CX, IT Mod, and the Inner City Corner Store: Chronicles of a Family Business, Foretold.
Have you ever given money to an unfortunate looking panhandler, stained in drugs, tears, and stench of a thousand days outside?
Probably. I have, many times.
Have you ever taken money from such a person?
I have, as of last week.
Except, in exchange, I gave him an over filled container of food for it at a corner store in Anacostia.
Some of those who have known me personally will probably know that our family has recently acquired a new business venture. It’s a small food mart in #Anacostia #DC, almost on the intersection of Martin Luther King Blvd and Malcolm X Blvd. This has put my life at a metaphysically strange intersection, and since it’s something that is a major part of my life, I thought I’d share it with my friends and colleagues who have only received bits of it recently.
- The Strangest Parts of My Childhood and Identity — Bridged Version.
Growing up, my father helped run a community center and soup kitchen as an inner city missionary in NE called the “House of Peace.” I grew up there. Instead of sports or Girl Scouts, I spent all my weekends preparing food, organizing clothes, and singing Black hymns at the center. When regulars didn’t show up, I accepted that they might have died of the cold, the heat, some police interaction, or gang interaction. Then I went to a shiny new public school in Fairfax County with children of Federal Executives.
2. Business Makes Sense to Me in a Different Way — Bridged Version
When dad realized working at the community center wasn’t sustainable for our family, we moved onto running a series of seemingly incoherent businesses.
Now I see that people overlook the stores that exist to provide supplies and sustenance to the poorest working class of the country. It’s invisible, since you wouldn’t quite walk into because the off-brand Dora the Explorer pinatas hung on the windows and phone card posters are jarring and uninviting to main street people. I’ll tell you, when migrant workers from Honduras or El Salvador arrive here to work in a butchering warehouse by bus, they don’t walk into a Target for toilet paper and t-shirts. They come to bodegas and they came to our store. In this way, I’ve witnessed the physical flow of money in the economy at the lowest level, and see today, I see it at the highest level in Federal Contracting.
Eventually, the series of businesses ended up in our family owning and operating a 10,000 square feet of retail business in Alexandria, Va in conjunction with managing an international supply chain of housewares. It was bustling and crazy.
This is where I learned what business is. You sell things people need. You take care of your employees. You pay your taxes. You work harder than any employee, but you feel free doing it. This is true whether you are running an import-export wholesale business or you’re providing services to the Federal Government.
When the Recession hit in 2008, that business was closed down, and we had to start all over again. This is when I learned, you can always start again. You can go from 0 to 1. Then, I went to college to study policy and economics.
3. Life Continues to Be In a Confusing Flux of Race and Class— Bridged Version
Despite the beauty and power of the city that has taken over through gentrification, Anacostia, DC is still a neighborhood with a lot of ongoing angst and violence. Having my family take over a corner mart there in 2018 has been an unnerving and surreal experience.
Today, my husband and I run and operate an IT consulting business, that provides IT modernization and application development for the Federal Government. Another occasion for the stark, daily juxtaposition in my life. We interact with D.C. quite a bit now, as it houses our nuclear friends and clients. Often, when I walk downtown, I’m caught making remarks about how strange the city feels to me because it’s so beautiful and full of so many powerful people. I confess, it’s still quite an exercise in reconciling my childhood in D.C. to my current musings in D.C.
Have you ever served food to a recently discharged Marine, still wearing his regalia, totally high on heroin from the pain of his injuries? Then after negotiating the quarters and hearing his painful ramblings, taken an Uber to a 4-star restaurant downtown to discuss enterprise IT solutions for the DoD or CX strategies for the Veterans Affairs? My childhood has come back 180 degrees and put me in a magnified warp.
4. The Stress Comes from Feeling like the Powerlessness of Childhood Continued on 20 years later.
Part of what I went to school for was to explore the exact mechanism of why such tough economic conditions still exist, and how to alleviate it. I left college with a solid understanding of why, but not exactly how to fix it. It’s like I took a time machine back to my days at the House of Peace, except I know words and concepts like, “Implicit Bias,” “Disenfranchisement,”“Income Discrepancy,” “Poverty Premium,” “Food Desert,” and “Economic Mobility.”
I have an even stronger passion for the problem but unfortunately no solutions.
5. The Difference Between Then and Now, is Perspective.
Last week was the change of ownership of the new store. It’s been almost 20 years since the community center days. How will my dad who has always had the heart of a missionary — run a business that enterprises on those he wanted to serve?
It’s already clear that my parents are not saavy nickle-and-dime business owners. Their depth of compassion for the clientele makes it hard for them to raise prices and portion food the way it would be profitable for them to.
But my dad said something that changed my worry to hope. He said, “To serve them good food, with generous portions, and to take money they earned with integrity through hard work, is our role there.”
The truth is, I won’t be doing as much day to day work as I had done before at the store or in the community. But my parents will be, once again. On the day we exchanged ownership, my friends Michael and Christi who saw me grasp the spinning reality of the family business, my subverted passions, childhood experiences, and my life now come to a strange intersection here. It’s a challenge personally, to operate on these paradigms.
6. Bringing it Back to Now and the Future
I found myself exasperated at the sight of how busy this store was, and how I had to run to my next meeting downtown. My friend Michael, who manages the store told me, “This is where your strength will come from, not the opposite.” That made sense to me.
It’s sometimes very easy to get lost in the very intangible work of Federal Government when the results feel distant. It feels very far from the truth that advancing Government will help the communities that I see struggle. Yet, with this type of business, feels extremely close again. I feel it when an I see that patrons who use EBT/Food Programs by the USDA provide complaints about their enrollment processes to each other. I’m observing the absolute necessity of hard working Americans using these cards to buy meals for their families. It gives sustenance.
I see the kids in their charter school uniforms, stopping by on their way to school. I think, I hope their school get the continued support they need by being able to navigate The Department of Education’s grants and governance processes effectively.
I see the glaring zeal of the opioid crisis here. I remember the work that was being discussed at Health and Human Services, a mere 7 or so miles away. I hope that those initiatives in tracking, prevention, and providing aid will help to heal this community.
Lastly, there’s been so much activity, criticism, and award of the Veterans Affairs community. I am not in exaggeration when I say so many of those hit by poverty in this part of town are Veterans, whose physical side affects of service are having them resort to illegal substance usage. Whether we are criticizing or awarding, please remember that only a mere 7 miles from HQ are those who need care from the Agencies, who are waiting for care and proactive outreach.
I feel a surge of passion to continue to advance CX as a priority. People need good services, fast, and accessibly. These Federal initiatives we take are trying to solve real problems, and whether we are private or industry, selling or implementing, we need to have the people in mind.
These experiences will inevitably flow into the work I put into advancing Citizen Services and Customer Experience (CX) in the Federal Government, which I’m reminded, matters at the most atomic level of impact. People.
Lastly, I’m grateful for my friends and colleagues who continue to support and encouragement as I try to navigate this complicated phase of my life.
I will listen to any ideas, feedback, and solutions that I can take back to my parents on how to improve the lives of those we serve in the community.