A neighbor who rallied thousands to volunteer in the early days of the pandemic. A renowned chef who breathed life into an idea that kept kitchens open by cooking meals for hungry neighbors and essential workers. Three DC natives whose nonprofit raced to create a safe learning space for kids in public housing when schools went virtual. A public servant working long hours to coordinate the government’s response for months on end. And a longtime Ward 6 community organizer who put his work into overdrive when the pandemic hit to deliver supplies and food to low-income households.
These are the stories behind the five winners of this year’s Ward 6 Brickie Awards, presented the evening of Thursday, Dec. 3 by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D).
It is the 14th year for the ceremony. Founded by former Councilmember Tommy Wells, winners of the Brickies are literally presented with an engraved brick, representing their importance in helping to build a livable, walkable, enjoyable community.
In the before times, the annual Ward 6 Brickie Awards are held at a different Ward 6 location every year.
This year, they went virtual. “So I guess, in a sense, we’re in every location across Ward 6 this year,” said Allen, who “virtually handed” bricks to the winners from his own home, occasionally assisted by his daughter, Cora.
Here are the winners:
Neighbor Award: Allison McGill, Founder, DC Coronavirus Volunteers
On March 12, the day after Mayor Bowser declared a public health emergency in the District, McGill tweeted a call asking people who were at risk or vulnerable to the virus to contact her if they needed help. By then, she already begun gathering a list of volunteers willing to assist from the Table Church DC (945 G St. NW), where she is Director of Care. By March 25, after having expanded the search through social media and word of mouth, she had a list of more than 2,500. That list grew to over 3,600 strong.
This isn’t the first time Allison has jumped into action. When the federal government shut down last year, it was Allison who got straight to work organizing her fellow neighbors and local restaurants and shops to serve meals to furloughed workers and provide some relief to all those affected by the shutdown.
In a video played at the Brickies, Executive Pastor of Table Church DC Jessica Breslin said McGill was a “ray of sunshine” known for her kindness and compassion. “She is a gift to anyone who knows her,” Breslin said. “Our city should be extra-grateful that she is one of the loving neighbors who is quick to care for anyone with a need.”
McGill was quick to acknowledge others who had played a role in her work, thanking her spouse and Allen and his team, but especially her co-organizer Amber Seyler. Seyler, whom McGill had not met prior to the volunteer effort, worked for months to co-ordinate volunteer work. “It really showed me what our area is about,” she said, “because so many people signed up in the beginning, just wanting to serve.”
Community Organization Award: Darius Baxter, Troye Bullock and Danny Wright, GOODProjects
GOODProjects (Giving Out Opportunities Daily) was founded in 2016 by DC natives Darius Baxter, Troye Bullock and Danny Wright, who met on the football team at Georgetown University. GOODProjects has grown in its ambition and goals, working to end poverty and uplift families living in DC, focusing on families in public housing communities in Southwest.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the GOOD Projects team pivoted quickly to set up the GOOD Learning Hub, providing a safe, physical space for students enrolled in their camps who may not have reliable access to the internet, meals, and companionship when school shifted to virtual. Each student is provided a laptop and a hotspot, has the support of adults who can tutor and help keep focus, and snacks and meals throughout the day.
In her pre-recorded comments, James Creek President Christina Spencer said that Baxter and his crew “came in and made in happen,” putting a camp in place for almost 200 kids, “almost every little child in Southwest,” she said. “If he tell you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it,” Spencer said.
Clearly affected by Spencer’s comments, Baxter accepted the award on behalf of GOODProjects and the Southwest community, dedicating the award to Spencer and crediting her for making the work possible.
He said that all the three GOODprojects founders wanted to be was an example to kids without advantages, that they can make the decision to be great. “You have to make a decision that anything you say you’re going to do, you’re going to make it happen,” he said, “whether somebody gives you a pass to do it or not.”
On Wednesday, GOODprojects was announced as a “Forbes 30 Under 30” receipient. “I’m very happy about that,” Baxter said. “But there’s no award that’s more important than the Brickie –because this is the one that the community determines. These are the people that see you on the ground, doing the work every day.”
