Getting the two sides of the street to engage with each other, especially on initiatives concerning children, led to her deeper involvement as a volunteer in numerous areas such a public housing and urban development. When newly elected DC Council member Tommy Wells created an office of Community Liaison in 2006, he asked Mitchell to take that role and “keep doing what you’re doing” for the residents of Ward 6. She has continued to play that role in the office of Wells’ successor Charles Allen. Known as a connector and honored as a Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award honoree in 2016, Mitchell says she is “privileged to have the support and the space and the opportunity to do what I do… in the most interesting place in this entire city.” “Is this work,” she asks, “or is this life?”
Interview with Naomi Mitchell
Interview Date: February 24, 2016
Interviewer: Stephanie Deutsch
Transcriber: Betsy Barnett
Editor: Elizabeth Lewis
photo by Elizabeth Dranitzke
START OF INTERVIEW
TAPE 1/SIDE 1
DEUTSCH: This is Stephanie Deutsch. Naomi, could you say a few words?
MITCHELL: Yes. Can you hear me?
DEUTSCH: Yes, I can.
MITCHELL: Okay. So, I’m ready.
DEUTSCH: Okay. All right. Why don’t you start by telling me about your job in Charles Allen’s office?
MITCHELL: Okay. My title is Community Liaison. Charles’s office, Ward 6, is the only council office that has a person whose sole job is to engage with the community, to be eyes and ears, to be a facilitator of problem solving, to be representative of the councilmember, and a contact for him.
DEUTSCH: How does that happen, that just one office has that?
MITCHELL: Other offices consider constituent services to be that role. But constituent services usually is about trash not being picked up or parking being a problem or connections to agencies about individual residents’ concerns. The community liaison role is much broader in that you’re working with movements, you’re working with advocacy groups, you’re working with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions—all of the people who collectively are trying to achieve a better quality of life in the community. They’re wanting to engage with a councilmember in a way that supports what they are trying to do and that keeps him in the loop with respect to the issues in his ward. So, Tommy [Wells, former DC councilmember from Ward 6] determined that role when he asked me to come to work for him because how he met me was in the community working as an advocate and organizer and later …
DEUTSCH: Advocate and organizer for what?
MITCHELL: For various issues that people in the community were affecting. At that time, the current Capitol Quarter, which was called Arthur Capper, was public housing. And it was being developed as a Hope VI project. And it was mass relocation. And, so, I became involved with that group of residents to help them advocate for certain relocation policies, certain re-entry policies, just getting a capacity for them to speak for their interests. I also was working in Southwest around a family strengthening collaborative that worked the entire ward trying to help families, strengthen families that were facing child neglect issues or child abandonment or other kinds of family crises.
DEUTSCH: Were you doing that work as a volunteer?
MITCHELL: Yes. I was on their board as a board member, so I worked around housing more. I chaired the housing committee of that board, which is what got me involved with the Hope VI project. But I was also independent of that board, doing work in my own neighborhood, in the Hopkins-Potomac Gardens area, engaging teenagers to begin to talk about values, about issues they were confronting, as a way of helping support vulnerable families that…
DEUTSCH: You said something about Teen Talk.
DEUTSCH: About Teen Talk at your house?
MITCHELL: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
DEUTSCH: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MITCHELL: Well, Teen Talk was … Actually, I was doing mentoring programs organizing the neighborhood to have several houses on Saturdays that would take small groups of kids and conduct a discussion group and then at the end of the hour would sort of share their concepts of their values with these kids. And out of that, some of those neighbors in Hopkins-Potomac Gardens had been active with the [Southwest] Collaborative. And, so, they told me I should go and see about the Collaborative, which I didn’t know anything about at all. So I did, and I became a member. But, in the meantime, Annie Casey [the Annie E. Casey Foundation] had a small grants program. I think a $1000 small grants. So I was asked to go there and we got a $1000 grant. We ran this Teen Talk program, which exposed the kids to volunteer activities when there were big events and they would volunteer to engage with the community to get out …
DEUTSCH: And this was just something you were doing.
