Peering out of the fifth-floor window of Potomac Gardens Family, Building 700, Aquarius Vann-Ghasri takes in the neighborhood she has called her home for more than 20 years. She sits at a cafe-style table positioned under a window without shades. Shades attract bugs and rodents, she said. The glass remains closed despite the palpably warm temperature in her apartment. She used to open the windows to keep fresh, dust-free air circulating, but her doctor told her that now that she has turned 60, the cold air could hurt her health.
Looking through the glass, Vann-Ghasri points to a new condominium building just below hers at 1211 G St. SE. She doesn’t say much but recognizes the development surrounding her public housing complex at 1225 G St. SE as a change for the community within and outside of the Potomac Gardens fences.
But for her, the fight for a better life begins within the complex.
Vann-Ghasri is in her second three-year term as president of the Potomac Gardens Family Resident Council and her 11th year as a family commissioner on the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) Board of Commissioners. She previously served on the executive board of the DCHA Citywide Advisory Board. She earned her degree in urban studies and social planning from the former Antioch School of Law (now the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia), and she uses her knowledge and experience to help the residents she calls her neighbors at Potomac Gardens.
“I live among the people I serve,” Vann-Ghasri said. “And housing is my passion.”
When she first ran for the president’s position in 2011, she made it her mission to reach as many residents as possible with her vision, and she still does. She walks around the buildings, enlists the help of her young neighbors, and posts fliers on tutoring sessions and community meetings.
As president she has helped organize at least two recreational bus trips, a high school graduates incentive program, and a Toddlers in the Rec program. She has helped get at least 90 units repainted, brought in landscaping, and found funding for the new playground and a computer lab. From the toddlers program to working with the senior residents, she includes everyone that she can in community projects.
Spreading Out Her Wealth of Knowledge
Stacks of books, files, and policy papers on urban development and the housing authority line Vann-Ghasri’s apartment walls from the floor up. Papers lie scattered on the tables and in piles around the room. When she’s studying a policy or trying to plan her campaigns for the residents, she likes to spread out all of her resources in front of her.
“I had a vision,” she said of when she first campaigned for the position as president of the Resident Council. “My vision was breaking barriers through policy.”
Vann-Ghasri knows policy. She knows what works to implement it: organizing. She learned some of that in her studies and work with AmeriCorps Vista, but Chinatown in DC introduced her to the power of organizing.
A native of the city, she grew up at 730 Sixth St. NW; it’s now a parking lot. Most of the residents were low-income, she said. She grew up in the “ghetto” alongside a mix of cultures from Chinese to black families. “Even if you have a language barrier, you have common values,” she said.
Chinatown business owners and families organized for many reasons, like running their family-oriented businesses. It masked the image of living in poverty. “We never knew we were poor until we moved out of Chinatown and moved into environments like this,” she said.
When she moved from Terrell Junior High School (closed in 2014) to Dunbar High School (101 N St. NW) and eventually to college, she started to learn the power of bringing people together. “Every organization, every group, every neighborhood needs some type of structure to operate,” she explained. That gives them a voice and a vision for growing and moving forward.
Since becoming president of the Resident Council she has used her knowledge on urban strategies and planning for programs within Potomac Gardens. But she faces a constant challenge. Can she get her residents to care, turn up for meetings, and get on board with her ideas?
Getting Residents to Buy In
Every time a resident in Potomac Gardens Family uses the CSC ServiceWorks laundry room machines, the money goes into a fund available to the residents. Vann-Ghasri had an idea, when she started as president six years ago, to use that monthly check for the Graduates Program budget.
The Graduates Program gives students in the complex who graduate from high school or college around $100 as an incentive reward. The money comes from the laundry check because it’s the easiest to access, Vann-Ghasri explained. If she wanted federal funds, she would have to undergo a lengthy application and approval process. This way, she knows she can support the program with a consistent revenue source. But only if residents understand they must wash in the laundry room to support the funds, she cautioned.
While touring her building later, Vann-Ghasri came across several residents. She made a point of asking them if they planned on attending the upcoming residents meeting (getting on their cases if they said they weren’t sure). She stands with an imposing height, and her strong voice and personality demand that listeners keep up with her ever-moving agenda.
“I’m rude,” she admitted. “But there’s a difference between being rude and disrespectful. Now, I’m not disrespectful.”
It’s this intense character and wide knowledge on leading an urban community that can prevent other residents from seeing her vision and how it can help them, though, said her friend, former colleague on the Resident Council, and longtime Potomac Gardens resident Thomasia Moore.
“She fights for us, she does,” Moore said. “She loves what she does so much to the point that it rubs on people the wrong way.”
Vann-Ghasri has a fiery passion for the residents and for developing the programs she knows can help them, Moore said.
But sometimes it seems not everyone in the community cares, or feels too defeated to understand how her efforts make a difference in the long term, Moore explained. “She has a nice attendance [at the meetings], but she speaks and wears a lot of hats,” she said. “She speaks as the president, the commissioner, as someone who wants no one to get left behind.”
The policies that she tries to explain to the residents also can come off as too complex, she said. Her intensity can rise during meetings as she paces the floor and lays out her agenda. It can intimidate some. “When she doesn’t get understanding from residents, that’s maybe when her rudeness comes in,” Moore said. “People here don’t ask questions.”
She wouldn’t give Vann-Ghasri up for anything, though. She has given Potomac Gardens strong leadership despite a disjointed sense of values across the community. “I hope she doesn’t give up,” Moore said. “She’s still serving the community in that same vein as when she started.”
The Coming Years
“Winning is learning, you never lose” is Vann-Ghazi’s mantra. She is preparing to run again as president on the Resident Council, and soon after, will run again for her position as a DCHA board commissioner.
When she walks around the grounds, she stops, hugs, and shakes hands with nearly every neighbor she comes across. She takes pride in watching the children in the Potomac Gardens youth drum corps practice in the courtyard. She laughs and smiles because she loves her resident family and gets to live the life she wants. “I’m an advocate for those who suffer from the disease of social injustice,” she said. “I have a passion for educating, informing, coaching, and training. And I’m having fun.”