions always paint the actions of Empower DC members at these events in a negative way, calling them "disruptive" of the process.

What is never covered however, are the actions of Empower DC to work with the system over the last ten years of its existence. The behind the scenes meetings and discussions with aspiring city politicians, who when elected to office by people of Empower DC's constituency, turn their backs on the communities who elected them once in office. Read: Adrian Fenty. The willingness of Empower DC to negotiate and even compromise on certain key points within an issue for the sake of incremental progress towards a better quality of life for District of Columbia low and moderate income residents, is never given proper acknowledgement.

Empower DC encourages low- and moderate-income residents to not be afraid of, or intimidated by, the system and/or government leaders they elect. I have been to D.C. City Council meetings and have firsthand witnessed the hubris with which elected officials dismiss the opinions of some D.C. residents. I have watched many city council members literally turn red in the face with anger during public testimonies holding them accountable for the decisions they make against the interests of D.C.'s disenfranchised citizens. Even in the City Council chamber the set up is intimidating. City politicians sit up high on elevated stages behind big desks with fancy high backed chairs looking down on the poor little citizens of Washington, D.C. as they share personal stories, and literally beg D.C.'s elected officials to do what's right. It's like a scene out of The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy and her companions petitioning the Great and Powerful Oz for his help with their issues.

Unfortunately and even shamefully, amongst some of its peer organizations involved in advocacy work on behalf of Washington D.C.'s historically disenfranchised population, Empower DC is now receiving criticism for its direct action methods. You see, many of these organizations are in some way associated with the government itself, usually through its funding ties -- public or corporate. Empower DC, as a rule, does not take corporate or government money to fund the organization's work. That means Empower DC can take a much more direct approach in how it goes about doing the job of organizing and advocating for its constituents.

Flash mobs are trendy and popular amongst many of advocacy groups working to achieve public awareness on social justice issues, locally and nationwide. Some of the local groups have been past partners with Empower DC working on issues specific to D.C. Perhaps if Empower DC engaged in pop activism, it would be more popular amongst its peer groups. But Empower DC does not do flash mobs.

Flash mobs, as I have noticed, are the cultural product mostly of people not of African-American decent. I am not saying that it doesn't exist, but I personally haven't seen a funky flash mob yet to indicate to me otherwise. I make the point and distinction because what a community does to express itself is directly related to the culture it is born of. Well, black culture in D.C. (and America) is shaped by the experience of being black in America. Simply put, black expression in America is channeled via our African roots. Ironically, the world mostly knows, and admires the actions of black culture as it struggled against oppression and omission by government and society via the civil rights movement. That's lunch counter sit-ins (disruptive), marches in the streets (disruptive), Freedom Rides (disruptive), and yes, interrupting public officials at public events when necessary (disruptive).

These highly revered and admired "disruptive" actions from last century are what have given some social relief to black Americans and other disenfranchised groups working to achieve social justice in America. Yet when put in practice by the next generation of organizers and activists, they are seen as radical and even dangerous. From the mayor's education reform conference some weeks ago, some in attendance, through tweets and other social media outlets, are advocating that it actually be illegal to interrupt public events by those who wish to redress their grievances during them in a peacefully demonstrative way. To criminalize the peaceful actions of citizens who are ignored and sabotage is exactly what the society did during last century's civil rights movements. Just like back then, and it's not ancient history...

"We Shall Overcome!"

Much love, encouragement and support to Empower DC for fighting "Save Chocolate City!"

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