The Player: Linda Levy Grossman

Linda Levy Grossman is reviewing photos for this article with WTOP’s Bob Madigan and me at RIS restaurant. Grossman, the Helen Hayes Awards president and CEO explains one of them. “We wanted the recipients of the awards to have something that would distinguish them,” she says. “One of the staging assistants brought out Victoria’s Secret bags and I said, ‘I’m going to tell you right now, on behalf of the Helen Hayes awards for all you recipients: you’re all going to get lei’d.’” Winners received, “lovely 68 cent leis from Oriental Traders – no expense was spared,” she says, as we laugh. “The Victoria’s Secret bag cost more.” The night when the organization bestows awards on the finest actors in DC – this city’s answer to the Tony’s – is one of Grossman’s most inspiring and challenging ventures. “Immediately after the presentation the curtain comes down and I’m wandering around and hearing people say, ‘Gosh. I wish I had seen that,’” she recalls. “And I ask myself how can we lasso that energy and get them to the theater?” The evening brings out the verve and creativity with which Grossman pilots the organization at the helm of the region’s performing arts. But it also demonstrates her demanding mission. While she sees more than 100 shows each year, she strives to ensure others also invest their money and time. The Evolution of Helen Hayes For the last year and a half, she has been working with consultants on a Compass foundation grant to identify the 27-year-old organization’s true potential. A major focus: to translate her oft-quoted challenge of putting “butts in seats” into a loftier goal of branding. The CEO of two years wants to define Washington theater like Broadway or the West End. “Before you go to London or New York you think: What am I going to see when I get there,” she says. “Imagine visitors coming here to go to the theater.” The evolution will encompass changing the communications, strategy, governance, programming, staffing, funding and name of the organization (although the award’s will remain unchanged). It will build on the core functions that have helped expand Washington’s 20 niche theaters to today’s vibrant 79 since she joined Helen Hayes. Grossman has spent more than two decades supporting the group, including 13 years on the leadership team. Yet she is modest about her accomplishments, unlike her friend and sometime co-worker, Olney Theatre Centre Producing Director Brad Watkins. “The Helen Hayes Awards have really created the engine for the expansion and growth of the theater industry in Washington DC,” Watkins said in a phone call. “It is that sort of a central linchpin that has given such focus to the arts that allowed companies of varying size to flourish." In its new guise, the organization will continue to promote a culture of theatrical excellence and provide a stamp of achievement to those who shine. The $1 million organization will expand their advocacy for the arts, cultivating new audiences and building on an education program that has already introduced 40,000 children in District public schools and Boys & Girls Clubs to the magic of the theater. That project has special resonance with Grossman. “I respond to that program so personally and am so enthusiastic about it because I was one of those children whose life was literally turned around by a teacher,” she says. Childhood Dreams The Baltimore resident aspired to become a pediatrician in the 11th grade, approaching it with trademark, if misdirected, enthusiasm. “I was the poster child for future doctors of America,” she announces. “I volunteered in hospitals, I was a candy striper, I audited classes in medical school, I saw surgeries.” Yet despite flagging interest and dropping math and chemistry grades, she didn’t know how to alter her ambition. That changed when one class she enrolled in was filled and she was reassigned to a speech class. “That was a pivotal moment in my entire life,” Grossman says. Ms. Ann-Michelle Bennett, the speech and drama teacher, saw potential in the shy and awkward teenager. She assigned Grossman to stage manage all the year's productions. The newly directed and confident Grossman followed her idol to Emerson College, graduating with a degree in theater. She came to DC after graduating, joining Harlequin Dinner Theatre a few years later. She worked long hours as she promoted the local touring company, living in a Germantown condominium development on a cul-de-sac with three coworkers. “Linda was a culinary genius,” Watkins recalls. “Every now and then she would make wonderful, incredibly complex dinners that were far beyond what our unsophisticated palates could appreciate. We thought we were Knot’s Landing.” The Harlequin led to other jobs, and she eventually ended up freelancing at the Helen Hayes. Over the years, Grossman has done virtually every backstage task—building sets, running light boards, stage managing, hanging lights and sewing costumes—as well as all deskwork, from communication to development. Not surprisingly, Grossman exposed her son Benjamin to the theater at an early age. But her aspirations for him revolved around her desire for devoted care and the continued status as the most important woman in his life. “I wanted him to be a gay dentist,” she quips. “He assures me he’s going to be neither, to which I say take a knife and stick it in my heart and turn it.” Four years ago, after stage managing Shakespeare productions at Imagination Stage, Benjamin applied to the Baltimore School for the Arts, making his ambitions clear. “I thought he would be an audience member,” she says. But Benjamin corrected her misconceptions. “You’ve been taking me to the theater since I was two,” he told her. “You honestly think it wouldn’t have taken?” True Appeal and Potential To make it ‘take’ for others, she has to win time from popular and often heavily marketed pursuits like Facebook, television and movies. As she puts it, a theater ticket is “a purchase that is perceived to be risky, that is perceived to be expensive, that’s perceived to be something that ‘if I don’t like it, it’s two hours I am never going to get back.’” However, she is working to combat this stigma. “There are phenomenal ticketing opportunities. It’s incredibly accessible. It’s two hours - take a risk. It’s not electronic. It’s alive, it’s real and it’s true.” For some people, plays already hold huge appeal. Surveys show that theater and art attendance tends to be shaped like an hourglass: more shows in the later teens and 20s, a drop as people raise families, and a resurgence as they come back in their 50s and 60s. The graying of the audience is a helpful trend for theater. But young audiences are a challenge, as education programs demonstrate. “When we talk to kids, we say, ‘Who has been in a theater?’ All the hands go up. Great. Tell me what you saw…and they refer to various movies. “Then we ask, ‘Who’s seen live theater with real people on a stage acting out a story, a play, a musical?’… Not one.” But programs that go behind the scenes generate long-term enthusiasm from these first-time audiences. Grossman would rather “under-promise and over-deliver” on the new organization. Yet she dreams about its potential impact. “It could double the number of people who are currently in Washington theaters from 2 million to 4 million,” she says. “It could provide health insurance for actors and artists. It could more efficiently connect the about 130 education programs that are offered by area theaters with kids in area schools through the region who desperately need them.” She pauses as she searches for a sufficiently dramatic word. “It could be dazzling.” Click here to listen to the interview with Linda Levy-Grossman February 23rd Interview with The Player Linda Levy-Grossman by Bob Bob Madigan, WTOP Radios Man About Town 103.5 FM

