Our Place D.C.: Treating Ex-Cons With Compassion


A sign at Our Place D.C.

Women behind bars have rights, too.

That’s the premise behind Our Place D.C., a non-profit that helps and advocates for  currently and formerly incarcerated women.

“While I know the goal is to protect society from offenders, I’d like you to ask yourselves how long should this punishment endure after the offender has served her sentence and at what cost?” reads one of the large signs posted at its office on K Street Northwest.

Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place, said the group helps reduce how many former prisoners commit new crimes and go back to jail – something that benefits everyone.


HIV 101

She’s especially proud that Our Place hires back 60 percent of its former clients: “The women we serve are running our company. I love that; it’s the neatest part of this team.” Often, women who are released from prison take a bus straight to K street, arriving with nothing more than the clothes on their back. McSwan described what happens after that bus ride:
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Our Place: Helping Forgotten Women Find Their Place in D.C.


Our Place D.C.

When a man is sentenced to serve time in prison, he often has a support system; if visits are allowed, his partner dutifully shows up, dressed to impress, exclaiming to children about how they’re “going to see Daddy!” When a woman is sentenced, whatever support she has is usually marshaled in service to her kids, to keep them out of the foster care system; there are few visitors making the drive to women’s facilities, eagerly anticipating a glimpse of Mommy.

That disparity is also reflected in the dearth of organizations dedicated to helping women who were formerly incarcerated transition to life on the outside. In fact, there is only one group in the country that focuses solely on helping such women– Our Place D.C. Our Place is on K street NW, just down the street from Pedro and Vinny’s renowned burrito stand. There, on “burrito block”, in an understated building, in a cozy suite of offices one floor up from the traffic on Route 29, lives are being changed.

It’s easy to forget about such women; they are imperfect, guilty of poor judgment or more, and all of them are ex-cons. Most of us reserve our support for the “innocent”, or more accurately, for sympathetic victims. It doesn’t occur to us to consider those who have served their time, only to be dropped off in this city with nothing but a prison-issued sweatsuit on their backs. “It used to be worse”, Ashley McSwain tells me. She’s the Executive Director of Our Place. Before, newly-released women would arrive in that orange jumpsuit associated with inmates. “We convinced them to change that. The effort was called ‘Justice, not Jumpsuits’.”

McSwain is the kind of warm, unpretentious lady you’d want to sit next to at a beauty salon; the non-profit she runs reflects that vibe, all brightly painted rooms, uplifting art and comfy chairs. When I walked in to Our Place last week, I didn’t think “prisoners”. It actually reminded me of a college counseling department. I kept expecting to see internship offers or posters for graduate school on the walls.
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Welcome, United Negro College Fund

Flickr: crazysanman.history

Historical marker for the UNCF in Virginia.

Look who’s moving to D.C., and when I say D.C., I mean it and not a suburb:

Seeking to expand its support of education for Americans of color, UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) will move its national headquarters from Fairfax, Virginia into Washington, D.C. in 2012. UNCF, the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization has begun construction on a 50,000 square-foot office at Progression Place, located at 1805 7th Street, NW, in D.C.’s surging Shaw neighborhood…

“UNCF has become one of the country’s most prominent advocates for the importance of students getting the preschool-through-high school education they need to succeed in college, and Washington is the hub of the national conversation about how to make sure they get that preparation for college,” said Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., UNCF president and CEO. “UNCF also wants to be able to provide college-focused information and services directly to DC-area students and the hundreds of thousands of students who visit DC each year. To be an effective advocate for education reform, and to help children of color prepare for college UNCF has to be in D.C.

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Five More Questions for Bread for the City’s George Jones


Yesterday, I published a slideshow from Bread for the City’s January 7 grand opening. I also posted the first part of an interview with the non-profit’s Executive Director, George A. Jones. More of my conversation with Jones is below; in it, he discusses how the expansion of the group’s Shaw location will facilitate an expansion in their services–as well as how you can help.

What if people want to get involved?

There are two major ways: volunteer or give. We accept cash contributions and in-kind contributions of donated food and clothing. When it comes to people’s cash donations 90% of every dollar goes to our five core services.

A lot of people like to have tangible connections to our programs so we encourage them to do food drives. We have 5-10 volunteers on a given day; there are scores of people looking to do community service, including kids or teens for school. They can develop food drives right at their schools or boys club, girl scouts…I encourage parents to have their children do these food drives remotely and bring the food to us. We give kids a menu to try and generate certain foods, including items that are low in sodium, vegetables or non-perishable stuff, because we provide supplemental groceries designed to last three days to families whose incomes are very low–less than $7,000. They may not be on food stamps, even if they run a great risk of running out of food.

These are families who are food insecure, who are at the risk of running out before the end of the month. Our food pantry was designed to support such people.

