To bring attention to the lack of job opportunities for some District residents, a newly-founded coalition of community groups is taking its campaign door-to-door.

Founded in April, OurDC, a coalition of community groups, neighborhood associations, faith organizations and labor unions, plans to advocate against what it says is blatant discrimination against D.C. residents when it comes to hiring for projects in the District. Coalition members and volunteers knocked on 80,000 doors and surveyed more than 42,000 District residents to assess their concerns about the economy, jobs and the success/failure of local politicians in addressing their needs. By the end of May, the coalition claimed to have enlisted more than 25,000 residents and 6,000 neighborhood leaders to participate in future rallies and other events.

One of its first targets is the massive Homeland Security construction project on the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Ward 8. Census 2010 data showed Ward 8 still leading with the largest number of poor residents in the District.

“There are 22,000 construction jobs that are supposed to be part of the Homeland Security development site, with 20 percent set aside for local workers,” said Kendall Fells, 31, founder and executive director of OurDC. “But Ward 8 people aren’t being hired. They’re stigmatized as undesirable. We’re going to work to change this.”

OurDC chose a circuitous path to making this change. The canvassing campaign served as a bridge to a public information effort. Fells said organizers sent out the call for meetings across the District with only 48 hours notice. Over 200 D.C. residents attended each gathering.

“No matter where we went in the city, D.C. residents were looking for something to help break this cycle of blatant discrimination. Our goal is to identify who is responsible and how to put pressure on them as a community so hard until it becomes difficult to do business in the District without hiring its residents,” said Fells.

Valarie Garland, 48, graduated with honors from Goodwill’s Women in Construction Program two years ago. A resident of Ward 8, her goal is to dispel the myth that D.C.’s African-American residents don’t want to work and are unskilled and to galvanize as many D.C. residents as possible to join the movement and actively participate.

“It’s in the numbers,” said Garland, an OSHA10 certified safety engineer. “On a massive scale, we want to bring attention to the discriminatory hiring practices against District residents.”

As an example, Garland cited the Homeland Security five-year project, which, she said, has not gone as expected. “The federal and District government promised us jobs and now taxpayers’ dollars are being used to work against us. OurDC plans are to stop this. We pray to God to help us,” said Garland, an OurDC community leader.

OurDC coalition member Ilir Zherka, executive director for DCVote, identified the strategy as one it learned from union coalition members. “Our understanding after meeting with SEIU is that their goal is to educate D.C. residents, especially those living in underserved wards of D.C., about the role that Congress plays in our local government and how that can have an impact on job creation in the District.”

Although the group said it received verbal support from Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward1), it still has not reached out to other political leaders that oversee workforce development legislation and projects. Now that OurDC has begun putting its structure in place, it is planning strategies to reach out to local and federal leaders in meaningful ways.

“Our goal is to educate and offer local leaders with workable solutions that put District residents first. We will be behind them in numbers to force contractors to stop their current practices,” said Fells.

For the last 10 years, Drew Hubbard, legislative aide for the Council’s Committee on Economic and Workforce development, has worked with several council members to monitor the hiring practices of local contractors and businesses. Hubbard welcomed the coalition’s involvement. “I haven’t met them yet but I’m open,” he said.

Hopeful that OurDC will be the catalyst for change, Garland urged D.C. residents to band together and make a difference.

“We are tired of being bamboozled by politicians that seem to convince us wait and think things will be OK when we hurt so bad. Our time is now. We must come together as a family, a united front to make things change,” Garland said.

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed to this story.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO