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7 Questions with Janine Tursini, Executive Director of Arts for the Aging


1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I first met the founder of Arts for the Aging, Lolo Sarnoff, in the 1990s, when I was working in arts education administration at the other end of the age spectrum, with college-level students and faculty at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Like so many who knew Lolo, initially I was enchanted by her European charm and extraordinary art collection. It didn’t take long to see that underneath that chic exterior was someone who cared very deeply about the right things. What motivated me to begin working with AFTA was seeing that a path existed for professional artists to, in part, earn a living doing what they love with their art-making, that is, beyond the commercial and often difficult route of exhibiting, performing or selling original works. What cinched it was witnessing an AFTA program. It was a dance workshop led by master AFTA teaching artist Nancy Havlik. I saw a practical and imaginative application for professional artists to use their passion to reach into and make better the lives of marginalized older adults in our communities.


2. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

I’m really jazzed that more and more credence is being paid to the field of creative aging both to longtime arts-in-healthcare practitioners like AFTA and those that are just starting out. In the U.S., and beyond, public and private sector partnerships in aging, healthcare and the arts are building more pathways for accessible, affordable and creative arts interventions in caregiving. I have just been invited by Maryland’s Montgomery County Executive, Ike Leggett, to join his Age-Friendly Montgomery Advisory Committee. We’re working hand-in-hand with the World Health Organization and with Health and Human Services to better adapt structures and services to the needs of our aging population. Since 10,000 Baby Boomers a day are turning age 65, it’s imperative. Look out for more Age-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly buzz, and for more thought leadership from AFTA around practices we can adopt and adapt to address creative care-giving for older adults. We’ll be demonstrating one aspect of it this spring during Strathmore Hall’s Arts & the Brain lecture series.

Conga Line

3. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I have so many. One that comes to mind at the moment is celebrated Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins, who wrote a moving call to arms around Independence Day last summer. Her piece challenged us to think about how we can keep a sense of freedom and wholeness as we grow into older age, even as our bodies and minds can betray us. And she cited the example of the revolutionary college basketball coach, her dear friend, Pat Summitt, who had just died of early onset Alzheimer’s at age 64. Jenkins said that it’s not liberty when we do not treat people who are “older and ailing…as if they are sentient and sensitive beings, whose life and belongings are still theirs…when they can’t communicate as they used to we lack the imagination to try to find other ways to reach them.” I have to agree. But, there is hope. And artists embody that very imagination we need to turn the tide of negative stereotypes around aging so that we can still celebrate our remaining potential, our assets, what we still can do as we get older.

4. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

Recently, we launched a collaboration by expanding a beloved DC museum’s outreach program so that it includes an art-making component and community celebration. Conversations at The Kreeger Museum is for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers. In a six-week long series, Kreeger docents, teaching musicians from Levine Music, and AFTA teaching artists facilitate art talks, play live music and make art related to masterworks in the museum’s collection. Workshops take place first at the museum, then at the participating senior care center, and culminate with an exhibition and demonstration at the museum that is open to the public (for example, we invite AFTA supporters). It stimulates reflection, reduces stress, and sparks socialization and artful ways for marginalized seniors that AFTA serves, and their caregivers and the public, to be with one another. For example, in the museum’s sublime Monet Room, one participant described that his Arm of the Seine-inspired pastel drawing reminded him of a hill he and his veteran comrades approached during an attack in the Korean War, a part of his history and his story that his caregivers never knew. How touching for us all to witness this moment together and to be able to honor his service to our country.

man with painting

5. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Earlier I mentioned that AFTA’s founder was charismatic. In truth, Lolo Sarnoff was a dynamo: a scientist, inventor, artist, philanthropist, and art collector. She passed away just two years ago, at age 98. Our greatest challenge, even 28 years after our inception, is balancing the nostalgia and fondness many hold close for AFTA as Lolo’s organization alongside of our mission and emerging reputation as a nationally recognized and pioneering regional program service model. I know strategic planning may sound kind of nerdy to readers as the answer to dealing with the challenge, but the fact that AFTA is a fully professionalized organization with diverse enthusiasts and defined strategic goals is incredibly important to its success. I’m happy to say that our vision for the coming years is to continue what we do best–delivering top-notch, community-based, participatory arts programs, which are artist-led, multidisciplinary, and designed to enhance the health and quality of life of older adults living with physical and cognitive impairments and accessibility challenges. Meanwhile, we’ll dramatically expand our partnerships, like those in programmatic research, funding, and volunteer engagement, and those partnerships will include more community cohorts, family members, caregivers and intergenerational connections.

6. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

My advice to others in positions like mine is to keep the faith. It’s hard and sometimes really lonely to be a nonprofit executive, especially in smaller organizations. Our founder once told me, and it’s never proven false, when you want to start something, or try something new, remember that it will take you three times as long as you would ever think. Build and work with your board members as closely as you would a good friend. They are an incredible resource and constant source of energy during good times and hard ones.

7. What’s next/coming up for you?

I’ll be writing and (hopefully) publishing more about the AFTA model and the field of creative aging. Look for an article I wrote called “A Person Who Is Becoming”,
which will be published in the international e-journal, Creativity and Human Development under guest editor Dr. Raquel Chapin Stephenson. Separately, AFTA is launching more efforts to secure research funding so we can study the impact of regular arts participation on isolation, loneliness, joy, and depression in older adults. We want to create a rationale for arts programming as a standard model in health care and policy-making. Emerging research already shows that regular arts participation is vital to healthier aging. The National Endowment for the Arts has made fantastic strides gathering and promoting arts-based research showing impact on human development across age spectrums, so there is much more to come.

7 Questions with DC Bilingual Public Charter School

Daniela Anello-DCBilingualOrganization Name: DC Bilingual Public Charter School
Executive Director: Daniela Anello, Head of School

What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
DC Bilingual is the best bilingual school in the city and it didn’t happen overnight. I joined the DC Bilingual community in 2009 as the school’s first full-time literacy coach and curriculum developer. At that time, test scores were 30% proficient or advanced using the DCCAS state test in reading and 3% in math. After the school’s implementation of a rigorous bilingual literacy teaching model, teacher coaching, and improving its hiring process the school’s scores have dramatically improved.

Please click to view our gains in Math and ELA (English Language Arts) in the 2015-2016 PARCC and CLASS.

This year (2016-2017), we have also been ranked a Tier 1 School. This amazing achievement ranks DCB among the top 10 highest-performing elementary charters in the city and in the top 25% of the District’s 73 tiered charter schools.

DC Bilingual received an overall score of 75.3 — a 13-point gain from our previous score and a clear indication of our continued student-centered, academically-driven teaching approach. (View full report here).
DCPCS awards Tier rankings 1 through 3 based on evaluations of the School Quality Report. This report compiles information on each charter including re-enrollment, attendance, achievement and growth in PARCC and achievement in the PreK assessment, CLASS. Our incredible gains in Math and ELA (English Language Arts) in the 2015-2016 PARCC and CLASS, are directly responsible for our Tier 1 ranking.

What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
We are a school of continuous improvement. This means we are always working hard to improve our school systems and programmatic offerings. My current projects include overseeing a major building renovation project to provide our students and families with a state-of-the-art learning facility, and designing our internal before and after school program supporting enrichment opportunities for all students and a seamless transition from academic time to after school time.

Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?
People who inspire me to work hard and keep a clear vision of what can be made possible, regardless of how difficult it may seem to accomplish are my heroes. My teaching hero is Lucy Calkins. I learned from her what it means to set a high bar for what students can accomplish in their reading lives as writers and devoted readers. She also taught me the power teachers hold in controlling how much students accomplish by believing in students capacity, setting a high bar for student learning and by being life-long readers and writers themselves.

What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
**Renovation project is by far the most exciting! Very rarely does a school leader get to also decide what they want the building facility to look like for their students, staff and families now and for many years to come. I have really enjoyed dreaming big, and thinking creatively about how to make our school vision and mission come to life in physical spaces.

What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
The greatest challenge I face is making sure that words, actions and decisions are well understood by all stakeholders. In an organization with so many people, in a wide range of roles where decisions must be made quickly, it is important to ensure everyone understands why certain things are decided and the outcome of the decisions. It works best when the communication is clear, and people are working together to to achieve the school mission.

What advice do you have for other people in your position?
Be highly visible and inspirational, communicating the vision and mission of the school relentlessly, while building trusting relationships with adults and students.