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Interview: Bread for the City’s George A. Jones


Earlier, I posted a slideshow filled with pictures taken on Friday, when local nonprofit Bread for the City celebrated the grand opening of their new building in Shaw. The expansion doesn’t just mean more room– it means more services for the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Last week, I spoke to Bread for the City’s Executive Director, George A. Jones about the expansion, the work his agency does and more. Part of the interview is below; look for the rest, tomorrow morning.

First, some history for those of you who may not be familiar with this group:

Started in 1974, Bread for the City is a front line agency serving Washington’s poor. The agency began as two organizations; Zacchaeus Free Clinic began in 1974 as a volunteer-run free medical clinic, and Bread for the City was created in 1976 by a coalition of downtown churches to feed and clothe the poor. The two entities merged in 1995. Today, we operate two Centers in the District of Columbia and provide direct services to low-income residents of Washington, DC. All of our services are free. Our mission is to provide comprehensive services, including food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services to low-income Washington, DC residents in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

I asked Jones about the expansion:

We’ve been around for 36 years; this expansion represents our commitment to providing even more services to folks living in poverty in D.C. It’s the culmination of a dream.

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Bread for the City is celebrating today.

Flickr: BBC World Service

A food chart for clients of Bread for the City. Next week, DCentric will take a closer look at the triumphant expansion of both their facilities and services.

I’m leaving the blog for a few hours to go visit Bread for the City–a front line agency serving Washington’s poor– for a very happy reason:

As we approach the end of this year, it already feels like the start of something new. Our expanded Northwest Center is partially up and running, and the excitement of what’s to come is in the air…

I hope you’ll join us to celebrate this new chapter: all are invited to attend the Grand Opening on Friday January 7th, from 4-7pm at 1525 7th street NW. We’ll be joined by Councilmembers and other city leaders to cut the ribbon and raise a cheer for the growth to come.

At the beginning of this week, I spoke to Bread for the City’s Executive Director, George Jones, about how his organization was able to expand during a recession and what such an expansion meant for the D.C. residents who depend on his agency’s services. Look for a two-part interview with Jones next week, right here. Now if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’m off to take pictures of the expanded facilities; if you’ll be so helpful as to tweet something amusing, I’ll make sure it gets enshrined as today’s Tweet of the Day, which will be up later tonight. Happy Friday!

The Salvation Army Collected Less, This Year


A Salvation Army Red Kettle at "Social Safeway", in Georgetown.

WaPo has an update on Giant’s move to limit the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign outside of its grocery stores, via this article: “Limited collection time at Giant fueled drop in donations, Salvation Army says“. The charity collected 60% less money than it did last year:

Giant’s policy change irked some advocates for the needy.

“It’s hard times like these when we need our corporate partners to step up and do more rather than less,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “A lot less people are going to get a lot less help when they most need it. And that’s tragic.”…

Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation, which makes grants to local groups, said nonprofits have been further hurt because local governments facing declining tax revenue are less able to hire the organizations as contractors.

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Is D.C. doing enough for the most vulnerable?

Flickr: lucianvenutian

This haunting piece by Carl Foster– who runs Ward 1′s Little Blue House, which works with vulnerable families to achieve stability and self-sufficiency– was published in the “All Opinions are Local” section of the Sunday Post:

Recently, one of my kids came to the LBH instead of going to school, saying that his mother told him she didn’t want him anymore and that he should get out. He is only 10 years old. The argument apparently stemmed from a seemingly innocuous question:

“Can I have clean clothes to wear to school?”

“Get out. I don’t want you.”

Now that’s reportable.

I’ve been concerned about this family for some time. Other moms had told me this mother was beaten up by drug dealers. I had no firsthand knowledge of this, so I could not report it to protective services. I witnessed this mom handing a wad of cash to some guy while her kids were asking us for food. There is a blanket hanging just inside the front door of her home that prevents anyone from seeing what’s inside. Suspicious but not reportable.

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They could still probably use donations, though!

Flickr: vpickering

D.C. has so much Christmas spirit!

Jenny Rogers, who writes “The List” for TBD, discovered something interesting when she looked in to volunteering for the holiday (and since we highlighted so many non-profits and ways you could help a few weeks ago, I thought this would be extra relevant for DCentric readers):

Having just eaten a pile of Christmas cookies and feeling full of holiday goodness, The List decided to look into some volunteer opportunities —‘tis the season, etc. To her dismay, local non-profit directors told her that, well, they just didn’t really need the help. In fact, all the organizations The List spoke to were turning away volunteers because so many people had already offered their time. In a region known for its wealth and often painted as dysfunctional, it’s a testament to the goodwill of the people who actually live here that they’re fighting over the chance to serve.

That’s surprising and impressive. Good for D.C., that so many of its residents are so interested in doing good for D.C.