Little Lights

"They look at us like we kings. It's like, hope."

Little Lights | May 2021


Rampant violence and addiction throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s placed DC at the top of all the worst lists. At the center of the then “Drug and Murder Capital of the World”1 were Potomac Gardens and the Hopkins Apartments, sitting on the hip of 695 inside the triangular shard of 11th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Southeast Boulevard. This place Jesse Jackson referred to as “the urban crisis personified, the epitome of national neglect” in 19922 and where Steve Park decided to plant himself in service in 1995.

Steve and his then-soon-to-be wife, Mary, weren’t the first or only ones to show up, but they are some of the very few who have never stopped. Faithfulness is their signature and that’s what we’re studying.

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David Schmidgall

Looking through old photos, Cierra Peterson notices that Steve is in nearly all of them. As she was six and learning to read, then at her high-school graduation, college graduation, and her mother’s wedding. All the major moments, “he’s been there. It wasn't just work for him.”

Cierra grew up in The Gardens and describes it as a close-knit community. There were troubles and trouble-makers sure, but also hardworking, caring people who looked out and lifted up. She started with Little Lights as a four-year-old in 1998. When she turned 13, Mary invited her to help tutor the younger kids after school. For nearly every one of the fifteen summers thereafter, Cierra worked as a Little Lights camp counselor. After graduating college in 2015 she joined the staff full-time, overseeing the academic program at all three Little Lights locations, The Gardens, Hopkins, and Benning Terrace (also known as Hilltop).

“That's what they want for all of the kids, everyone who comes through the communities, is to be more and aspire to be more than what media or people outside of the community may see,” says Cierra.

Antonio Smith moved to Potomac Gardens as a young man, right around his 18th birthday. He lived there for eight years before he met Steve, and he was skeptical. “Throughout the past you have organizations that got funded and they just needed a place to build off of, like low-income housing. They come in with they organizations and they get up and running and sooner or later they gone. Like POOF — they disappear.”

You see organizations come and they go. I looked at Steve, I was like, "I just hope that they wasn't another one that's coming in to try build a brand off the poor."

Antonio Smith, Manager, Clean Green Team

But “the proof is in the pudding,” he says, and Little Lights came through for him, bringing the break he needed. “I was at my lowest point in my life and didn't know what direction to go. I was on the verge of being homeless. I was on the streets. Didn't have nobody to support, didn't have the help, didn't have the resource. I was just ‘coming a young man…I just wanted somebody to give me a opportunity to showcase what I can offer. Didn't know where it was going to come from. Didn't expect that it'd be Little Lights.”

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David Schmidgall

But for Antonio and hundreds after him, Little Lights did what love does: created an opportunity, created a way. Antonio was first hired as a tutor and then in 2011 he transitioned to help launch Little Lights’ first social enterprise, a landscaping company.

Antonio was learning hard and fast in the early years: pricing jobs, doing the work, supervising the crew, managing and measuring customer satisfaction. “It's a lot of stuff that I had to learn throughout the years, and it was tough. It didn't come easy until I would say my fifth or sixth year, when I feel as though I had everything down pat and I knew what it took to get jobs done in a good manner and we can be happy about doing the job that we did. It was just basically learning how to be a leader.” The enterprise was named ‘The Clean Green Team’, and over the past ten years has employed many others coming from relatable circumstances. Like Sheldon Clark.

Clean Green

Sheldon moved to Potomac Gardens around the time he became a young father twelve years ago. A single dad, he was struggling when he met Steve and Mary. “I needed food, I needed diapers, I needed wipes. They gave it to me and didn't want nothing for it. I'm used to people always have a hidden agenda. ‘What's this going to cost me?’ You know what I'm saying? ‘What I got to do for this?’”

Little Lights was the first time the answer to that question was ‘nothing’. At that point Sheldon had done nearly all the jobs at Nats Stadium — usher, ticket taker, fan ambassador —babysitting and walking dogs on the side. But after years of piecing together a hardly livable income, he desired something longer term that would allow him to develop hard skills, progress in a craft, and be present with his kids.

“From this job, this job, that job, I wasn't happy. It was like, what do I want to be in life? What do I want to do? I was confused — I didn’t know.” In sharing all this with Mary, she did some research and came back to him with ten different job options. He laughs remembering, “I was like, ‘I got all these options!’ I felt like a millionaire.” Sheldon chose to learn landscaping through the Clean Green Team and began training under Antonio.

