Alumna and D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George Shares How DC SCORES Inspired a Lifetime of Public Service

1-903ca9.png Lewis George will receive a DC SCORES Poet-Athlete Award at Our Words Our City on May 7. Buy tickets. Photo: D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George

DC SCORES alumna Janeese Lewis George distinctly remembers the first time she “got” poetry. As an elementary schooler, she had encountered a few poems in her classes, but the works by mostly white, male writers didn’t particularly resonate with a young, Black girl growing up in D.C.

Then, she joined the DC SCORES team at Rudolph Elementary.

At one of their after-school writing practices, Lewis George’s DC SCORES coach read aloud “I, Too” by Langton Hughes. The poem describes the experience of a Black domestic worker in a white household who is sent to eat in the kitchen when his employers host guests.

“That poem just resonated with me,” she recalls. “I felt like I was him in the poem, just like I’m the darker brother.”

The piece’s speaker also emphasizes his dignity, asserting that he will “eat well, / And grow strong” in preparation for a future when he has a seat at the table. The five words have become a mantra for Lewis George throughout a career that includes service in law, education, and most recently as D.C. councilmember for Ward 4.

On May 7, Lewis George will receive DC SCORES’ Poet-Athlete Award in recognition of her public service work. The award, which Lewis George will share with bestselling author Jason Reynolds, is granted to individuals who embody the ethos of DC SCORES poet-athletes by using their voices to serve as leaders in their communities and speak up against injustice.

Fittingly, Lewis George credits DC SCORES with developing that voice. “I used to be shy, but I just grew in the program,” she says. “It’s really special to me, little me trying to give my first poem at poetry slam to now being this bold, courageous councilmember.”

4-618888.png The Rudolph Elementary School team in 2006. Lewis George played on the squad in the late 1990s.

Finding Her Voice

Lewis George has always been civic-minded. As a high schooler, she served as a member of the D.C. Youth Advisory Council and as a student representative on the D.C. School Board of Education.

But her first exposure to neighborhood politics came much earlier, when she joined the DC SCORES program in third grade. It was the late 90s, and Rudolph had just taken in students from nearby Keene Elementary School after an emergency trust closed down 11 D.C. public schools.

Though Keene was less than half a mile from Rudolph, the two school communities had a strong and sometimes violent rivalry.

“We were struggling as a school with fights, but then DC SCORES came in, and everybody wanted to be on the team. It was the first big merging of the neighborhoods,” Lewis George says.

Like many of her peers, Lewis George was initially drawn to DC SCORES by soccer. She admits that, at first, she was a little wary of the program’s poetry curriculum. However, Rudolph’s first poetry slam soon converted the team into spoken word enthusiasts. “It’s amazing the way we just grew,” Lewis George says of poetry’s confidence-building impact.

Lewis George attended Alice Deal Middle School and then School Without Walls for high school. Traveling across the city to attend school opened her eyes to the disparities between her working-class community and the wealthy, white neighborhoods across town.

She says, “I was like, wait, why is this happening, and what can we do about it? And using my voice in that way became important to me.”

5-022bf8.png Lewis George’s poem, “The Yo-Yo,” was published in DC SCORES’ 1998 poetry anthology “Learning Kicks!”

Running for Office

Lewis George attended college in New York, studying Government and Politics at St. John’s University. However, she returned to the District soon after graduating to pursue a law degree at Howard University. “I was really frustrated to see some of the inequities I experienced when I was younger were still persisting, especially since the city had grown so much, not only in population but in wealth,” she says.

After a career as a public attorney, Lewis George launched her campaign for D.C. Council in 2019. “I wanted to be a voice for those who may not have the time, or the energy or the resources to advocate at the council,” she says.

She was elected to a four-year term in 2020 and is seeking re-election this November. Many of her policy priorities reflect the issues that inspired her first foray into public service as a youth.

Near the top of her agenda is expanding affordable housing. Lewis George knows firsthand the corrosive effects that skyrocketing housing costs can have on a community. She recalls returning to her Kennedy Street neighborhood to find her mother fretting about rising rent.

“I grew up on a block where I could tell you everybody who lived there, and we started to see our communities losing everyday working people being unable to afford to stay in our neighborhood,” she says.

3-75cfb5.png Last year, Lewis George joined DC SCORES Executive Director Katrina Owens (left) to honor veteran DC SCORES coach Charles Robinson (center), who retired after leading the nonprofit’s team at Ward 4’s Truesdell Elementary School for over 20 years. Photo: Brandon Williams.

Prioritizing Youth

Another priority for Lewis George is combating rising violence among the District’s young people. The councilmember believes that the solution does not lie in aggressive policing and tougher sentencing but in providing better services and support for youth in the city.

She sets aside time in her schedule to engage with young people in her ward. She can often be found attending middle and high school graduations or on the sidelines of DC SCORES soccer games, cheering on Ward 4 schools as they compete in the nonprofit’s leagues.

Showing up in this way not only lets Lewis George relive some of her own happy childhood memories but also signals to kids that adults in their community are invested in their success.

“I remember as a young person that it often felt like people had a negative view about young people in our city, and I remember feeling bad about that,” she recalls. “I wanted to feel that the leadership in our city saw the good in me and my classmates.”

2-c8fc84.png Lewis George handed out trophies to winning and second-place teams at DC SCORES’ Middle School Capital Cup at Audi Field in November 2022.

Investing in programs that support students’ social, emotional, and mental health is one way to curb youth violence, says Lewis George. Earlier this year, she co-sponsored the Universal Out of School Time Amendment Act, a bill that seeks to provide out-of-school time (OST) programming to all D.C. public and public charter school students by 2035.

During testimony in favor of the legislation, Lewis George spoke movingly of her time in the DC SCORES program. “We were one team, one family. We learned teamwork, we learned conflict resolution, we learned to work together,” she said.

Programs such as DC SCORES not only give young people somewhere to be during hours when they might become victims or perpetrators of violence but also teach them vital skills such as conflict resolution, emotional wellbeing, and community building. “DC SCORES kept us safe in ways they didn’t even realize they were keeping us safe,” says Lewis George.

Kids only need to look at Lewis George’s own DC SCORES experience to see what dedicated OST programs can achieve for young people. The councilmember hopes her story will inspire more District youth to engage in their community.

“Being a servant leader doesn’t require any type of special training, it just requires the courage and will to care about other people,” she says. “Find the things you care about right now and write to your councilmember, your elected officials.”

“Learn everything you can learn, embrace every opportunity,” she adds. “Eat well, and grow strong.”

Watch: Janeese Lewis George testifies about the impact DC SCORES had on her childhood in support of the Universal Out of School Time Amendment Act.

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