DEUTSCH: These were just kids you knew in the neighborhood.
MITCHELL: Yes, yes. I was doing lots of independent community work, and so when Tommy ran for the city council, I was asked by one of my neighbors who had been a mentor to be a co-chair to his committee because he thought I knew the community and I knew him. That was Curtis Etherly.
DEUTSCH: That was who?
MITCHELL: Curtis Etherly. He ran against Tommy the first time. And, then, William Cobb and some others were running. So I got to know Tommy on the campaign trail. And he became aware of the extent of involvement I had in the community. So, when he won over Curtis, he and Curtis thought I needed to move to help Tommy take the folks we had gained and engage them with his campaign. Which I did. And, when he won, he asked if I would come to work with him.
I wasn’t interested in a job. I was retired from the federal government and feeling like I had the great opportunity to just do stuff I was interested in doing. Fun stuff, because I didn’t have to go to work. [Both laugh] So I didn’t really want another job. He said, “I just want you to do what you’ve been doing in the community. I just want you to do it for me.” And that’s how that job was created, as a community liaison, to do good work under his auspices and to take directions that collaborated with where he was trying to go in doing that. He kept that position his entire two terms.
DEUTSCH: That’s a pretty fabulous deal to be made.
MITCHELL: It is.
DEUTSCH: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
DEUTSCH: “But I want to pay you for it.”
MITCHELL: Exactly. In fact, when he first said it to me, I said, “To just do what I’m doing with the leverage of a councilman’s office, you don’t have to pay me.” And he said, “I think I need to pay you so you’ll return my calls.” So I said, “Well, okay.” And so we went on. And it wasn’t huge pay. I guess most people would say pay is pay. But it wasn’t really important, you know, how much. And so, after his two terms were up, Charles, who had been his chief of staff the entire time, determined that that was a role he wanted maintained as well.
DEUTSCH: And, of course, you knew Charles because of his longtime …
MITCHELL: Well, he’d been my boss all those years under Tommy. And Charles knew me, which was more important, and deemed that what I was doing was a valuable aspect of his office.
DEUTSCH: As you did the job for Tommy, as you became more of a person doing this as a job rather than as a concerned neighbor, how did it change? Did it evolve in different …
MITCHELL: What happened is, of course, there were the advisory neighborhood commissions, all four of them. That was my first challenge, to get to know them and to figure out how our office could support them. And that meant I attended at least four of those night meetings a month. But there were civic associations, there were groups who were trying to form around development impacts, there were groups who were trying to deal with schools in the neighborhood and how to improve them. I really sat in a lot of those groups with them. And often, being able to bring a councilmember to the table helped give legitimacy to it and also helped engage city agencies that were needed to address the issues that they were focusing on.
DEUTSCH: So you could really bring the citizens and the agencies together.
MITCHELL: And the councilmember’s office together. To do community-based initiatives. That’s the power of a lot of our communities now, that they’re very strong advocates of a variety of concerns. And that’s especially true in Southwest because I’d worked in that area long before I worked for the councilmember. In fact, I had to resign from things in Southwest in order to work for the councilmember. I’d gotten the Headstart there and in my immediate neighborhood, so I had to expand …
DEUTSCH: Now, do you live in Southwest?
MITCHELL: No, I live in Southeast.
MITCHELL: I live across the street from public housing on 13th Street, across the street from Hopkins. So, I’d been involved for a long time before I worked for the council in Potomac Garden issues and Hopkins and Arthur Capper over on M Street because things were needed. Some of their planning with the city, with the Housing Authority—50 years ago they planned how to redevelop Potomac Gardens and Hopkins—those plans are still … They did charrettes. I went to all those charrettes. And those plans are on the shelves somewhere, they have yet to redevelop them. But that was going on way back then. And I got to meet, to know, a lot of people in public housing and advocacy groups. So when I came to work, I had a base of sorts with a lot of community advocacy groups and I had a reputation as approachable, as being approachable. I mean, not one who belongs in their housing, who belongs in their situation, but as a resource that they just accepted.