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Antonio Smith leads the Clean Green Team

David Schmidgall

“Mr. Antonio, we look at him as like a big brother,” says Sheldon. “He's like the drill sergeant. He's not going to play with you, and he's very respectful. Straightforward. ‘You an adult, you not a child. You know what's expected and what's not expected. Only you can fire yourself.’ They tell you that. ‘Only you can fire yourself.’ He works with you, right beside you. He works harder than everybody.”

The Clean Green Team now completes more than 900 jobs in the neighborhoods surrounding the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins residences every year. And they’ve continued to win renewed contracts with DC government to manage the landscaping needs of its public housing centers—the first contract they ever received.

We just growing each year, we get more and more customers. It'd be some times that we can't take on more jobs. So that's amazing to me. We very small, but our work showing that we big.

Antonio Smith, Manager, Clean Green Team

Deniesha’s father is also a member of the Clean Green Team. As they go walking together around the neighborhood, he’s constantly pointing out the work he did: the trim lawns and freshly mulched flower beds. And she’s as proud as he is. “I feel as though it helps men get jobs who couldn't get jobs at first, and provides a safe space for them to do jobs around Southeast DC and make sure that it looks beautiful.”

Members of the Clean Green Team

David Schmidgall

Deniesha was nine when she joined Little Lights in 2014. Now a junior in high school looking back on her experience, she says, “I've seen it create a safe place where kids can come in and feel safe and they don't have to worry about being around crime all the time. They can just come down here and escape from reality.”

Like many of her peers Deniesha has worked extra hard this past year to overcome the frustrations and disappointment of virtual school. She is a diligent student who takes education seriously. She plans to go to college and become an artist. And she is of the second generation of Little Lights impact, flourishing with imagination and the support to achieve.

To be honest, the rewarding challenge is the impact that we have on the community. That's beautiful. They look at us like we kings. It’s like, hope.

Antonio Smith, Manager, Clean Green Team

“To see the kids in the community couldn't wait to see us come out to mow their lawn, just small things like that kept us motivated that we was doing the right thing within the community,” says Antonio. “Also give opportunity to help others that's trying to look for work like we were, to speed it up a little more.”

“I never smiled before — I smile a lot now,” says Sheldon on how he’s changed. “This job, this organization, it brightened me up. I was darker at one point in my life, with losing a lot of family members and friends through diseases, through gun violence. This job, it was my escape route. I call it heaven.”

While the diapers, wipes, and occasional help with groceries were essential, access to opportunity was the real gift. And that’s as true for the children as for the working adults.

“Mary raised half of the people that's on this team and knew a lot of these people from longer than I knew them,” says Sheldon. “They taught me a lot and it's about peace and love. It takes a village to raise a family. None of us are related by blood. We just related by loving God.”

When you help change the lives of adults, it impacts the kids in a very direct way. That's part of the reason we took on the Clean Green Team. When children see their neighbors working hard and beautifying the community, it changes their outlook on the community. All these things are interconnected.

Steve Park, Co-Founder & Director, Little Lights

Close-knit through Covid

“We're always trying to figure out, ‘how can we improve the lives of these students and these families?’” says Steve. It’s the proverbial village. And this was a year that tested even that. No one tells it better than Kourtney Mills, single parent of four single-digit-age kids.

Kourtney moved to Potomac Gardens in 2011 and had been working as a tutor with Little Lights since 2014. But when Covid hit, like many others, she had to become at-home mom-teacher to a 3, 5, 7, and 8-year-old. “At first it was fun, maybe about the first week or two, but then it got to be like, ‘Oh man, you guys are hungry again? No, you can’t eat anymore.’ I'm running out of food. I'm losing my mind. Being in the house with kids ‘round the clock.”

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David Schmidgall

And challenges kept coming. “It was just one thing after another. It was the schools, it was the community, it was the news. It was the food, it was the money. It was the loss of a job.” Working outside the home for any amount of time was no longer an option and that loss of income was an extra strain. “When I wasn't able to work, it's embarrassing to say, but it did impact me because that money was for gas. And when you are living below the poverty line, anything helps.”

The kids love to read, but the books grew tired and the toys themselves seemed bored. The walls were closing in fast, so Kourtney did what many parents did: went into overdrive. She set up three tables in her living room. She hung alphabet letters and math charts on the walls, and borrowed resource books as a little library. She was excited! That worked for about a week, she says, “and then it was hell.”

“My kids were losing the love of learning. The classroom being a loss was terrible. For children, I think that they need that physical interaction. They need to see their names on boards.” Pushed to the brink, the village pulled and pooled together. Little Lights started providing lunches and homework packs for the kids and boxes of fresh produce for the adults.

