Moving in this City
We were recently reminded by City Cast DC’s newsletter that there is something familiar and unfamiliar, joyous and challenging about mapping a city. From maps showing every single cherry tree to maps that tell the stories of Black DC residents’ displacement over the 20th century, both the concept and action of mapping defines place while outlining potential journeys one could take between those places.
Numerous contradictions overlap in DC’s versions of personal, communal, societal, and national histories — most of which can be recognized and felt just by walking around. DC is one of the most walkable cities in America, but all three of its most walkable neighborhoods are situated in NW. Despite roughly 22% of the city’s population having disabilities, according to Washingtonian, “many of DC’s restaurants are housed in historic buildings” that may not be readily accessible.
As Ron Thompson wrote in Greater Greater Washington earlier this summer, “We need to think about the safety of our streets in a holistic way.” In considering how we move around the city, the Catalogue for Philanthropy expanded upon this framing and asked several of our nonprofit partners: How can we make our city a joyous place to move around in?
“DC can become a more joyous place by embracing the idea of saying “yes,”” Mark Chalfant, Artistic Executive Director of the Washington Improv Theater, told us. “Too often, Washingtonians get stuck in our silos, whether it’s related to our work lives or our neighborhoods. When we say yes to new things, we welcome personal growth and new connections with other people.”
Guided by the belief that improv can counteract the isolating factors of modern life to form bonds between people and multiple intersecting communities, Washington Improv Theater creates spaces where shared laughter and joy are possible for all. In partnership with fellow Catalogue nonprofit Calvary Women’s Services, for example, they worked to provide empowerment and catharsis for women experiencing homelessness through improv sessions. “I truly believe that we resign anyone at the poverty line to a life devoid of delight, saying that once you fix all your problems only then you can be delighted,” said Calvary’s Education Coordinator, Elaine Johnson. “(But) delight is what gets our women to do the hard work.”
No matter where we are at, connection and joy are vital to welcome into our lives. “At Washington Improv Theater,” Chalfant continued, “we aspire to facilitate this spirit of yes through an art form that relies on positive collaboration and a spirit of saying “yes, and.””
Just as Washington Improv Theater uses artistic movement to center and embrace our humanity, fellow nonprofit partner Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) Greater DC-Baltimore uses physical activity to empower young people with disabilities and, in so doing, fosters a real sense of community. From bowling to Tae Kwon Do, yoga to basketball, they offer more than 1,300 hours of recreational and fitness programming at no cost every month, serving over 500 children, teens, and young adults.
KEEN “lets special needs families know that there is a larger community that cares about our kids,” a parent shared in their latest annual report, “and are willing to invest in their success.” Across KEEN’s programs, children with disabilities like autism and Down syndrome can feel accepted and find joy. For 30 years, they have been training volunteer coaches and pairing them with KEEN’s program participants — who they call athletes — to take part in different sports activities and have a good time. Every year, volunteers also team up with athletes to participate in an instructor-led sports festival, where the whole KEEN community comes together to celebrate as a single group.
Girls on the Run – DC (GOTR – DC) is another incredible nonprofit partner who uses an experience-based curriculum to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident. Through physical activity and interactive lessons, girls meet with trained volunteer coaches in small teams, gaining critical life skills on their journey to complete a 5K together. Since 2006, they have engaged more than 300 volunteer coaches a year, serving more than 21,000 girls locally.
“At the end of the day, I just want to be someone who feels good about herself AND who makes others feel good about themselves,” one of their participants said. The ways in which we move in this city and, conversely, the ways in which this city permits us to move, shape our memories and understandings of this place. As GOTR – DC’s Executive Director Devoria Armstead told us, “Over the years, running outdoors has been something I love to do to clear my mind and bring thoughts into focus.” Movement helps to free us, focus us, or connect us — all of which impact how we feel about ourselves, our neighborhoods, and each other.
This echoes a statement made by one of Phoenix Bikes‘ Earn-a-Bike program graduates: “When I think of Phoenix Bikes, I don’t just think of the mechanics and bike riding. I think of a safe haven where I was free to be myself amongst my friends.”
Phoenix Bikes harnesses the power of bikes to help youth build passion, purpose, and a place in the community. Their Earn-a-Bike program teaches youth bike repair skills while they work towards earning their own bike. Through additional opportunities like overnight bike camping trips and weekly Saturday bike rides, they engaged over 220 youth who covered nearly 3,000 miles on these group rides. Youth also refurbish bikes that they then give to people in the community, including refugees from Afghanistan and a man rebuilding his life after homelessness.
Joyous movement is inextricably tied to safe, healthy, and vibrant forms of living. In stressing the importance of the vehicle for movement, Phoenix Bikes states that “Bicycling… is also a means for social justice. Providing access to a bicycle can have significant positive economic and health impacts for all.” Similarly, Armstead shared with us that “As I get into the groove of my run, it brings me joy when I see areas of DC, that at times are filled with litter and debris, looking spruced up and manicured. I enjoy seeing bright pockets of color, creativity and sustainability through murals, art installations, playground structures, dog parks, and vegetable gardens.”
To this list of things that make DC beautiful, we would like to add open streets and outdoor festivals, such as the DC Funk Parade. Held earlier in August, the festival gives “artists who perform on U Street and all bus (stops) and who perform a chance to really be seen,” David Oliver, the parade’s host, told WTOP News. It is one of the events stewarded by nonprofit partner The MusicianShip as part of their ecosystem of music-based projects, which reach more than 70,000 people altogether. They leverage each of these community engagements to serve nearly 2,000 youth, changing their lives through music lessons, experiences, and opportunities.
This year’s Funk Parade theme was “The Magic of Music” and it continued to honor the spirit of the U Street Corridor — historically known as Black Broadway — while celebrating DC’s distinct musical identity.
“Making concepts such as these a priority in our city and seeing ongoing, consistent visual cues of neighborhood improvements and well-being is a huge part of what can make our city a joyous place to move around in,” Armstead noted.
We agree — investing in our city requires deep intention and sustained commitment, which drives the efforts of every nonprofit featured here. We invite you to channel your own joy as you consider how you want to move in and around our city! In the spirit of collaborating with local community-based organizations, you can also learn more about the work of our nonprofit partners and support them in making our region a wonderful place, where everyone can wander, have fun, and express themselves fully.