DEUTSCH: Well, that was the most important, in a way, for the job you had to do. That was the most important thing.
MITCHELL: Exactly. Once I had a job, then it became even more important because now I had some clout to bring to what they were doing, having the councilmember whose ward it was in who had an interest in those issues. And Tommy certainly, as a social worker, had interest in those issues.
DEUTSCH: And I assume Charles does too.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. Charles is a true progressive. [In a lower voice] I won’t say even more than Tommy. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: When you say “a true progressive,” what are you thinking of?
MITCHELL: In terms of equity, diversity, social justice, all of those things that are important for change and for improvement in the lives of people who are vulnerable, who are powerless. So, in essence, it began to bring some power to them and to do it in the directions that were important as they defined them. And to have that mesh with what the councilmember saw, how that then related to initiatives that he was looking at. And it gave him support as well for some of those more controversial kinds of things.
DEUTSCH: As you’ve settled in to working with Charles, have things changed? Have the issues that he’s focused on changed?
MITCHELL: The issues out there for engagement—for economic improvements (work is a part of that economic improvement), education, better education for these families, all of those kinds of things—fit exactly under what Charles is doing. His work in decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, his work in Books from Birth, his work with trying to look at the whole development scheme in terms of what its future impact is …
We’ve had two kinds of small area plans come to fruition to help shape and protect the communities from unregulated or unmanaged development. We’ve got a Southwest small area plan and a Mid-City small area plan. And while much of the Mid-City is in Ward 5, we were able to put Sursum Corda, which is a major entity, into that plan in order to enable them to redevelop as a co-operative group. [They] were in terrific debt and nowhere to go with it. And Tommy did that piece and Charles did the small area plan. Well, Tommy started the small area plan, Charles finished it.
Those sort of initiatives are a heightened kind of implementation of benefits that support the community’s engagement in controlling what development, what city zoning, what all of those forces had as impacts on their community. They were able to have more of a say in the use of those vehicles. In Southwest, for example, they’ve lived through the [baseball] stadium being developed. Our part in all that was to organize the community, the Nationals [Washington major league baseball team] and—who else was involved in that?—DOES [Department of Employment Services] to ensure that a huge proportion of the people hired in the Nationals stadium were from that immediate neighborhood.
MITCHELL: So that we were able to get the Nationals to come into Southwest to the Greenleaf [Recreation Center] to actually hold a hiring session. We were able to get the people in the community to prep people for a week ahead of time for that job fair. And we were able to do the same thing when the new Safeway came into being in Southwest. We were able to get people hired from that community.
DEUTSCH: That’s huge.
MITCHELL: Yes. And now we have The Wharf coming in and we’re part of an initiative with Wards 7 and 8 to ensure that, in our case, that people living in public housing in the area got opportunities to get hired as laborers in the construction. On the other hand, we’re working with the ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] around transportation plans for all that development and how you get people in and out [of] there without overrunning the city, neighborhood streets. And other community benefits that the community wanted to negotiate as part of development wanting extra height or zoning relief. All of those are processes that at some point the councilmember has to support without being directive, but interceding in instances sometimes with developers or with the ANC or with other entities to get compromises or to get agreements that everyone can live with. Because we’ve got more development in our ward than probably the entire northeast corridor. I mean, we’ve got it everywhere, whether it’s in Shaw, Main Street, or all the way up and down Seventh and all the way around behind it, The Wharf, the Buzzard Point soccer stadium that’s coming. A whole city …
DEUTSCH: Is the soccer stadium coming?
MITCHELL: Yes. It’s definitely coming. [Audi Field, home field for DC United, opened at 100 Potomac Avenue SW in July of 2018.] And it’s in Southwest as well, along with the baseball stadium. And around the Buzzard Point is also the Anacostia River. And so there’s a whole little city. There are 62,000 people that are going to be new residents to Southwest, solely living in Buzzard Point. I mean, just huge. And there’s one way out and one way in.
