We Are Family is a service and advocacy organization that offers support to needy senior citizens in the Columbia Heights, Petworth, Adams Morgan, Shaw, and North Capitol St. neighborhoods. We are proud to support them in the run-up to their annual fundraiser, which will be on Saturday, May 21st at St. Stephen’s church in Columbia Heights.

If you can’t attend but wish to donate anyway, you may do so here.

WAF relies almost exclusively on volunteers to connect seniors with the government and private services they need, while also providing direct assistance in the form of transportation, free monthly grocery deliveries (4500 bags in 2010), home visits, and friendly phone calls. Beyond the raw numbers of rides provided or grocery bags delivered, WAF is committed to advocating politically for the resources required for seniors to live lives of peace and dignity. In the process of building community through volunteer interaction, and bridging the sometimes challenging gaps of demographic difference, WAF highlights the fact that the fundamental needs of the elderly–access to health care; comfortable, affordable housing; stimulation of mind and body; companionship–aren’t so different from the needs of the rest of us.

Mark Andersen is WAF’s director and was an active participant in its founding in 2004. We asked him to talk about his work and how newcomers can get involved. (Interview by John.)

JS: The city has undergone a massive demographic shift in the last 10 years. Having worked with seniors and low-income residents in Northwest DC for more than two decades, how have you seen that change affect the population you serve? I’m particularly curious about the neighborhood where we both reside, Columbia Heights.

MA: The change has been profound, with both positive and negative consequences. It certainly is good news that areas where illegal drugs were the main economy and where gangs essentially ran not only buildings but entire blocks have had that death grip shaken, if not always broken. The reclamation of abandoned buildings, and the improvements in streets, stores, security, and other aspects of community life are also welcome. In addition, there is a much greater mixing of populations across lines of race, class, sexual orientation, and beyond than when I first came to work in those inner-city areas, including Columbia Heights.

However, the big negative is that as property values have risen with the coming of Metro and more affluent folks, rents and property taxes have also risen, threatening to displace long-term, low-income residents. This is heartbreaking, since we feel that if anyone should benefit from the changes, it is the folks who were here during the hard times: segregation, poverty, riots, the violence — in some cases, even outright terror — of the drug wars.

Also, the simple presence of diverse populations next to one another is hardly the same as the “beloved community” for which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life.  Rubbing elbows in check-out lines at Giant, Target, or Best Buy is not the same as getting to know one another, entering into each others’ lives, coming to care about one another.

While providing day-to-day services to those in need as well as organizing and advocacy help is important to We Are Family, our deeper — and I would say, more radical — mission is to foster the building of relationships across the boundaries that so often divide us.  In the end, we are aiming not to create some class of professional do-gooders, paid to care about others, but genuine community, where we know each other, where no one is forgotten or thrown away, and where neighbors look out for one another as a matter of course, past our differences.

JS: If you had to narrow it down, what is the single biggest challenge facing aging DC residents?

MA: If we are talking about the low-income seniors in our neighborhoods, I would say that poverty, isolation, and gentrification are the three most significant interrelated threats to them. Taken as single issues, any of these can be dealt with to some significant degree; together, they are almost intractable, without a mobilized, caring community with allies in government, business, and religious congregations, and deep roots in the neighborhood.

JS: Tell me about WAF’s senior leaders.

MA: Our senior leaders are the foundation upon which the entire organization rests. As a matter of history, We Are Family was founded by neighborhood senior leaders and their friends, and they still are the heart of the organization. Our senior leaders are our front line ambassadors, the folks with the deepest of roots in the neighborhood. If they believe in We Are Family and make it their own, our whole experiment in building caring, just and inclusive community lives and breathes. If they don’t, our group is just another outside force, seeking to impose its vision on the neighborhood, perhaps creating more division and dependency than healing or empowerment.

JS: Volunteer-driven organizations like WAF fill the gap left when federal and state (or, in DC’s case, city) resources are insufficient to meet the needs of citizens with significant financial burdens, poor health, and other troubles. But the existence of those organizations can then be used by unscrupulous politicians to argue that communities are taking care of themselves and don’t need a government safety net. Is this something you think about? How do you respond?

MA: We Are Family is very clear in pursuing its rightful and reasonable mission, which grows out of the personal responsibility we each have to look out for one another, to be our sister’s or brother’s keeper.  After all, in the end, we are one family that transcends race, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, nationality, or age. However, we also are very clear in our right and responsibility to push government, business, religious congregations, and the like to pursue their rightful and necessary mission to serve the common good, starting with the most vulnerable. By the virtue of the great power and resources invested in them by the broader community, such entities have great responsibility to help provide a comprehensive social safety net. If governments, in particular, forget that this must be one of their central missions, we are glad to join forces with our allies — through the Fair Budget Coalition, Save Our Safety Net, the Affordable Housing Alliance, The Senior Advisory Coalition, Good Faith, et. al. — to regularly, creatively, and forcefully remind them.

JS: How can people interested in volunteering get involved?

MA: It’s very simple to get involved!  Just write an e-mail to me at marka@wearefamilydc.org or give a call at 202-487-8698. While we do regular volunteer events on Saturdays, visiting seniors, delivering groceries and more, we can get you connected to one of our seniors in whatever time you might have. Trust me: there is a role for whatever gift you might have to share… and in the process, you will not only help someone in need, but also find your own life enriched beyond measure. That is my experience, as a transplant from rural Montana, and that is why I still do this work more than two decades later. The seniors are family for us, and Columbia Heights is our home. While we start with the grassroots foundation of our senior leaders, in the end, We Are Family is new arrivals and long-time residents together, black, white, and brown sharing one common destiny, reaching toward a new, and better world we can build with the choices we make, day by day. Please join us to help realize our dream of truly caring, just, and inclusive community!