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David Schmidgall

“Because of Little Lights we continuously had food, Pampers, resources, even gift cards. And then to have people help my kids with their homework, Monday through Friday, not everybody has that. And so throughout my life, I'm like, God, I'm so blessed to be able to be where I'm at. I just felt like even through all that we've been through, I just had so much support.”

“Even people were helping us out with sanitizer, household supplies, which the stores were running low on. I really thought about people that were in rural areas, places that don't have a Little Lights,” says Kourtney.

Kourtney Mills, Resident of Potomac Gardens

Dominique Scruggs was the age of Kourtney’s second youngest when he first went to summer camp with Little Lights in 2001. He lived in the big building, 700, with his mother and slightly older brother. “It was hard to grow up in that neighborhood in a way, but I miss it to this day,” he says. “One thing I'll always love about Potomac Gardens was that we was all a family. And people outside of Potomac Gardens wouldn't think that. That's what's so special about public housing.”

Everything you hear from Dominique is gratitude for how that time helped his mom and how it shaped him, made him who he is today. “And we're all coming back to work with our communities, because we know the struggle that most of our students can go through. And we know that we're able to go back and teach them some things and even still learn from them because they may be going through something way harder than we went through.”

Race Literacy 101

Steve and Mary’s core focus has always been caring for families and children in the most practical ways imaginable. From daily homework club to one-on-one math tutoring, from summer camp hope to the esteemed girls/boys nights during middle school, the Parks raised their own two kids along with an ever expanding village family.

In 2013, Little Lights expanded the kids’ program to the Hopkins Apartments, a stone’s throw from Potomac Gardens. That’s when Karmen Taylor joined the team as the first site manager. “When I was at Hopkins, it was new. And so people would come and check us out, just observe us. Parents would bring their students. They would just kind of sit up front and observe, and then one day they would drop their student off and leave. They finally came to trust us.”

In Spring of 2016, Little Lights expanded again, this time across the Anacostia River to Benning Terrace and the Heights communities. Partnering with Pastor Anthony Minter of First Rock Baptist Church, the team began a homework club followed by summer camp. After graduating university with a degree in communications, Dominique was hired as Program Coordinator at Hilltop, working with Ms. Karmen to provide homework club to the kids and support to their parents.

“Being able to connect with so many kids and so many parents in the community, I was able to become their family. It's been special for me. Every student that walks onto that site, I love them with all my heart. They keep a smile on my face,” says Dominique. That is a love you cannot fake or teach. And it’s important because the odds are stacked, the barriers high, and Covid dropped the floor out from under many folks. “It was hard. Over at Hilltop, we saw a decline of our students participating in online activities because they didn't have the devices to use, or internet. So it was hard in the beginning, but Little Lights did a great thing in giving out tablets, computers, WiFi…” A theology of presence and practicality, as Karmen would say.

“Especially during the pandemic, the inequities are just so huge and the disadvantages that the residents of places like Potomac Gardens and Hopkins have are just so enormous that it can feel like we’re always climbing uphill, that we’ll never be going downhill,” says Steve.

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Steve Park, Co-Founder and Director of Little Lights

David Schmidgall

Because this has a lot to do with systems, Steve began teaching an anti-racism class several years ago called Race Literacy 101. Over eleven weeks the course explores the ‘why are things still this way’ and ‘how did we get here’ questions. Adrienne Jordan, a 6th generation Washingtonian, was a part of the beta group in 2015. Having served as All School Diversity Chair at Sidwell Friends, liaison to the Black Parent Association, and co-chair of the diversity committee at Georgetown Visitation, Adrienne was not new to conversations about race equity when she joined Little Lights half a decade ago.

“We were what's called ‘race people,’ just always making sure that people of color had the right representation, always involved in something,” she laughs.

Adrienne was two years old when she attended the National March on Washington with her mother. “I'll never ever forget this image: It was a beautiful sunny day in August. There was a young white guy standing next to me and my mom, and this crowd of people listening to John Lewis, Tom, Whitney, Randolph, waiting for Martin Luther King. And my mom gave him permission to put me up on his shoulders so I could see better. It was a metaphor for me of seeing white allies in this fight.”

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David Schmidgall

And that’s the kind of solidarity and shared humanity the Race Literacy 101 course is meant to study and teach. Since Spring 2016 the class met in person, 20-30 people in folding chairs at the Little Lights offices, but like most everything the pandemic pushed the class online. With the swell of outrage following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, interest in Race Literacy 101 grew exponentially, sometimes with more than 200 people per cohort. Even in January 2021, months after the protests quieted, the class sold out with 140 people registered.