DEUTSCH: What is Buzzard Point exactly?
MITCHELL: It’s a part of Southwest that’s formerly been an industrial, sand, gravel, cement production area sort of. Over there, there was a couple of federal buildings and they referred to Buzzard Point as just that, a place they didn’t want to be. But there was a nice water harbor area there, there were some small boats, and it’s a very lovely, beautiful area over in there. But these industrial purposes had been there for many, many years, so it wasn’t developed. And so, with the choice of the soccer stadium being placed in there by the city, now everything around it has been bought up and now is going to be high rises and retail and all sorts of other things. So, that’s our newest major development, while we also have The Wharf still five years out from being completed. [Phase I of The Wharf opened in October 2017.] And we have development around the mall on Fourth Street which is also new. And South Capitol Street, which is also part of the ward, is under major development. We’re now seeing in this area, you know, the Hine School [redevelopment] project [opened in 2017], other spots … 12th and H, Eighth and H, Sixth and H—I mean, where there was storage, the Murry’s [Fine Foods]. We’ve got development going on everywhere. At RFK [Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium], you know, what’s going to happen there?
DEUTSCH: What is going to happen there?
MITCHELL: Well, that’s a good question. I would say the mayor wants the Redskins [Washington National Football League team] stadium there and others want youth soccer fields or youth playing fields over in there. And they want some other amenities like skating rinks or things [that] are neighborhood- serving. And the mayor’s office sort of suggests that all that can happen, you know, can co-exist. But there’s a development that’s already supposed to happen on DC General Hospital—you know, buildings.
DEUTSCH: Reservation 13.
MITCHELL: Yes. So there’s, everywhere in the ward, development going on, and there are citizens concerned. Not even just with these big things, but with the guy who buys a house next door to them who sends it up four stories as a pop-up, you know. And it sticks up out there, you know, like a sore thumb in a sort of historic-looking district. But we’re learning that not all of these districts actually are for residential. Some were originally C-5 or something because there was sort of a mix. There was, you know, like you see car repair places right in the middle of a residential block, you know. I mean, those were old zonings that allowed a mixture, and so that also means they can go up in these pop-ups. So we’ve got a lot of that sort of thing going on, converting of single-family houses into fourplexes. And, thusly, parking issues when you’ve got four new …
DEUTSCH: Oh, yes.
MITCHELL: So we’ve got many, many issues like that going on that the community—and throw in public safety and …
DEUTSCH: Which is huge.
MITCHELL Yeah. Other things. A lot of engagement with residents around all of those kinds of issues. And the entire office is engaged with all of that in some way or the other. I’m listed as the liaison in our organizational chart, so lots of people initially come through to me, but I rely on our general counsel, on our legislative person, on our constituent services person so that they may help me. They may get sources and tell me, “This is who they need to see,” or they may take something from me and say, “I’ll deal with DPW [Department of Public Works] about trash” or “I’ll deal with DDOT [District Department of Transportation] about …”
We work very well as a team, and Charles is hands-on on everything, so he gives lots of good guidance without taking it over, too. That’s the sort of chemistry of what we do and my role in it, and I’m always accessible to the community. I’ve had a cellphone in my car since the beginning and people feel very free to call me.
DEUTSCH: Do you get calls all day long every day?
MITCHELL: I get few calls on my office phone, because people don’t expect me to necessarily be there. But people will call me on Saturday or Sunday and I’ll say, you know, “It’s Sunday.” And they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. But while I’ve got you …” [Interviewer laughs] You know. And so I talk. I feel like I’m accessible seven days a week. And I’m out a lot at night. I’m out a lot on weekends. I’m out a lot during the day as well. And I’m in the office as much as I can be in order to co-ordinate. And sometimes the councilmember wants me in a meeting with him about something that’s out there. And, so, it’s a very flexible—and I’m up for it because that’s, as Charles would say, that’s what I signed up for, you know. Because that’s what he says about his workload. That’s what he “signed up for.” And that’s really a passion for me, to serve in that way.
