By Saraya Wintersmith
The “east of the river” community-building stars were out as the Great Streets Business Leadership Council (GSBLC) hosted the “Great Streets Honors.” The event coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year.
More than 200 guests gathered at the decked out Old Congress Heights School auditorium for a catered jazz brunch and award presentations with performances by songwriter and musician Justin Myles, singer Adia Langston and 12-year-old musician and international performer Matthew Whitaker – one of the youngest pupils to enroll in a New York school for the blind and visually impaired.
This year marked the fourth celebration to recognize eight Great Streets Honors Inductees with “Foundations For Our Future One Great Street at a Time” as the theme. Among the inductees were DC’s head of Fire and Emergency Medical Services Kenneth Ellerbe (Outstanding Civil Servant award), H-Street Main Street Co-founder Anwar Saleem (Outstanding Community Developer award) and former DC Council Member Arrington Dixon (Lifetime Achievement award). Monica Ray is both President and Executive Director of Congress Heights Community Training and Development Center – the non-profit that operates the GSBLC program. “This event is really about telling the good stories about things that happen along the Great Streets,” Ray explained during the ceremony. She and her staff organize the awards in part to highlight the community development exemplars who are transforming the neighborhoods like those dubbed by the district government as “Great Streets.”
Inductee Anwar Saleem was pivotal in guiding resources to the re-birth of the historic H Street corridor in northeast DC. Saleem is the Executive Director of H Street Main Street, a non-profit dedicated to H Street’s revitalization. “When we have vacant properties along our corridors, we look at it as an opportunity,” he says. In the span of little more than a decade, H Street Main Street has managed to take a collection of those so-called opportunities and change them into an area of blossoming business. The fruits of Saleem’s labor have received national recognition from the likes of Forbes Magazine and the National Historic Trust for Preservation.
According to Saleem, the restoration project attracted more than 225 new businesses and created more than 2,600 new jobs between 2002 and 2013. He says H Street is a great prototype and he’s convinced that the same methods could help turn other parts of the nation’s capital around. “The H Street is just an example,” he said while accepting his award. “It doesn’t have to look like H Street, it could look greater than H Street.” Ray and the Great Streets Business Leadership Council couldn’t agree more.
The Great Streets Business Leadership Council program was created between 2009 and 2010 to provide economic development services to small businesses along the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue “Great Street.” The area includes Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and South Capitol Street and runs from Good Hope Road to Southern Avenue. GSBLC’s goal is to help businesses in the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue area thrive like H Street. Great Streets Honors Lifetime Achievement Awardee Arrington Dixon is a native of this side of DC where the council concentrates its efforts. He believes the work GSBLC does is important and says “making the area’s current community a part of the future – culturally, socially and economically,” will be the program’s biggest challenge.
“We welcome the new but we treasure the past which has provided a rich spirit and strength that is priceless and must be preserved and built upon so as to reach the future greatness that River East promises.” Dixon said in a statement to The Capital News. “It isn’t the old brick or mortar that make our streets great. It is our communities.” During his acceptance speech, Dixon said the community’s support in both his political and professional endeavors has been a blessing to him. The former city councilmember also announced a re-election campaign for national committeeman of the Democratic Party.
Ray says Dixon, Saleem and each of the other honorees exemplify transformational leadership – a theme the embattled DC Fire chief touched on during his acceptance speech.
“In the past, our department has been run in a very transactional way,” Ellerbe explained. “Our department was not courteous to the citizens and visitors of Washington, DC. Folks took their job as an entitlement and, quite frankly, for us to be in public service, it’s not an entitlement….It’s a reward.” Ellerbe regards public service as something to be earned “by treating people properly, treating your colleagues properly and being respectful of the uniform and the people who pay you to be in that uniform.” He said he means to exercise more transformational leadership that could result in tension and criticism throughout the department as well as media scrutiny. “No matter what goes on in the media, our EMS system is improving everyday,” says Ellerbe.
Ray says that despite controversy surrounding his tenure, Ellerbe’s moves to hire young people – particularly from Wards 7 and 8 – is one way he’s making a positive impact in the community. “Chief Ellerbe is doing some really innovative things that our city has not seen before, “ Ray said at Saturday’s ceremony. Last year, the Fire and EMS training program graduated 23 cadets – all DC residents.
Other Great Streets honorees included Calvin Reid (Outstanding Businessman), Aniekan Udofia (Outstanding Arts & Humanities), Nspiregreen, LLC (Outstanding Business Women), Gregory Thomas (Posthumous, Lifetime Achievement) and James Bunn Sr. (Posthumous, Lifetime Achievement).