“For me, doing the race literacy class and try to develop this anti-racism work is recognizing the importance of focusing on the systems and trying to make the systems better where the kids are having to deal with the consequences of those systems,” says Steve.

“Definitely the majority of the people taking the class are white evangelicals,” he continues. “So that gives me hope. In some ways that may go against a lot of people's stereotypes, that no white evangelicals care about this issue. Right? But there are a lot of white evangelicals that do care and are sincerely wanting to learn. And so it's been great to provide an avenue for that, an avenue for discussion in a diverse setting.”

The anti-racism class has been encouraging for me because I do see people changing. I do see people being awakened and wanting to grow. I mean, you're never going to arrive, but you want to see progress.

Steve Park, Co-Founder & Director, Little Lights

Following the course, participants can join Affinity Groups to continue their learning journey and deepen their engagement on issues of justice and equity. Karmen leads the Theology of Race and Justice group: “There's just four sessions, but it does give people a next step. People were saying, ‘you go through race literacy and then it's like, now what?’ And so this is a place where you can go deeper.”

“I am hopeful because I see God is shaking his church. He is shaking society and we are seeing stuff come to the surface, fall out the sides. If it were a sieve, we'd see stuff dropping out the bottom. This is God. He is doing this. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but so is working out. Something is going to be called resilience if we stay in this,” says Adrienne.

Presence and Practicality

Little Lights has always been an organization driven by the practical, the concrete, the specific. It is about serving the person right in front of you, the neighborhood right next to you, the needs right where you are.

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"We're very place-based." Steve Park

David Schmidgall

“We're very place-based. We're not citywide. So we always try to find partners and partnerships that could have leveraged resources for the community,” says Steve. Little Lights is partnered with Washington Interfaith Network, for example, to ensure residents are protected from mass displacement as has been seen in multiple other public housing communities around the city in recent decades, like Barry Farm and Sursum Corda.

“One thing I'll always love about Potomac Gardens was that we was all a family. We're all one big family. And people outside of Potomac Gardens wouldn't think that,” says Dominique.

About Steve and Mary and their family-ness, Antonio says, “25 years, that's a long time. People know that they care. There's nothing fake about it. That's tough in a world like this. They a different race, they don't look like us. They had different backgrounds. It didn't come easy for them. I know they went through a lot.” Shantelle Powell moved to The Gardens in 2012 and now works as a tutor to young girls at the Hopkins location. “For them to be not of African-American race, for them to come in, they were accepted. You know why? Because they made opportunities. They gave people opportunities. When nobody else would give them an opportunity, they did.”

We live in an urban, a low-income community and it's hard to find jobs. That's why I think they were accepted, because they were willing to help without nothing in return.

Shantelle Powell, Program Assistant + Potomac Gardens Resident, Little Lights

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“You have to learn from the people you're serving. Listen to their stories, learn about community, about struggle, and be humbled. You also begin to understand the privileges that you had, that maybe you didn't even realize you had, the things that you've taken for granted,” Steve says.

And Antonio: “My main thing that I learned from Little Lights, is giving back, giving back. That's the main thing that been on my heart and my mind. Giving back to community that's struggling, that need people like me, that's willing to help them and is willing to see them succeed to they dreams, like I once was.”

Little Lights isn’t going anywhere. Not even the pandemic has been able to dislodge them. Returning to this organization has been a reminder of where so much of their staying-power comes: their continued ability to see the family, to meet the needs, and to hear these voices.

(1) Washington Post article, 1991. “In 1989, the three-story buildings were bases for one of the city's worst open-air cocaine and heroin markets.”

(2) New York Times Magazine article, DC’s War On Drugs, 1990. “Crammed into the District of Columbia's 63 square miles are dozens of open-air drug markets. Of the city's 575,000 residents, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 - 1 in every 10 - are drug abusers.”

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Editor's Note

This is a story about staying. For over 20 years, Little Lights has built multi-generational relationships of trust. They have seen the impact of parents' opportunities on children. They have watched business grow, families expand, and communities come together. This story gives us another look into the life of an organization that, you can be sure, isn't going anywhere.

A lot of work went into this story and several people deserve genuine thanks for their continued effort. Thank you, Kate Schmidgall who wrote this piece with remarkable conviction and drive. Thank you, David Schmidgall, for being present with Little Lights despite the challenges of photography in the pandemic. Thank you members of the Clean Green Team for letting us tag along. Thank you Amy Leonard for all your help in coordinating. Thank, finally, to Steve and Mary, for letting us lift up your community one more time.

Peter Hartwig SQ
PH Signature

Peter Hartwig

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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