Actually, as I said early on, [I’m] very grateful to have the opportunity to make a difference where and how I can. It’s sort of a senior point in my life where I feel like I have acquired a lot of skills, a lot of insight, and that I’m viewed as very approachable. That may come with being a senior kind of person, that people feel approachable. I have very close relationships, very friendly relationships, with lots of our constituents. I hug all the time. [Interviewer laughs] I mean, people are always hugging.
There’s still lots of parts of the ward I don’t really have as much impact or access to. I’m still finding reasons to do things in those areas. So I’m not a one woman show. It’s a whole office machine. But I’m an entree in sometimes just because I’m always there. I’m always out there some place. People feel like the office is there, you know. And that they’ve got that kind of support and that Charles is only a thumb away, you know, if I’m out there.
[Several statements removed for privacy reasons.]
MITCHELL: And there are trust things sometimes, too, that being around for a while, being engaged, people will share with you and in that way enable you to share with the councilmember some things that aren’t said publicly. One of the nicest things that happens is that people connect with each other through you and go off and create something without you. That’s a sort of phenomenon that I love. So, I’m always connecting people, I’m always saying, “You should talk to so-and-so about that because she’s really interested in that.” And then I’ll send e-mails or I’ll send … and they actually …
DEUTSCH: Let them get together.
MITCHELL: Yes. Exactly. And sometimes people are just so familiar, so comfortable with you that other people come around because the people around you seem to be comfortable. And they feel like, “Well, okay, you know, I can join …”
So I don’t know how else to describe the wonder of this job, but it is just incredibly empowering to me as a person who wants their life to be wondrous at this late date in their life. And they want to feel something changing, something … It’s not a legacy, because I’m not seeking it personally, I’m not putting me out there. It’s a legacy in the sense that you’re leaving people at a different place than they were before you were there. And you did it not around you or your ego but around the fact that people basically want to do the right things. They basically want to engage. And we’ve become so estranged in our neighborhoods because it’s changing so, and it’s so diverse that it’s very difficult for people to reach each other.
DEUTSCH: Find a way.
MITCHELL: I remember my earliest days when I moved on Capitol Hill in 1986 …
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1
TAPE 1/SIDE 2
MITCHELL: … I moved to a street that the realtor who sold me the house, who had sold my house in Ward 3, said to me when I told her what I was looking at, she says, “You don’t want to go above Seventh Street. You don’t want to buy above that.” And I said, “That’s exactly where I want to buy! I have been in Ward 3 for eight years, I’ve been in Ward 4 for five years. I came from San Francisco. I want a city experience. I don’t want a suburban experience, which is basically what those two wards were about for me.” But that was important for schools.
DEUTSCH: Your children, yes.
MITCHELL: Because you couldn’t do anything different. And so to get the people on this side [of the street], who had the row houses, who were basically for the most part white … I had changed that by buying in. Instead of moving out, I was moving in. And one of the first things I did was get a committee from across the street here and across the street there to organize a block party in the middle of the street. So everyone came to the middle of the street to get to do volleyball or balloon toss or we had food that was …
DEUTSCH: Had they had a block party before?
MITCHELL: Never, never. I mean no one related across the streets at all. This was the point of the block party. To create a block.
DEUTSCH: And was one side of the street white and one side black?
MITCHELL: Yes. To create a block, that was to create relationships in that block from people who were totally in different worlds. And we did it for a number of years after that. And it really made a difference in people feeling safe, both sides of the street. People on this side, like, if the music got too loud, didn’t feel like they had to call the police. They could say, “Could you turn that down because I’m trying to listen to? …” And they’d say, “Okay, okay.” Or like, even now, if I’m pulling up to park and there’s no space on my side of the street, someone might be nearby and will run and say, “I’ll move my car so you can park.” There was no crime on our street, you know. It was like the people who might do the crime weren’t going to do it because we were neighbors.
DEUTSCH: Is this the block on 13th Street?