What’s next/coming up for you?
My position as Head of School is always changing and growing. In this role I can never think that what we have currently achieved is ‘enough.’ The needs of our students grow daily as does my responsibility to DCB’s students and community. That is what makes this position so rewarding and engaging. While there are repeatable tasks I do each and every day, there is always a newness to what I do each day. To answer, what is next? I will continue to work with our community to continue DCB’s legacy of excellence and make sure we are meeting the needs of our community and students

7 Questions: Rebekah D. Mason, Legal Counsel for the Elderly

rebe2014This week, the Catalogue for Philanthropy “7 Questions” series welcomes Rebekah Mason, of Legal Counsel for the Elderly, an affiliate of AARP. Rebekah is an LCE Staff Attorney who works on their Veteran’s Advocacy Project, which reaches out to elderly, low-income veterans to make sure they are receiving the benefits owed to them. 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Legal Counsel for the Elderly. Today, they continue to provide free legal and social services to DC’s most vulnerable seniors. Welcome, Rebekah!


1. What motivated you to begin working with this organization?

I have always been motivated to work for causes that bring justice to the most vulnerable populations. Many members of my family suffered greatly due to Hurricane Ike and were displaced. As a fellow at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, I was fortunate to be an advocate on behalf of vulnerable low-income folks who needed access to safe and decent affordable housing after being displaced by a natural disaster. When reviewing opportunities for poverty law in the District of Columbia, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, an affiliate of AARP, stood out to me. LCE serves DC’s most vulnerable seniors in a way that motivated me to make DC a permanent home. Continue reading

7 Questions: Susan Punnett, Family and Youth Initiative

Susan 3-2015

Susan Punnett, Executive Director, DCFYI

In honor of National Adoption Month, we’re proud to feature Susan Punnett, Executive Director of Family & Youth Initiative (’15-’16). DCFYI is the only DC area organization focused exclusively on helping teens in foster care make lifelong connections with caring adults.Susan has twenty years of experience in child welfare and related social services. Prior to founding Family & Youth Initiative, she served for five years as Director of the Kidsave Weekend Miracles DC program, piloting a new approach to helping older children in foster care find adoptive families with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Read on to learn more about Susan and DCFYI!

What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

Five years ago I was the project director at a non-profit, helping teens in foster care find adoptive families. When that organization decided to end the program a number of us were unwilling to walk away from the teens who had not yet found family. So we started Family & Youth Initiative to keep the program going. I was motivated then as I am now by the amazing teens I have gotten to know. I consider myself privileged to play a part in this very critical time in their lives.

How is your organization recognizing National Adoption Month?

Actually much of what we do this month is the same as what we do year round talking to people about teens in foster care and bringing teens and adults together so they can form what will become lasting relationships. National Adoption Month gives us a bit of a bigger platform because of the added publicity from events like National Adoption Day (in DC, Adoption Day in Court).

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7 Questions: Matt Gerson, Founder and Chairman

We welcome Matt Gerson, Founder and Chairman of Tracy’s Kids to our 7 Questions Blog. Tracy’s Kids helps young cancer patients and their families cope with the emotional stress and trauma of cancer and its treatment and is brand new to the Catalogue as part of the 2015-16 class. Under Matt Gerson’s leadership, Tracy’s Kids has grown from one therapist at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center to the much larger organization it is today.


  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I was diagnosed with cancer when I was ten years old– 47 years ago. I remember that battling the disease was lonely and scary and emotionally grueling. Tracy’s Kids uses Art Therapy to enable the children we serve to engage with Masters-trained professionals who help them express their fears and better understand this impossibly difficult chapter of their lives.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

My heroes are our eight dedicated Art Therapists (“ATs”) who bring compassion and professionalism to their work every day. They see a lot of sadness but generate smiles, comfort and confidence. For years parents have told me that their kids look forward to going to the clinic which I find inconceivable. But it’s because our ATs enable them to feel like themselves: not like sick kids, just kids.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

Our program director, Tracy Councill, is always encouraging our team of Art Therapists to try new ways to make the clinic more fun and inviting. The past couple of years they’ve made music videos including one to Pharrell’s song, Happy, that had the whole clinic — nurses, docs, kids and parents — lip syncing and dancing. But my favorite was to Andy Grammers, Keep Your Head Up. The lyrics could not be more appropriate and became something of an anthem — You got to keep your head up. This is just a journey, drop your worries, you are gonna turn out fine.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

We make a special effort to work with the siblings of the children that we serve. A cancer diagnosis traumatizes the entire family, and we appreciate that the healthy sibling is scared for her brother, confused by the treatment regime and wrestles with emotions that should be shared with a trained professional. We even established a focused summer program at Children’s Hospital called Scribbling Siblings.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Sadness. Today, over 70% of the children diagnosed with cancer will beat the disease. But parents still lose children, and brothers lose sisters. This Fall a remarkable 16 year old lost her battle with osteosarcoma. Abby used Art Therapy to cope with her prognosis and create a legacy of artwork for her family and friends. Her mother told me that Tracy’s Kids was invaluable to her daughter and that the family wants to work with us so they can positively impact the lives of others. This kind of feedback enables us to deal with the heartache because it validates our efforts to help children and their families cope with the psychological toll imposed by the disease and its treatment.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Just Do It. There are innumerable good causes. Find one that excites you and give it your best shot. Don’t be afraid to ask for financial support, and don’t talk it personally when you get turned down or someone doesn’t deliver.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

