Each spring, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to our neighborhood in a wide variety of ways, honoring them with Community Achievement Awards. Among those so honored have been teachers, business owners, real estate agents, political leaders, musicians and artists as well as the kind of engaged, involved citizens who get ideas of ways to enhance our lives together and then make them happen.
This is a tradition that goes back to 1984 with just one interruption – last year the honorees were those who had been chosen the year before, when the celebration honoring them had to be cancelled due to COVID. Last spring a virtual celebration replaced the usual gala dinner at the Folger Library. This year’s honorees are, as always, a cross section of the people who give our neighborhood the flavor so many of us love.
As the seat of our national government, Capitol Hill is a place where we occasionally see nationally known figures on the street, at a restaurant, picking up dry cleaning or in line at a coffee shop. That person waiting for a latte at Peregrine Coffee could be Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, but it might just as well be Kirsten Oldenburg, who since 2009 has represented ANC 6B, faithfully attending multiple monthly meetings and dealing with potholes, liquor licenses, traffic lights, zoning, historic preservation, public parks, noise, bike lanes – anything and everything of concern to her neighbors. It’s not the stuff of the nightly news but it is an essential part of self-government – unglamorous, unpaid, and meaningful.
The catalyst for Kirsten’s involvement with local government was the fire in April of 2007 that severely damaged the much-loved, over a century-old Eastern Market building. She had been living on the Hill for almost 25 years and was recently retired from work with the federal government when the fire and its aftermath grabbed her attention. She found herself writing checks but also volunteering her time to help raise funds in support of the displaced merchants.
When, shortly after that, the seat as commissioner for ANC 6B04 became vacant in the middle of a term she was invited to fill it. At the next election she was the only candidate for that spot and she won. Initially, she says, she didn’t know much and “kept my mouth shut” but since then she has attended monthly meetings of the Commission as well as regular meetings of the Transportation subcommittee, which she chairs.
Being an effective ANC representative requires patience, tact and a willingness to take the time to listen to constituents, as well as understanding complex and often tedious regulations, skills she had learned in various jobs. As the daughter of a petroleum engineer, she had grown up in many places – Houston, Caracas, Yonkers, and Berkeley. Graduating from high school in the late 50s, she originally went to secretarial school rather than college.
During a stint as a travel agent, she learned to work with people and pay attention to their concerns. But she soon decided she needed more and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in the engineering department, becoming one of very few women there and specializing in the study of metals, in particular steel and aluminum. That led to advanced study at Washington State and, in 1983, to George Washington University.
There she learned that the Office of Technology Assessment, created in 1975, was looking for someone with expertise in strategically important materials, among them metals. She was in the right place at the right time and was employed there until the office was shut down, a victim of budget tightening in the Newt Gingrich years. She later worked at the Department of Transportation, editing annual statistical reports and learning more about how government works.
A colleague said of Kirsten that she is effective because she puts in a lot of time and takes pains to understand a variety of points of view. He says it takes humility to focus on the small, quality of life issues that make up the bulk of the work of ANC Commissioners. Unlike some who serve in that role, Kirsten has never seen this position as a stepping stone to something bigger. It is valuable for what it is, in Kirsten’s words “the bottom rung of democracy.”
Michael and Joan Kim
When Michael Kim first walked into Grubb’s Pharmacy on the corner of 4th and East Capitol Street in 1997, as a pharmacy student reporting for a part-time job, he thought the place looked old, dingy, and run down. And, indeed, there has been a pharmacy on the site since 1867. The facility was old, but he quickly noticed something that set it apart in a positive way from the sleek pharmacies at chain stores where he had previously worked. He was struck by the interaction of owner Ed Dillon and his staff with their customers, the personal relationships that produced a level of care unlike what he was used to. In 2006, with his wife Dr. Joan Kim, he purchased Grubb’s and together they are committed to maintaining and strengthening that bond with the community they serve.
Michael and Joan Kim are both of Korean heritage though with very different stories. He was born in Korea but he and his parents immigrated to the States when he was a small child. He grew up in Laurel, Maryland, attended the University of Maryland and Howard University School of Pharmacy. By his own admission, he is less than fluent in academic Korean.
Joan grew up in Seoul, South Korea but spent four years of her childhood in New York when her father was representing a Korean steel company in the U.S. When she was a college student her father’s work again brought him to the U.S. and so Joan came too, attending college here and getting a degree from St. John’s University School of Pharmacy. She is lively and talkative in both Korean and English.
Fate seems to have destined Michael and Joan for each other. Each had an early marriage that brought them two children but ended – hers with the death of her husband, his by divorce. They found each other on Match.com and, despite the fact that she was then living in Manhattan and he in Laurel, they met for a visit to Washington, DC and married in 2003. They quickly had two more children, giving them a total of six, now aged from 15 to 26. A son and a daughter are in pharmacy school. All the children have helped out in various ways at Grubb’s.
