By K. Levek
In every ward across the city there are infamous people who have gained a following or notoriety for their community activism. In ward 8, where ‘Mayor for Life’ Councilmember Marion Barry holds lots of political prowess, there’s another political king that has made this ward his stage, through his tireless commitment to serve.
Philip Pannell, the quintessential civic and political activist, community leader, Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) advocate, former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) and current leader of several ward 8-based organizations, is known for the many hats he wears. If you don’t know Philip, his big smile might captivate you, but his commitment to fighting for his community is more impressive.
A native of Newport News, VA, Philip was drawn to social causes as a young boy. Raised as a devout Southern Baptist in a deeply segregated town with his grandparents, Philip recalls never officially meeting a White person until the age of 13 when he moved to New York with his mother, who worked as a nurse.
An only child, Philip developed a great admiration for reading and often found himself in the library, reading, as a teen. After attending the then-prestigious Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School for Boys in the Bronx, he went on to Fordham University. At Forham he studied political science and worked part-time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
While in college Philip became involved in what he calls ‘radical politics’ opposing the Vietman War and actively participating in the black power, gay and women’s movements. He also participated in local Democratic scene in the Bronx and elsewhere in New York City. During the 1972 presidential election, he interrupted his college studies to go and work on the anti-war candidate’s campaign of George McGovern. Philip said, “It was a great experience for me as a young person.”
After graduating from Fordham Philip relocated to the District, where a close friend introduced him to Sharon Pratt Dixon, then-wife of former Councilmember Arrington Dixon. No stranger to politics, he immediately began working for Dixon in the first post-home rule City Council. “Philip is a good friend and has been one of the hardest working people I’ve known in my life,” Dixon said.
Immersed in the D.C. political scene Philip began getting involved in the community-based organizations and creating ones that didn’t exist. As one of the founding members of the Ward 4 Democrats, Philip is credited with writing the application for the organization to become the first chartered democratic organization to be recognized by the D.C. Democratic State Committee. He also served as the former president of the Young Democrats of D.C. and became their national committeeman.
An outspoken LGBT activist, Phil joined the newly formed Gertrude Stein Democratic Club formed for gay Democrats in 1976. He said, “[In the 1970s] Being black gay and political, and particularly mainstream Democratic, I was a rarity. Some probably thought I was an oddity.” He also became a member of the DC Coalition of Black Gays, after it was formed in 1978. Throughout the years, he has campaigned relentlessly for basic civil rights for the gay community, most recently for establishment of same-sex marriage rights. He said that his passion for gay rights stems from his own experiences with homophobic discrimination on all levels of life, but those negative experiences have not deterred his commitment to the cause. “I’ve always tried to let folks know that we should be accepting of all people regardless of their gender, age, race and sexual orientation,” he said.
The local community is just another example of his commitment to his community. Other causes he’s dedicated himself to include working to inform the greater D.C. public about the sickle cell disease. After leaving the District’s council he went to work at the Howard University College of Medicine Center for Sickle Cell Disease, where he served as an outreach specialist and then focused on the center’s program development. Over the seven years he worked at Howard he was tasked with going into every ward of the city informing them about the sickle cell disease. He said he was particularly passionate about this job because his mother had the disease and he carries a trait for the disease.
Firm in advocating the rights of all citizens of the District, Philip has made quite a name for himself as a true civic force to be reckoned with. ANC8E Commissioner Mary Cuthbert said, “Philip has been in this community so long and has been a true fighter for all things Ward 8. We need more leaders like him.” When Philip sees a problem, he seeks a solution. Such has been the case with a local community high school.
Ballou Senior High School, located in the Congress Heights neighborhood where Philip has resided for over 30 years, has seen its share of challenges over the last few decades. After a school shooting in the early 2000s he made it is business to help form a Parent Teacher Student Association where he served as the treasurer for many years. Most recently he is in the process of helping to establish a Jr. Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the school, attempting to forge a partnership with the local Boeing Naval Base and the newly relocated Coast Guard. “Our community has so many treasures and our students are missing out,” he said.
Missing out is something Philip rarely tries to do. He has said that whatever cause, organization or event his is committed to he participates fully. As the former 5-time president of the Ward 8 Democrats, he helped start the organization, as he did in ward 4 and bring notoriety to it from across the city. As the current President of the Congress Heights Civic Association, (CHCA) President of the Ward 8 AARP chapter and Executive Director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, he holds monthly meetings that are not just about things happening within the community, but also educational where speakers who attend his organization’s meetings to present on issues of concern to the community and other important causes. Through these organizations, Philip is able to bridge the political and civic. CHCA recently won the award for Civic Association of the Year and last year Philip won for Civic Association President of the Year.
“Philip is a pearl in Ward 8,” said Phinis Jones, longtime Ward 8 resident and local active leader in the community. Jones lamented how Philip has a strong following for every organization that he leads. Philip’s response is, “People have entrusted me with organizations and I am proud to say that I have never left an organization in worst shape than when I found it.”
Also well known for his political involvement, Philip has served in many political roles beyond working for former Councilmember Dixon. He was appointed by former Mayor Marion Barry to serve on the Human Rights Campaign and to serve on the Board of Trustees for the D.C. Public Library and a special assistant for the mayoral administration of Anthony Williams has served as Chairman and an ANC Commissioner for ANC 8E.
He has previously run for the Ward 8 School Board seat and is set to run again in the upcoming summer special election this year. His take on politics is that our elected officials need to be held accountable for the District voters electing them into office. “One thing I have never done is played tricks and trash for political cash,” he said. He said it breaks his heart to see his political friends in trouble over material things and external expressions of others. “You never want to take on those trappings of materialism that mess up the internal core,” he said.
Philip said being active in the community has played a key role in his life because he understands the community’s needs. As for his commitment to service, he said, “We as black folks have a responsibility to our people to give whatever we can.”