MITCHELL: Yes, the one I live on now. So, like, if maybe there was a baby being born across the street, several people over here would buy a gift, you know, for someone across the street. It just built those kinds of relationships. When we did the mentoring program, we had kids from over here in houses over here with mentors. So, we created a sense of block, which is kind of like a sense of family. There was no money involved at all. Everyone had to commit to bringing certain items and we put them all together.
DEUTSCH: This is the mentoring program?
MITCHELL: This was the block party.
DEUTSCH: Oh, the block party. Yes, yeah.
MITCHELL: But the mentoring was the kids came from here and they were mentored in houses over here. However, the parents over here came at the end of the session to help with refreshments. So they were in the houses and it just—again, the analogy there is families have regular dinners. Families come together regularly, they share food, they eat together. It creates, you know, bonds. You do a block party where the community comes together, shares food, eats. I want you to know for the ten years I’ve been in Tommy and Charles’s office, we have monthly potlucks in our office.
DEUTSCH: Do you?
MITCHELL: So, we eat together. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: Well, you’re right. Nothing builds community like eating, breaking bread together.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. And we don’t order stuff in, everyone brings stuff that they make, you know. And that’s been my role, to create, to make sure that happens, you know, in the office. And we acknowledge some birthdays along the way or other things like that.
Of course, you may or may not know that when Tommy left we gave him the farewell at the Hill Center. I organized that with the help of the office and some volunteers, mainly from the community. I think Chuck [Burger’s] wife [Nancy Broers] and Quinta [Martin] and a number of other people helped. And Nicky [Cymrot], of course, made it all possible in allowing us to use the Hill Center. And she just gave us the entire floor. And we wanted to make that tribute to Tommy, especially after his having not won [the mayoral primary]. We wanted him to know, you know, how special he was to the ward. And we had every kind of person there, you know. And we got contributions from all kinds of folk and we got people who helped during the event. And that’s probably one of the more important things we organized in terms of breaking bread. [Laughs] It was to do it for his going away, you know.
DEUTSCH: Well, you talked about how family is sort of the template for the community.
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, it is.
DEUTSCH: Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
MITCHELL: Well, as I mentioned to you, I grew up in what one might call a dysfunctional family, divorces between the two parents who had begotten four children. But they continued, despite the divorce, to cooperate with each other around the interests of the children to keep them from not being pulled apart by that divorce. And even after both married. There were periods where my mother was married and my father had not remarried that my mother’s husband, who was military, was away, and my father continued to be there to support her, you know, if she needed something that a husband would have normally dealt with. Then, after he married, we had holiday dinners together with all of the family members. We had picnics. Each of the children considered the other parents some kind of parent. If you can bring that kind of context into that sort of set of practices and relationships, then you can do that with any set …
DEUTSCH: Right. We’re all just a big family …
MITCHELL: Exactly, exactly.
DEUTSCH: Sometimes a little messy, but …
MITCHELL: Exactly, exactly. And so it occurred to me that, somewhere in life, if there would ever be world peace it would start in your family, move to your neighborhood, move to your city, move to your country, you know. And, ultimately, to your world. I mean, it’s a matter of it starts where you are and the first group that you encounter and [you] have that work to do. Now, over the years my children will tell you I have had more people come and stay and go and stay and go. One little girl was coming from a country in Africa on the day that the plane crashed on the [14th Street] bridge, the snowy day [January 13, 1982].
DEUTSCH: Oh, the Air Florida?
MITCHELL: She got her way with no coat and sandals. She had been flying for a couple of days. She got herself from that airport, from Baltimore, to my house in Chevy Chase. We had to find her shoes and coats.
DEUTSCH: How did you know her? I mean, she was …
MITCHELL: Well, a friend sponsored her coming here to go to Howard [University]. But the friend didn’t have a place for her to stay. And, so, I agreed to let her stay at my house while she did this. And she was with me, like, two years, and she became an …
DEUTSCH: She stayed with you for two years?
