Finding Christmas Hope in D.C.’s 8th Ward

About once a week, Jonathan Rhudy nags me to write for this blog. It’s not that I don’t want to contribute. It just never seems to make the top of my “to do” list.

Last week changed that.

One of our longest standing and dearest clients – one that matters a great deal to our company – suffered a deep, serious workforce reduction. I should mention that I have a terrible time with professional boundaries. My clients are my friends, and these particular clients are in fact close friends. It is not an embellishment to say that I love some of them, and I care for all of them.

I was on video shoot in Washington, D.C., when the news started trickling in piecemeal. Names of people who have children and mortgages and holiday gifts to buy started hitting my Blackberry, and every message felt like a punch in the gut. Every part of me wanted to excuse myself, drive back down I-95 and go hug these people. I just wanted to show up.

Sadly, most of us know this particular type of pain. It surrounds us in our neighborhoods, churches and families.

This recession has been harsh and unkind. It is finding its way to test us all.

Something remarkable

And then something quite remarkable happened.

My video shoot last week involved three days in D.C.’s 8th Ward – the toughest and most dangerous zip code in the District, some claim in America. My work took me to the absolute center of crime, poverty and hardship. The view from our car window of blight, public housing and gangs congregating felt like we were watching television instead of driving right by people’s actual reality.

I was sent to cover stories of hope and resilience. Another client has invested millions of dollars in projects of renewal in the 8th Ward. I was fortunate enough to come with cameras to report on the progress.

What I saw in a community where more than 90 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and literacy hangs below 20 percent, was a steely resolve to get up and start a new day.

Fresh perspectives

In three days I interviewed about 20 people. Residents, community leaders and kids all shared their stories of struggles and pain. One 14 year-old boy explained the gang culture to me, and when I asked him how he learned all of that he simply said: “You learn it when you’re about four or five. Your family teaches you so you won’t get killed.”

I interviewed a middle school principal who has turned his school around after gangs destroyed the school library and drop outs became chronic. I asked him how he does it. He said, “one day at a time.”

Probably most inspiring was the bishop of a local church who literally taps his congregation as a vehicle for goodness and change. “We are all supposed to take care of each other,” he said.

“The best part of living in this community is that there is no choice but to take care of each another. It’s how you survive.” —D.C.-area bishop

And I thought about my friends back in Richmond, who were suffering job loss but of course will be alright eventually. I’m angry at the change they are enduring, and I’m angry that countless good people are unemployed or fear they may be soon.

My lesson

Here in Virginia’s affluent suburbs, we could learn a few things from Ward 8. We could all stand up and take a little better care of each other. We should, in fact, treat it as survival. I’m going to try harder to do my part at just that.

Michele Rhudy sees the Christmas joy in her daughters’ eyes and in her “ugly Christmas sweater.”