Devin Johns, N Street Village
This was my summer of names. As a summer intern at the Bethany Women’s Center (BWC) of N Street Village in northwest Washington, D.C., I introduced myself dozens of times. With each introduction I said, “My name is Devin.” Even though this seems pretty straightforward and simple, the women ended up calling me by a multitude of other names: Miss Devin, Cupid Doll, Sweetheart, Devrin, Devina, Debbie, Ma’am. Some of these names were given out of respect, others out of confusion, still others out of kindness and love. Even when the women didn’t get it quite right, I didn’t bother to argue or correct them. I know my name, and I like to believe that I know who I am. Maybe each different name or nickname represents a different part of myself, at least as seen by others?
But what if I didn’t know who I was? What if I didn’t have a place to call home, an address? What if I were estranged from my family, the people who named me? What if I was going through the grueling and brave process of overcoming a drug or alcohol addiction, and struggling to find out who I am sober? All of these extra names would significantly confuse me on my path to recovery, housing, employment, and ultimately, identity.
On a daily basis, BWC serves anywhere from 30 to 80 homeless, recovering, and mentally ill women–that’s a lot of names. On the wall behind me, that I designed and worked with the women to create, are just a handful of these names. Learning all of them was the ongoing challenge of my summer. Some are names that I have never heard before and may never hear again. Others belong to at least two or three other women in the day center. I made it my goal to learn each name, each face, because these women are our mothers and our sisters, our cousins, grandmothers, friends, and they deserve recognition. Even if these wonderful women don’t have steady incomes, beds of their own, or the company of supportive families, they all have something that they will always have rights to: humanity and dignity. In such states of vulnerability, it’s comforting to be surrounded by familiarity and kindness, and this can be achieved by simply caring enough to learn someone’s name.
So you can ask, “what’s in a name?” but I think the better question is “who’s in a name?” You hear your name, and you know you are recognized and known. You see your name, and you know that something belongs to you. You tell others your name, and you give them a little piece of yourself. By learning the names of the women at BWC, I not only acknowledge their humanity, but I recognize them as individuals. I had them write their names on the welcome wall to let them know that at least a piece of N Street Village belongs to them. I had them tell me their names in order to give me their trust that I would care for and serve them. In return, I gave the women of BWC my name, thus giving them a piece of myself. I have engrained their names to my memory so when I go back home, to school, and onward in my life, I will remember that I have given myself over to serving and loving these incredible women. And maybe after I leave for the summer, they will remember my name in their times of need and feel comforted that somewhere out there, some random summer intern named Devin, Cupid Doll, Sweetie, Debbie, once cared and always will.
Even though my time at BWC has come to an end, there are still countless staff and volunteers to watch over and care for the women. Each morning before breakfast, they all join voices to recite the mission statement. They begin, “We are N Street Village. We are a community of respect, recovery, and hope.” If there is anything that N Street Village does right, it is the community atmosphere where the women are respected by each other and by staff as individuals. There is never any “us” and “them” among the women of BWC, only “we.” N Street Village encourages the women to relate to each other through shared experiences, but also to display their individuality and unique qualities and needs. It is because of the uniqueness of each of the women that N Street Village works to provide one-on-one relationship building, as well as activities ranging from arts and crafts, to dance and aerobics, to AA Meetings and spiritual recovery. In this way, the individual woman is cared for in her own particular way, and it is through this that N Street Village hopes to absolve poverty, individual by individual. Just as Kirsten Lodal, CEO and co-founder of LIFT, shared at the Closing Conference in early August, poverty cannot be diminished unless we treat each person as an individual, equally deserving of respect, dignity, and humanity. Ms. Lodal shared that this is the philosophy behind the naming of LIFT itself: the act of lifting the individual up through a community of support and respect. And even though LIFT and N Street Village are quite different organizations, they share that community component, each and every morning, as the women of BWC say together, “We are N Street Village.”