MITCHELL: Yes, she stayed with me for two years. Her last name was Ali, and she thought it was so funny that we had a dog whose name was Ali. [Both laugh] She never got over that. There have been other women from California who came through, stayed a year or so. I’ve had sisters that came and stayed, with children sometimes, a year or two. Go back, come back.
DEUTSCH: Well, and you told me about how when you had your first child, your aunt …
MITCHELL: From Georgia came.
DEUTSCH: Aunt Rose came and stayed for four years.
MITCHELL: Until the child was ready to go to school. And, then, she went back to Georgia. Right now I have one sister here and two sisters in California and they both came when I retired. They came from California for the retirement. They’re very supportive, you know.
DEUTSCH: Will any of them be at the dinner [2016 Capitol Hill Community Achievement Awards at which Ms. Mitchell was an honoree]?
MITCHELL: Yes. I’m allowed five, so my daughter, my son, his wife, my sister, and a fellow friend is coming. But another sister is coming before then to make sure I pick out the right dress!
DEUTSCH: Well, that’s important. [Both laugh]
MITCHELL: She did that when I was retiring. She brought the dress, you know. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: That’s a good sister to have.
MITCHELL: Yes. And the other sister in California is getting married in May for the first time. She’s, like, 55. The entire family here is going out for the wedding. [Laughs] We’re all going out. That sister is the youngest sister of us all and I have one brother younger than her.
Another way to describe how our family functions is that everyone refers to each other by the relationship. They’re “Auntie Effie” or “Cousin” So-and-so or “Nephew” So-and-so. They’re always reinforcing the relationship by what they call each other. And that probably comes from when we had separate mothers and fathers and you had to have names for all of them, you know. So that it denoted a relationship, you know, as opposed to not having those names.
But, at any rate, the other thing I want to emphasize here is that throughout my life I’ve had the opportunity to learn from many positions that I’ve held how to work with people and how to work within organizations for change. Early on, I, of course, worked for the Great Society, the War on Poverty. I worked for the recreation department, and I worked under a Ford Foundation grant to create certain demonstrations and work[ed] with OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. It was a brand-new concept of management over budget and it was very creative in linking all of the field offices with Washington in terms of giving all those separate functions of agencies in the field some common management improvement goals that would govern all of them in the field, as opposed to the straight lateral relationships. And, so, [I had] that role to communicate and to help do that.
Then, at the Pentagon, again, it was the early stages of automation and the issues there were when you have a Secretary of Defense and information has to wind up at the top for decision-making, people in all of the separate divisions want to own their own information. They don’t want it accessible for decision support. And that was a challenge there, you know, to tackle that. Now, there were other experts who knew about how you structure computers to do that, but I could define what the relationships needed to be based on, what the function of different departments was, and also to dictate how things were procured in terms, [not of] contracting, but in terms of compatibility of information and interoperability. And people in the office today still wonder how I need somebody to come punch! [Laughs]
Some aspects of technology have changed. But, at any rate, I’ve always been in situations where I learned about change and innovations and how we do things, how we approach. And I like to think that my goal over all those years was to become—what’s the word?—more in tune to critical thinking. That is, to look at things and figure out what I already knew and what I was looking at and what truth there was I needed to discern from what I was looking at that would consist of what I had already come to accept as a truth. It’s really a self-enlightening, a self-instructing practice. And I like to think today I still do that.
I’m not necessarily a crusader trying to change everything, but in terms of what we’re doing or what people are trying to do, you know, [I’m looking] through that and saying, “What’s really going on here and what really needs to be different?” And [I’m trying] to help explain that so that people have better capacity to be successful at what they were trying to accomplish.
And, if I said anything else, I’d say I don’t take for granted anything I see to be what it is, you know. I’m looking closer to try to figure out. But I’m not paranoid and I’m not a skeptic. I’m just looking for the truth, you know, of what it is that I see and how that fits into what I’ve already come to know. And, so, it’s my truth, you know, and doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else’s truth. It’s just, it’s where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and what I’ve come to understand is my truth. And I listen to other people and sometimes my truth gets added to and sometimes it bothers me that it’s so far off of my truth and I have to stop and think, “Is it me that’s not getting this or is it them that’s off track?” [Laughs]
An, so, I led this idyllic life, you know, engaged in that way with life and hoping to do something. I’m basically a loner though people think I’m terribly social. But I’m so happy to be home by myself and to not be engaged.