Business Award: Erik Bruner-Yang, Chef, Restaurateur, Creator of The Power of 10 Initiative
For DC foodies and casual diners alike, Chef Erik Bruner-Yang is a household name whose culinary career began on Ward 6’s H Street NE. His dishes have put DC’s restaurant scene on the national and international map.
Even as his national profile has grown, he and his growing group of restaurants have remained active members of their communities. Within a month of the spread of the novel coronavirus in DC, Bruner-Yang was moving at light speed to get an idea off the ground that would solve two problems at once: fast-rising unemployment in DC’s thriving service industry, and a dangerous rise in hunger and food instability among his neighbors.
He launched the Power of 10 Initiative, aimed at getting chefs back in the kitchen cooking meals for their neighbors and area nonprofits. Beginning in Ward 6, the Power of 10 effort seemed to multiply by a factor of 10, producing 5,000 meals within a few weeks while keeping 50 Ward 6 jobs going. Since then, the project has expanded 30 kitchens locally and across the nation, serving 275,000 meals while keeping restaurants open and preventing layoffs.
Bruner-Yang said he and his wife, who he cited as inspiration for his work, value strenghtening the community. “The more wealth and income you can keep in one area, the longer and more substantial it’s reach can have,” he siad. “One dollar that you can keep in this proximity can change everybody.”
“I come from a lot of backgrounds, and people ask me all the time where I’m from, and I always say I’m from H Street,” Bruner-Yang said. “I really like that’s [it’s] where I finally figured out who I am as a person.”
Civic Pride Award: Maurice Cook, Executive Director, Serve Your City / Ward 6 Mutual Aid
In any year, the work that Maurice Cook and Serve Your City do saving and changing lives would be worthy of a Brickie. Serve Your City has been fighting inequality for DC students, providing life-changing opportunities and experiences for almost 20 years.
But in 2020, Serve Your City has stepped up in a major way to help low-income neighborhoods who were most likely the first to feel the pain and remains a powerful voice advocating for change to end inequality in educational, racial, and wealth gaps within the District.
As the lead partner agency for Ward 6 Mutual Aid, a network of more than 30 non-profits, the group is guided by the principle of “Solidarity, not Charity” and has built its service model around harnessing the grassroots knowledge of local nonprofits with resources available right in the community.
Cook is the ‘sticky gum that holds together’ a team of volunteers and organizational partners in meeting an astounding range of needs, Allen said. “Maurice is somebody who I consider a friend, the type of person who can be that “healthy challenge to you when you want to have that tough conversation,” Allen said. “He’s somebody who I know I can trust his motives and intents behind everything he’s trying to do.”
In accepting the award,, Cook said it was the brilliant women who really get the work of Mutual Aid done, especialy the “beautiful black women” who make sure he gets his own work done daily.
“This is about who we are as a people,” said Cook, who celebrated his 50th birthday earlier that week. “I know I’m a beneficiary of the long, constant love of this city, and so I know what we have here.”
Cook spoke to what has been accomplished, but also the work ahead, noting especially the work ahead on homelessness and gentrification. “This is wonderful for us to recognize who we esteem to be,” he said. “We can be that ‘city on the hill and the beacon of hope, but it takes a lot of work in between.”
Public Service Award: Donte Lucas, DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA)
Donte Lucus is the Deputy Chief of Operations with DC’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, where he serves as one of the Emergency Operation Center Managers. The EOC is the nerve-center coordinating nearly all of the District’s first responders and many other COVID-19 services. Normally, when an EOC is established, it is for only one or two weeks at most, built around major events or a crisis. The COVID-19 EOC has been up and running since March, with the managers and staff working almost nonstop since then.
Lucas has been serving with the DC Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency for nearly a decade, moving further in his career with each stop. Lucas was the rist HSEMA staffer at the September 2018 Arthur Capper fire, working through the night to help efforts and setting up the emergency center at the community center.
“We know he is no stranger to difficult times, but his steadfast leadership and dedication during this response is what prompted us to recognize his hard work,” Allen said. “His colleagues emphasize over and over how much of a team player Donte is, so count this as a Brickie for the whole EOC team.”
True to form, Lucas said that while he was proud and honored to be honored, he accepted the award on part of HSEMA as a whole. “It’s a team effort. I honestly don’t know how I got nominated –there have been so many individuals that really demonstrated just true grit and dedication to the residents and businesses in the District.”