Tracy’s Kids is in three clinics in the DC area and one in San Antonio, Texas. We joined New York Presbyterian Hospital in October and are exploring a partnership with a hospital in Baltimore. Other clinics have asked us to bring our program to their facility and if we have the resources we can go anywhere to make a real difference in the lives of children in a harrowing position.

7 Questions: Jeff Kelble President of Potomac Riverkeeper

jeffTo wrap up Parks and Recreation month in July, we welcome Jeff Kelble, President of Potomac Riverkeeper, to 7 Questions. Before joining Potomac Riverkeeper, Jeff worked for 8 years to build a private small-mouth bass guiding business and a bed and breakfast. After years of fish kills devastated the Shenandoah River’s fishery, he decided to put down his oars to join the fight for the river and its health. Potomac Riverkeeper works to protect the public’s right to clean water in Greater Washington’s rivers and streams.

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7 Questions: Jim Foster, President of Anacostia Watershed Society

“We have a chance to learn from our friends on the West Coast and re-engineer our water systems, to clean up the Anacostia, the Potomac, and the Chesapeake waterways, all the while saving money and reducing carbon emissions.”


In honor of Parks and Recreation Month, we welcome Jim Foster, President of Anacostia Watershed Society. Anacostia Watershed Society protects and restores the Anacostia River and its watershed communities by cleaning the water, recovering the shores, and honoring the heritage.

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7 Questions: Sarah Browning, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Split This Rock

Sarah Browning at Capitol Split This Rock 2010 “Poetry will not be denied. Even as I worked myself to the point of burn out, poetry kept calling to me.”

“I was lucky to discover and help foster an incredible community of engaged poets here in DC and the surrounding area, poets of all ages, poets in the community and the academy, poets working in all styles.”

In honor of Poetry Month we welcome Sarah Browning, Executive Director of Split this Rock. Split This Rock cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. Sarah previously worked supporting socially engaged women artists with WomenArts and developing creative writing workshops with low-income women and youth with Amherst Writers & Artists.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

Can I go back 30 years? In a poetry workshop in college, my professor told me not to write socially engaged poetry, political poetry, poetry that looks outside the self to the horrors and beauties of the wider world, dismissing poetry’s ancient history of examining public life, naming injustices, and inspiring us to believe that a better world is not only possible, but essential. I came away from that workshop disheartened and discouraged. If what I a lifelong activist was writing wasn’t Real Poetry, then why bother? So I went off into the world of organizing for social change, first in public housing and then for a statewide multi-issue progressive organization, in Massachusetts.

But poetry will not be denied. Even as I worked myself to the point of burn out, poetry kept calling to me. I wrote only three or four poems over the next eight years or so; I came to feel that my heart was shriveling, that I would be no good to anyone if I couldn’t find a way to put poetry back to the center of my life.

Fast forward 10 years and my move to Washington, DC, in the fall of 2002. I had by now been writing steadily and publishing poems even some political ones in literary journals. And what a time for an activist poet to land in the nation’s capital! Just a year after the attacks of September 11, with a president threatening war against a nation, Iraq, which, though ruled by a murderous dictator, had played no part in the attacks of the year before.

I became involved in the world-wide movement against war and started a local branch of Poets Against the War, an international uprising of poets bringing the challenge and succor of poetry into that activism. I was lucky to discover and help foster an incredible community of engaged poets here in DC and the surrounding area, poets of all ages and races/ethnicities, poets in the community and the academy, poets working in all styles.

After several years of powerful local programming, which gave a platform to poets and inspired those working against the war, infusing imaginative language into the movement , the group decided it was time to do something on a larger scale. Being here in the capital, we felt we had not just the opportunity but the responsibility to mobilize poets to play a role in the public life of the country, both to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to address the many social ills that plague our nation.

And so we dreamed into being Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness and presented it in March 2008, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and in the midst of an historic election year. The event was a roaring success, bringing together hundreds of poets, activists, and dreamers from DC and around the nation for the first time. Its success and the very obvious need it addressed inspired us to create a permanent organization as a home for progressive poets.