Media Watching: A Competitive Sport

As the cherry blossoms drop, All Things Media thought it might be worth taking a quick look back at the year in media so far. Only four months you might say, but what a four months. Media-watching is the latest competitive sport in town, with more subplots than a daytime soap. In the same time it took Sarah Palin to be Trumped, the Washington Media Scene has put on a fireworks display. TBD was MySpaced. SiriusXM emerged from its merger cocoon and is starting to beef up again on New York Ave. Bloomberg and Politico are rapidly becoming even more dominant players in the DC media scene and doing most of the hiring. The formally local AOL is now the Huffington Post Media...or is it the other way round. Our very own WTOP is declared the most profitable radio station in the country, throwing a monkey wrench into arguments all news radio is dead. The traditional 10,000lb gorrila of local media, The Washington Post, publishes an article implying its parent company is putting its journalistic independence at risk because its most profitable business – the Kaplan for-profit education division - relies on government loans. And then there are the sneekers: AOL’s Patch and Examiner.com (a cousin of the local paper by the same name) are both growing, online news organizations devoted to our local scene. All while local legacy media, such as this newspaper and the Current Newspapers, are becoming even more invigorated. Chinese news services plan to bring 100s of jobs to DC to improve their coverage of the US, and the recent performance of Al-Jazeera English in the Middle East turmoil may finally give it the kind of attention in the US it has been trying to develop for five years based on its DC regional hub. Reality TV has helped turn cupcakes into pastry Google. Voice of American just announced a new director. The New York Times built its own Berlin Wall. The FCC ended last year by issuing arguably one of its important decisions in years that will force open the internet to all, and Congress immediately denied funds to implement the new policy. And we are only just getting started. It may be unsettling, very unsettling, trying to make a living in this environment. But it is certainly fun to watch. Stay tuned.