DEUTSCH: Well, of course, you interact intensely with people all day long, every day.
MITCHELL: Exactly, exactly.
DEUTSCH: So you probably need that to keep you sane.
MITCHELL: But I’m not one who is on the phone or on Facebook. I don’t really have the need to engage just to not be by myself, you know. I’m happy to be by myself. I sleep well, you know. And I only go to sleep when I’m sleepy, you know. And, so …
DEUTSCH: Do you ever think about retiring?
MITCHELL: I’ve retired two, three, four times. So, is this work? You know? Is this life, you know?
DEUTSCH: Is this work or is this life?
MITCHELL: Exactly. So how do you retire from life?
DEUTSCH: That’s beautiful, Naomi.
MITCHELL: Okay, okay.
DEUTSCH: That’s beautiful.
MITCHELL: Friends I haven’t seen in a while will say, “What are you doing, still working?” I say, “Is there something better I should be doing?” I don’t work, you know. I engage. I am privileged to have the support and the space and the opportunity to do what I do. I mean, I thank Charles and Tommy for letting me have this space and they give me the space to do what I do. They don’t really contain me, you know. And they trust me and they support me.
So what else could I want better? I’m in a position where I’m in a ward that’s an incredible ward. I live in a neighborhood that’s incredible. Capitol Hill is, you know, the most interesting place in this entire city in terms of the dynamics and the access to all sorts of things. The museums are a short walk away. Restaurants, bars, parks, all kinds of stuff is still happening, you know. And movie theaters are now coming on board. We’re working on connecting the part of the city I live in to the river, you know, with the Southeastern Boulevard. I’ve been working with ANC6B for a couple of years now as part of their engagement with DDOT and Office of Planning. There will be a pathway right at the end of my street where I live that will connect to the river.
All of the years that I’ve lived there, I’ve always engaged with the river. For many years, before I came to work in this job, I walked the river every day, five days out of a week, and I watched the change in the water, the flowers, the …
DEUTSCH: Do you walk along the River[walk] Trail?
MITCHELL: No, it wasn’t a trail when I walked. I walked across the 11th Street bridge and down along the Anacostia, all the way up to like maybe where the skating rink is. Sometimes I went the other way toward Bolling [Air Force Base]. Once or twice, I don’t tell anybody, but I actually walked across to get to the CNX railroad tracks and walked along the tracks to get off in another place—just exploring, you know. And sometimes I’d see people fishing, and I’d talk.
And most of my adult life I also was engaged in playing some kind of sport. So, I was active. I played softball on various teams, some coed, some all women. Until about five years ago, I played. We even had a Ward 6 senior softball team that I helped organize and I actually played on.
DEUTSCH: What was your position?
MITCHELL: Well, in the latter years it was first base, because there wasn’t so much running to chase the ball. In earlier years, I was a fast pitch pitcher on a women’s fast pitch team. I was a pitcher and then I was sometimes a catcher for a fast pitcher and I played center field. I was really a jock much of my life. I was a runner and then a walker for much of my younger life. And I swam, I played racquetball, I played golf. I really was diverse in sports. In recent years I’ve had back and leg issues that’s prevented that, but I’ve done some yoga to try to keep something going. [Interviewer laughs] So, I have really had a lovely life, you know. Some people might think differently. I had an unsuccessful marriage, but I have two great children. I told them when they were younger, “I’ll always love you, but I hope I’ll like you as adults.”
DEUTSCH: And you do.
MITCHELL: I do. I like my children very much. I like who they are as characters, you know. Is that good? Are we good?
DEUTSCH: I think we’re good.
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
END OF INTERVIEW