The last few years have, of course, been challenging ones. Grubb’s was one of the first sites in DC to partner with HHS to offer Covid testing and then, as they became available, vaccines. Just as these arrangements were being made, the George Floyd death in June 2020 brought violent protests to cities across the country including D.C.
Like other pharmacies, Grubb’s was hit hard, its windows smashed, drugs taken, merchandize scattered. The front of the store was boarded up for weeks.
But it was a moment of intense connection with Capitol Hill. The Kims were moved when a neighbor offered to pay for needed repairs to the building. “People rallied round us,” Joan remembers.
Since then, Grubb’s has created an outdoor pop-up that allows them to offer testing and vaccines, serving long lines of people every day, staying open late sometimes to accommodate demand for tests, offering cocoa to children waiting anxiously to get vaccines.
Another challenge of COVID has been finding and retaining reliable staff. In order to make the workplace both more inviting and healthier, the Kims have introduced an hour-long closing at lunch time, from noon to one pm, a change that initially angered some of their customers. But they insisted and now encourage their employees to take that break. They created a comfortable lunch room upstairs above the pharmacy as well as a space where employees can relax and, if they want, do yoga.
What Joan and Michael enjoy on their lunch break is, according to her, “just taking a walk, looking at the plants and flowers and trees.” They love getting to know the neighborhood and the neighbors. Many people, they find, have never been to Grubb’s. Chance encounters offer them the opportunity to introduce themselves and tell about the constantly expanding number of services and products they offer.
Sah Brown, the principal of Eastern High School, is tall – very tall – so it’s no surprise to hear that he grew up loving basketball and hoping he might find a way to make it a career. He played in high school on Long Island where he grew up; he was recruited to play ball at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania where he majored in political science and loved both the education and the sport.
But after two years in the NBA minor leagues, with brief stints in Mexico and China, he decided to, as he puts it, “deflate the ball and focus on other pursuits.” He had a roommate from college here in D.C., so Brown came to the city and began working at a bank. As a sideline he offered to go to schools to teach financial literacy.
Then, at the bank where he worked, he ran into the principal of a school he had visited. “Have you ever considered teaching?” the principal asked him and then suggested he apply to a program called D.C. Teaching Fellows, an alternative route to careers in education.
Getting a Master’s in Special Education and Education Administration while working as a Teaching Fellow at Anacostia High School, Sah found that he had been “bit by the education bug.” Although he had harbored the hope that teaching might at some point lead him back to basketball as a coach, the connections he was making with students and fellow teachers were compelling.
After serving as Special Education coordinator at Margaret Murray Washington High School he moved into administration at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, Hardy Middle School, Cardozo and Roosevelt High School. “I had found where I needed to be,” he remembers. In 2016 Sah Brown was named principal of Eastern High School on Capitol Hill (1700 East Capitol St. NE).
Brown remembers his first Eastern graduation as particularly thrilling. Watching students cross the auditorium stage and receive their diplomas, feeling that they were ready to go out into the world was, he thought “the pinnacle of what this job is about.” Another favorite memory was Walk to School Day with the Eastern Marching Band accompanying a group of students and faculty walking back from Lincoln Park to the school, greeting neighbors and friends along the way.
An upbeat person who, as he says, always tries to find the “silver lining,” Brown remembers with pride and humility the ceremony planned by students after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They held a gathering on the football field where the school community – students, faculty and staff – linked arms, observed a moment of silence and then released 18 balloons in honor of those whose lives had been lost in the shooting.
Asked about dealing with COVID over the last two years, Sah Brown says he prefers to think of the situation less in terms of “challenges” and more in terms of “opportunities.” The pandemic brought to the fore the urgent need for greater mastery of technology as a tool that could be used to help all students find their own pace to move through curriculum. It also presented an opportunity for Eastern to redefine its core values. They are Passion, Respect, Innovation, Determination and Excellence. “In times of challenge,” says Sah Brown, “you need passion.”
For the passion and promise he has brought to a historic D.C. high school, one which next year will celebrate its centennial, Sah Brown is being given the annual Steve Cymrot “Spark” award. Steve was a founder of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, a tireless and imaginative volunteer for neighborhood activities, a generous donor to local institutions, a man who left us too soon but who still gives off sparks of inspiration.
Kirsten Oldenburg, Dr. Michael Kim, Dr. Joan Kim, and Sah Brown will be honored at a festive garden party at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday, May 24. Also presented at that event will be the annual Arnold F. Keller Award of $25,000 to the Story of Our Schools for a display at Eastern High School on the occasional of its centennial in 2023 and the first annual John Franzén Award for the Arts to the Chiarina Chamber Players in support of a series of educational concerts this fall by the Attacca Quartet, a New York-based chamber Group.
Tickets for the garden party and awards ceremony will be available on line beginning on April 1 at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org.