Anacostia Voices by Paul Penniman

Hi everyone. I’m the fellow whose car was shot up and received some sympathy, shoutouts and also a little derision (“Mr Wonderbead” is my new nickname here) two weekends ago.

In 2003, I founded Resources for Inner city CHildren, RICH, which provides tutoring and mentoring services to Anacostia High School and the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School-Capitol Hill. I had been a private school teacher for nine years and then a private, for profit tutor for thirteen years when I was inspired by a speech by Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools. Our mission is to provide high-quality tutoring and mentoring services for inner city schools.

I moved to Anacostia two winters ago to be closer to my work–to be able to help our students more but also to have a (much) shorter commute. I used to live in Ward 3 to facilitate my for profit tutoring business.

The Prince has invited me to share what’s going on in Anacostia, neighborhood-wise and from our students’ perspectives. I will try to do this as well as I can, knowing full well I can not truly identify with my students and neighbors to any large degree; I am white and much wealthier than most of my neighbors. (I’m the wealthiest person most of my students have ever met, but I have to tell them when I go out to lunch, my friends pay for me.) At least I and they can describe to you how they feel about their immediate community, the community at large, and the world.

I have written on my own blog,, partly about educational challenges our students face and also the uneven playing field they have to play on.

For an introduction to our summer students–a combination of math enrichment kids and kids who have reading challenges–above is a video to the first sitdown they had with a rather charismatic partner of ours, Dr. Bruce Purnell, director of Higher Hopes.  Actually we found him through Pinpoints Theater, Pinpoints and Higher Hopes have a program called Pen or Pencil ( that’s teaching youth to commit to not giving up their seat in the classroom for a seat on a bus to the PENitentiary.

22 Comment

  • Thank you for HUMANIZING our children. Oftentimes, the media paints a picture more animalistic picture. Humans deserve education, todays city paper shows you that DC youth are not getting theirs.

  • ” I am white and much wealthier than most of my neighbors. (I’m the wealthiest person most of my students have ever met, but I have to tell them when I go out to lunch, my friends pay for me.) ”

    I am confused…

  • “Thank you for HUMANIZING our children. Oftentimes, the media paints a picture more animalistic picture.”

    I second this.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Paul!

  • He’s wealthier than most of his students but not wealthy enough to pay for his own lunch in Ward 3.

  • Ha! People made fun of “whitey” being out of place in his last post but it turns out that he’s doing more for the kids in Anacostia than anyone else around here.

  • Penniman has made some assumptions about Anacostia. Wonder where he got his supporting data.

  • Yes, thank you, and please don’t let cynical and negative comments get you down (haven’t seen any yet on this thread, but you never know). It is so refreshing to hear perspectives from parts of DC other than Northwest and H Street NE, or whatever (nothing wrong with those areas, as I live in NW, but people forget that there are many other neighborhoods in the District, and worthwhile things to share about them). It’s also very inspiring to see someone putting their money where their mouth is, in terms of making our city a better place.

  • I found this to be one of the most enlightening sentences in his entire piece here. Just think about it for a few minutes, and you will gain some understanding of the perspective of the children.

  • To be clear, because I don’t want my above comment misconstrued and I know there are many sensitive racial and class dynamics at play–I do not mean to suggest that no one else in Ward 8 is trying to make the city a better place, or that Mr. Penniman is a (literal) white-knight hero who has the ability to completely “save” the neighborhood. I know there are many residents in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods, some new, some longtime, who are working in a number of ways–whether that’s in the schools, in block clubs and civic associations, or whatever–to improve their community. There are people who do this for a living, and others who are barely ekeing out a living or who have other personal and family struggles but nonetheless devote their time as volunteer leaders. It is inspiring to see someone who doesn’t “have” to do that work (because they make enough money and could afford to live elsewhere and just put Ward 8’s problems out of their mind) recognize the value of giving up a higher salary and a fancier living situation (and probably a lower-stress job) to really commit to working with kids in need. And the contributions of existing/longtime residents are equally valuable.

  • Specifically, can you list your accomplishments in Anacostia? NO one is deterring those trying to help. What isn’t helpful is a division of the races. Constantly referring to the “black kids” do this & “whitey” didn’t do this sets the stage to ignore progress and restore hate. Don’t be that baiter today. Please, we need unity not finger pointing or community distractors whom are bored/cynical and mistreat opportunities for progress with asanine statements….

  • Thank you for posting this! I appreciate the perspective and also agree that you should not let negative comments get to you. It is important work that you are doing!

  • That was for Anonymous, July 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm

  • Since there seems to be a reply-formatting issue going on, this is in response to MPhilly–what assumptions do you think Penniman is making? Not trying to sound hostile or snarky, I’m sincerely asking. Penniman seems to be a decent person who is sincerely trying to do some good community work, but there are certainly a whole wealth of perspective out there besides his (and I’m guessing he’d agree with that). What’s yours?

  • The groups of children that keep beating and robbing people also play a part in this. just saying.

  • It means he makes way more than the families of his students, but he’s still paid sh#t compared to his white friends in DC because he’s a public school teacher. While he may seem “rich” to his students, he can’t afford to go out to restaurants with his friends.

  • “much wealthier than most of my neighbors. (I’m the wealthiest person most of my students have ever met” Where does he get his information on the wealth or lack of and life experience of his neighbors? I do good community work everyday in Anacostia. I don’t point out how my status is better or worse than the families that I assist because it doesn’t matter. Yes, you do have an attitude.

  • I think that the author is saying that while he is “rich” by the students standards – among the authors friends/peers the author isn’t rich.

  • Thanks for sharing, MPhilly, and while I would like to give Mr. Penniman the benefit of the doubt, I do see how a statement like that could rub people the wrong way. I am certainly not opposed to challenging people’s assumptions–having our assumptions challenged and hearing other perspectives is one of the ways that we can learn, grow, and become more understanding and effective in our work. Honestly, DC feels so fraught with race and class issues sometimes, and it’s frustrating that the response is so often to either: a) sweep those under the rug and pretend we’re “post-racial”; or b) devolve into the kind of reductionist “whitey” vs. “black kids” snark and stereotyping that another commenter mentioned. In fact, I think (as a society, or whatever) that we need to have a much more open and honest dialogue about race and class, and there’s got to be a respectful, constructive way to do this. (I don’t know what that is, exactly, but for the sake hope and sanity, I have to believe it exists.)

  • I applaud the effort and dedication of Mr. Penniman. The things that I see the children going through and dealing with at such a young age. These kids don’t stand a chance if we all don’t help out and stop labeling and pointing the finger. I interact with the little girls on my block daily. They ring my door bell everyday. I try to share with them my experiences as well as some basic home training (honesty, put paper in the trash, etc.). If we want DC to be a better place for all of us to live, work and play, we all must contribute. In retrospect, maybe I’m a bit sensitive today.

  • “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena

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