Learning To Be a Leader From My Mom

Mother's day is very special to me because from the time I was born, my mother, Marie Dennis, taught me through her actions to respect and be present for others no matter who you are, or where you live. Not only does she live by example, but for more than 40 years, she has challenged me to do my part to make the world a better place as well.

When I was a child, she chose to move our family to a small, organic farm in Northern Virginia to live in closer harmony with the earth. She assumed an enormous challenge taking up a new vocation in a community she did not know. Even as a child it was clear to me that every day on the farm was a demonstration of what it means to challenge myself and fully respect the natural world.

From growing all-organic vegetables to raising animals humanely, the time on our farm showed me the value of hard work and gave me a deep appreciation for nature. Of course, that gratitude would not have been possible without the example my mother set through actions. To this day, I can still vividly recall the times she stood in the field literally shaking her fist as a plane spraying pesticides flew over the neighboring property. At my home in Brookland, I still maintain a small organic vegetable garden (which this year overflows with beautiful garlic), and keep a compost pile because I believe that through these small acts of respect for the environment, I can do my part to make the world a better place.

When I was a young teenager my mother moved us from our farm to the house she still lives in on Rock Creek Church Road in the Petworth community. Once again, through her example, she taught me what it means to challenge oneself to do better. Living in this neighborhood for more than 25 years put her in a position to help bridge divides, break down barriers and appreciate the importance of diversity. Her willingness to move from an organic farm to an inner-city neighborhood showed me what it means to play an active role in building relationships with others and to help make the world a more respectful and loving place.

In college, I decided to take time off from school and worked at Colonel Brooks Tavern in Brookland. My mother was an even stronger presence during those years as she constantly reminded me that although I had a good job, there were still other ways I could contribute to improving the world around me.

Through her encouragement and guidance, I volunteered at Sojourners Neighborhood Center, tutoring youth in an after-school program. I also accompanied refugees from El Salvador returning to their homeland from Honduras, traveling to El Salvador three times in one year. Ultimately, I joined the Brethren Volunteer Service and spent over a year in San Antonio, Texas, working at a shelter for homeless women with children. It was during this time of service when I met fellow volunteer and future wife, Serra Sippel, also a native Washingtonian.

My mother's living commitment to social justice has helped shape my own commitment to justice; my ability to acknowledge how privileged I am; and my belief that only through serving others can I gain the empathy essential to becoming a leader in our city.

Another lesson that my mother taught me is that to be an effective agent of change you must command respect from decision makers and simultaneously demonstrate your commitment through nonviolent direct action. I learned this through her efforts with so many others to build a movement to convince the United States and other creditors, including the World Bank and IMF to cancel the debts of impoverished countries. During those years she attended meetings inside the Administration and the financial institutions with decision makers, and afterwards would join protestors outside, sometimes even participating in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. She believed so strongly in the need for debt cancellation that she was willing to put her freedom on the line.

Ultimately, I am lucky and grateful to have such an amazing mother who has taught me what it means to do my part to make the world a better place, even if it means sacrificing a bit of comfort and freedom. Her constant commitment to serving others and working for social justice is a lesson and challenge I have spent my life trying to emulate. I will carry them with me as I seek an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.

Thanks mom, and happy Mothers Day!