I’ve worked as Co-Director and now Executive Director since, building with an incredible team of colleagues, board members, interns, activists, and volunteers a powerhouse national organization that mobilizes poets for social change, encourages the literary world to truly reflect the amazing, rich diversity of the nation, and bringing poetry to the lives of hundreds of DC-area teens through our internationally award-winning youth programs.

That was a very long answer to only the first question, I realize, but when you’re a co-founder and the Executive Director, an organization is your baby, your passion. It was a long journey that brought me here.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

Split This Rock has two big new projects on the horizon, in addition to the fifth Split This Rock Poetry Festival, coming up April 14-17, 2016. The first is a permanent online database we are building of all the poems we’ve published in our Poem of the Week series over the past five years, as well as contest winners and others. The database will be searchable by social issue, making it a valuable resource for anyone looking to enhance their rally, meeting, newsletter, worship service, potluck dinner, or indeed their soul with the invigorating and restorative language of poetry.

The other is Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016, a two-month festival to be held in our area January through March 2016, standing in solidarity with the people of Iraq and everywhere that freedom of expression is threatened. The festival is part of an international project of art and poetry, organized in response to a car bombing of Al Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s historic bookselling street. Split This Rock will bring Arab and Arab American poets to DC, celebrating the poetry being written today by these peoples too often demonized by our elected officials, popular culture, and news media.

We will also present those doing the necessary and too-often unrecognized work of translating contemporary poetry from Arabic to English, making this poetry accessible to American and other English-speaking readers and audiences. And we’ll encourage American poets to dip their toes into translation, with a series of fun, interactive workshops.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I am lucky to be inspired by some extraordinary poet-activists of the 20th century, many of whom were women: June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich. Rukeyser wrote: I will protest all my life. I am willing to. But I have decided that wherever I protest from now on, and a number of people are doing this too now, I will make something I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

In January, we collected poems that spoke against police brutality and for racial justice from all who wished to send them to us, then published them on our blog in a Virtual Open Mic, finally totaling over 150 poems in all. We received poems from all over the country and even the world, from poets of all ages and races/ethnicities, from published poets, performing poets, new poets, those who don’t consider themselves poets at all. It’s a stunning array of words of grief, rage, protest, love, hopefulness, imagination.

In collaboration with other organizations such as the Institute for Policy Studies, DC Ferguson, SolidariTrees, Code Pink, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and the DC Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency, we staged an event outside the US Department of Justice, reading poems from the collection and calling on the DOJ to enact the reforms outlined by the Ferguson Action activists. We had printed out all the poems and after a cold couple of hours, presented them a representative from the DOJ. It was a moving afternoon of bringing poetry straight to the halls of power.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Split This Rock is unique in our city and in the nation. We get requests every day for new collaborations and projects. It’s incredibly exciting and affirming to know that our work resonates with so many, but we’re having to learn how to say no. Our staff, though dedicated and dare I say brilliant, is still very small.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Being a founding executive director of a dynamic, successful organization that feeds people’s souls and inspires them to action is tremendously gratifying. I feel privileged every day. But it can also be exhausting. I haven’t been very good at it, myself, but I would urge any executive director (and especially women!) to take care of herself and set her own limits. No one does it for us. We need to build in time for our own creative work whether it’s poetry, gardening, plumbing, or whatever feels like a real break and a respite from the constant demands placed on us. I also recommend taking your vacation time!

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

The manuscript of my second collection of poems, currently titled Drinking as a Political Act, is circulating to presses and I’m hopeful that it will be published sometime soon. I’m now at work on new poems that are taking me deeper into myself though the world always is present. I’m wrestling with shame, its crippling power in the psyche, its use to control and demean women. My work often resides at this intersection of the personal and political, so, in this case, it’s pretty scary. But that’s the poet’s job, to lay bare what thrives on silence, to excavate and expose. Onward!

7 Questions: Tara Libert, Executive Director of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

“Poetry has this awesome way of breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions and getting to the raw humanity that connects all of us.”

“We had no idea how it would go over and here we are 13 years later not only going to the DC jail twice a week but working with over 350 young men in federal prisons all around the country and offering an intensive Reentry Support program when they come home.”


Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken DC youth incarcerated as adults to their own potential. Through creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach, these young poets achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community. Before co-founding Free Minds in 2002, Tara worked as a radio and television news and documentary producer for twelve years. After producing many features on the US criminal justice system, showcasing such topics such as the death penalty, prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform she was drawn to direct service.

