A Government for Everybody
You’d never know inside the labyrinthine first level of the cool, dimly lit John A. Wilson building, where Courtney Snowden’s assistant is texting me from somewhere upstairs.
“Do you have an ETA?” she asks. I’m sweaty and four minutes late. “Coming up the elevator,” I text back.
When Snowden stands up from her desk, her tall, imposing figure is swiftly canceled out by her broad smile. “I won’t shake your hand,” she tells me. “I have a cold.” The otherwise-bare wall to the left of her desk is dominated by an oversized map of the District; its roads and rivers, the neighborhoods inside their orderly quadrants. A note of congratulation from U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, whom Snowden worked for while Baldwin was the representative for Wisconsin’s second district, sits on the desk’s edge.
A month earlier, on April 1, Snowden was officially appointed Washington, D.C.’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity. This is a new position, created by recently elected Mayor Muriel Bowser, who ran on a platform that included the promise of a senior-level position to oversee east-of-the-river development. The river is the Anacostia, which bisects the southeastern region of D.C. The phrase “east of the river” has become a euphemism for the city’s racial and economic segregation, with the Anacostia serving as a literal divide between some of the city’s more and less affluent residents.
Snowden is a sixth-generation Washingtonian, she proudly tells me, the daughter of two federal employees who instilled a sense of civic duty in her from an early age. She is also a Beloit College graduate of the class of 2000, despite entering as a member of the class of ’01. She completed her political science coursework, in classic fashion, a year early.
In her new role, Snowden’s job is to support economic development all over the city, but particularly in Wards 7 and 8, the east-of-the-Anacostia areas that have been largely overlooked by D.C.’s real estate and development booms over the past decade. Snowden herself lives in Deanwood, a Ward 7 community known for its detached houses (atypical of D.C.’s characteristic brick row homes) with her 6-year-old son, Malik. Finding ways to financially support small, locally owned businesses, as well as creating opportunities for job training and career growth, are Snowden’s primary concerns as one of four deputy mayors in Bowser’s administration.
“It’s important that these communities in particular feel like our government cares about them, touches them, and is willing to listen to them, because for a very long time, they haven’t had that,” she says.
Snowden also proudly identifies as a lesbian, and her new position makes her the highest-ranking LGBT official in the Bowser administration. Her background is in lobbying and policy work—for the National PTA, the Human Rights Campaign, and most recently, as a principal at the progressive-minded lobbying firm The Raben Group. She also served a term as president of the city’s African-American LGBT organization, DC Black Pride. Part of what lured her away from the private sector is what she considers to be Bowser’s commitment to serving everybody, not just those who are easy to serve. Of her home city, Snowden says, “It’s not two different worlds in D.C.; it’s like seven different worlds in D.C. And the mayor, like many of us, was tired of seeing that.”
Snowden is effusive that Beloit prepared her well for her current role. “How to build people, how to meet them where they are—that’s the Beloit way, right?” she says. “There’s literally no other institution that could have prepared me as well for this gig.”
The story of how she came to the college in the first place sounds a little like fate. “Four of my neighbors actually went to Beloit growing up, which is crazy if you think about it because it’s D.C.,” she says. After her mother and twin sister went to a career fair and spoke with a representative from Beloit, Snowden’s mother knew that the school would be a perfect fit for Courtney. (Her sister Crystal was more interested in historically black colleges and universities, and ended up attending North Carolina A&T.)
Despite Snowden’s initial shock that Beloit didn’t cancel classes after a heavy snowfall the first week of October, she stuck it out, coming out of the closet and becoming actively involved with the Gay/Straight Alliance and Black Students United groups on campus.
Former advisor Georgia Duerst-Lahti remembers her as a brilliant student, but one who was very selective about which assignments she chose to put effort into. “She was exceedingly, exceedingly bright, but she only did the work she wanted to do,” she says. “How Beloit is that?”
Marcus Hayes’99, one of Snowden’s closest friends during her time at Beloit, remembers meeting her at The Wall during New Student Days. “Everyone knew her the very first day because she was just so bold,” he says. “I liked her instantly because she had an opinion and she wasn’t afraid to share it, and she made sure that you knew that she was in the room.”
The city of Beloit also served as the backdrop for Snowden’s first foray into politics and city government. She ran for city council during her senior year after receiving one too many parking tickets, and was just five percentage points shy of winning the council seat. “It was the best possible experience,” she says. “One, I got to know the community in a very different way than just being on campus, and two, I really got to see how government can play a real role in improving a community.”
Snowden had interned for Tammy Baldwin the previous summer, and she landed a job as a staff assistant for her on Capitol Hill immediately following graduation. She went back to D.C., but not without feeling as though Wisconsin had left its mark on her. “I think the greatest thing about being at Beloit was getting to learn about the Midwest, that sort of work ethic and ethos,” she says.
Two weeks later, it’s Wednesday night at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in southeast D.C., and the evening’s activities are in full swing. Parishioners and community members congregate around long tables in the basement for a weekly dinner, and school-aged children grin out from behind the door of a rec room on the church’s third floor.
Inside a high-ceilinged meeting room, Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission members (ANCs, as they’re called, are micro-level elements of D.C. city government) start to filter in along with other community leaders. Snowden walks in and sits down at the large table in the center of the room, and moments later, she’s introduced by Ed Potillo, president of the Ward 7 Democrats.
The purpose of this meeting is for Ward 7 residents and leaders to discuss their budget allocation hopes with Snowden so she can relay them back to the mayor’s office. Snowden herself has a few things that she wants to bring to the table. She’s concerned about the Summer Youth Employment Program, for one thing, a city-wide initiative for youth ages 14 to 21 founded by former mayor Marion Barry that she describes as being “under attack.”
“Our kids are not criminals, but idle hands do stupid things,” she says. She’s also concerned about citizens like her neighbor Ms. Brown, an elderly woman with MS who frequently trips on the broken sidewalk in front of her house. “It’s not just her part of the sidewalk that needs to be fixed; the entire sidewalk needs to be fixed,” she says. “And it’s been marked over and over and over and over.”
Snowden is grilled at this meeting; about timelines for getting things done, about her commitment to serving the residents of Ward 7. She is gracious but firm, vastly knowledgeable without ever being condescending. “Part of the reason why people are so frustrated by the change in the city is that the people who have been here through the worst times in D.C. aren’t benefitting from the best times,” she told me during our first meeting. “So my job is to get to fix that piece, right? I can’t think of anything more difficult or more exciting.”
After the last few people make their way out of the church, many of them stopping to have a word with Snowden on the way, it’s almost 9 p.m.—time for her to pick up Malik. Her mother watches him on nights when she works late.
“I want to create better communities for him,” she tells me. Snowden adopted Malik when he was 18 months old, the child of two teenage parents whom she describes as “incredibly good people who had incredibly rough lives.” Snowden, who attended D.C. public schools and has been a public school advocate during her entire career, hopes to put him in a public school sometime in the next few years. Through sheer bad luck, she’s had trouble placing him through the city’s universal lottery. He currently attends the Lowell School, a private institution near Snowden’s parents’ neighborhood of Shepherd Park. But he loves to paint and draw, she says, and for the time being, the school’s arts-focused curriculum suits him.
“I want to make sure that no kid has to grow up in the way that he could have grown up had he not come to be with me,” she says. “That’s a major driver for why I’m in this role.”
Katherine Flynn’11 is an assistant editor for Preservation magazine, and a senior staff writer for the Chicago-based online music publication Consequence of Sound. She has lived in Washington, D.C, since 2011, and received her master’s degree in journalism from American University in 2012.