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7 Questions with 826DC Executive Director Joe Callahan

Joe Callahan

What brought me to 826DC was the opportunity to help thousands of students in the District find their voices, to tell their stories, and to develop of love for writing and words”

In honor of National Poetry Month we welcome Joe Callahan, Executive Director of 826DC. 826DC is dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. They provide drop-in tutoring, field trips, after-school workshops, in-schools tutoring, help for English language learners, and assistance with student publications. Joe Callahanjoined 826DC in June of 2010. Prior to this, he worked as a writing professor at both American University and the George Washington University. In addition to teaching, he has worked and consulted for a wide range of non-profit organizations, including public policy institutions, museums, and a renowned literary magazine.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

Before joining 826DC, I was an adjunct professor teaching writing at two local universities. I loved being in front of a classroom, but I witnessed students at the college level struggle significantly with writing, organizing their thoughts, and crafting arguments. I thought about my experience learning to write having a couple great teachers who took the extra time to encourage me to explore, discover, and create arguments. I thought about my experience as a young student having teachers who encouraged me to dream up imaginative stories, and reinforced a love and power of words. Finally, I thought about those who might not have those opportunities or those teachers. It drew me to 826DC, then in its infancy. I started as a volunteer and eventually joined the staff, and soon thereafter became the Executive Director. What brought me to 826DC was the opportunity to help thousands of students in the District find their voices, to tell their stories, and to develop of love for writing and words.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

At 826DC we have a small staff and we can only do what we do because of an amazing army of supremely dedicated volunteers. Locally, we have about 1,200 volunteers in our database, and each of them bring a unique blend of skills (and availability) to our work. I am excited about finding creative ways for engaging, recruiting, managing, and appreciating our volunteers one that leverages technology but doesn’t eliminate the important personal side of community building. Nonprofits need to re-think how they engage volunteers and how they provide opportunities for volunteers to contribute whether it be micro volunteering, skills-based, or direct service. By creating an environment that supports and encourages volunteering, we can better deliver our services to our students.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

This is a tough one. There are so many people out there that I respect who are doing such great work. I really look up to the disrupters that are trying to change philanthropy for the better – I am thinking about people like Clarence Wardell III and Karan Jain of tinyGive, who are using technology to create systems to make donating easy and seamless. By eliminating barriers to philanthropy and making it accessible, we can motivate more and more people to participate in philanthropy. As for my hero, I’d say Kurt Vonnegut. Not only my favorite author, he was a fearless storyteller. He ignored genres and conventions and wrote as only he knew how, telling his stories the way he wanted to tell them.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

This spring, 826 National released a STEM and creative writing book called STEM to Story. It is a series of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) experiments that connect with creative writing, like writing the zombie apocalypse, that are structured to help enliven STEM programming while also inspiring students to take on scientific exploration. Locally, we are working with the Points of Light Foundation to recruit a VISTA to help us launch the curriculum. I’m looking forward to working with writing teachers to bring science to their classrooms, and reaching science teachers who may not be familiar with our work.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Strategic Capacity Building. The need for our services is clear. Over the last five years, we have grown from serving a few hundred students to now more than 4,000. In the upcoming school year we hope to serve 5,000 DC public and public charter school students. This growth needs to be thoughtful. It needs to make sense for us as an organization. This growth requires more staff, more volunteers, a larger and more comprehensive infrastructure, and yes, of course, more money. By having a strong strategic plan, and a commitment to our vision, we are able to find the right partners to help us grow steadily but strategically. Our board and staff are passionate about this plan and this growth, and their involvement and investment is imperative. But, this growth takes constant vigilance in order to be successful.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

I have two major pieces of advice first, being an executive director can be lonely. Build a network of people who understand what you are going through, and what you have to do. They will be huge resources, and don’t undervalue that type of contribution. Second, find something you love that has absolutely nothing to do with work and do it. You need to make time for it. It’s unsustainable if you don’t. For me, my creative passion is writing. I need to do it. I need to create worlds and characters and stories that have nothing to do with my job. I love to play golf and go to baseball games. When I do these things, I can forget about work for a little while and I get to create some distance. And when I get back to the office I am refreshed.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

April, National Poetry Month, is a really exciting month. We are partnering with the Academy of American Poets on a project, Read This Poem, which features local poets and their work. It is a great way for us to connect professional poets to our students and to shine a light on the creative community here in D.C.

To read more about Catalogue nonprofits that help grow the writing and poetry community in our DC-Metro Region, click here!