The Joint that Joynt Closed

I cannot quite work out whether boarded windows on arguably the most prestigious corner in the most powerful city in the world hint at promise to come or forlornness for the passing of what had been. And what had been was a focal point of Georgetown: Nathans. The bar and restaurant on the corner of Wisconsin and M Street seemed to have been there forever, and for many regulars and others anchored in Georgetown, it was a neighborhood staple. “Happiest day of my life when it finally closed,” said Carol Joynt, the last owner. I was not sure what to expect her to say of Nathans closing almost two years ago now, but a hand slapping “all clean” was certainly not it. Joynt is no longer the owner of Nathans. She is no longer the successful booker for CNN’s Larry King Live. She is no longer even a career journalist (although she does write a society column for a New York online mag). And if you take her at her word, she would walk away tomorrow from this neighborhood that she helped define and that, in no small way, has defined her. She points to the last page of her memoir she is promoting with every bit of her acquired media skills as professional booker and rolodex-builder. “Moving On,” she noted. Her next home could still be DC, she admits, but it could just as well be any other city where she takes a job. So this is what it is to watch an era pass—the era that Joynt and late husband Howard Joynt defined from the top rung of Georgetown society. It was an era that Carol defines as one of local culture, small unique shops and local restaurants. “It had its own flavor,” she said. And Nathans anchored the corner of the main drag. Howard first ran Nathans, then Carol. However, she said, “It began to end with the building of the mall [The Shops at Georgetown Park], and then all the chain stores.” “Georgetown unique” gave way to brand-name chic. Nathans gave way to perhaps the Apple store as the place to be in Georgetown. But you won’t see Carol fretting over the loss of her restaurant, “Owning Nathans was a nightmare I would not wish on anyone.” Joynt has a reputation for being tough, and she needed every ounce of it to get through everything that happened upon the early passing of her husband. Her memoir recounts twenty years of the bruising, painful slide from living the good life to beating back the IRS after her husband left her to pick up the pieces of his sins . But even in freefall, Joynt brought her own brand of media to D.C., creating the signature Q&A Café, first at Nathans, and now at the Ritz Carlton down the street, where Georgetowners can pay to eavesdrop as Joynt talks with many of the biggest names to sweep the media. From television news anchors to the inimitable Salahes, Joynt still has the pull to get A-listers to come to her, but that pull may still be the memory Nathans. It is clear as she sits at Leopold’s Restaurant, casting looks at a haughty waiter as only a restaurant owner can, that Nathans was hardly her last act. It was Nathans, not she, that stopped breathing. In that, her memoir is an allegory to the slow death of that era when the legacy bar’s and private clubs were the place to be. It was the old Georgetown. And Joynt is clearly caught between that past and the future, in one breath severing the importance of Georgetown to her identity, and in the next diving deep to conjure up that time, defined by the Control Board and D.C.’s halting steps to be an adult city. It was a time when, at Nathans, everyone knew your name. And everyone in Georgetown knew Carol Joynt.

Bed Bugs: Learnings from the Little Ones

A teenage George Washington quickly abandoned an infested bed in the Shenandoahs more than 250 years ago. Today, area residents of all ages are jumping in their jammies. This region is already among the top ten areas hit by the recent bed bug infestation, and it’s predicted by an exterminator president to approach the notoriously overrun New York City in a year or two. Denizens disturbed by the news, a.k.a. “Attack of the Blood Sucking Bugs,” should take something FROM the creatures for a change. A Little Perspective: Tell a formerly infested acquaintance that you might have bed bugs. She’ll gasp in horror and drop urgent work and needy kids for you, her new top priority. Bed bug crises were likely atop her and many others’ list of the year’s “Ten Worst” as they lost time, health and sleep in taxing bug battles. In the past, those pests were more common. But they were less commented upon. Poverty, war and acute hunger relegated bed bugs to a smaller part of the daily struggle for those in World War II concentration camps, Toronto homeless shelters and Freetown refugee camps in Sierra Leone. Even now bed bugs strike everyone, but they have a penchant for the poor despite their infrequent travel. So, for many of us, appreciation is in order. Commitment to Fight for Freedom: As horrifying as the experience is, the bugs disappear from many Washingtonians’ homes in just weeks with proper treatment. For many, the hundreds to thousands of dollars – explicitly excluded in home insurance policies – is costly but affordable. Not so for others. One third of DC children live in poverty (defined by a family of four earning less than $22,000 a year). Sixteen percent of kids live in families earning half that, leaving no money to spare, according to Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow. The DC government and private landlords are usually responsible for vermin issues, but often unresponsive. Many of those families devoutly scour and clean – an approach woefully ineffective in wiping out rodents, rats, and roaches from multi-unit housing. Ridding bed bugs may pose an even tougher challenge. Given the cost and complexity of eliminating them from apartment buildings, two kinds of property managers could emerge, says American Pest President Matt Nixon: “People who knock bed bugs back enough to rent the unit and those people who want to completely eliminate the problem.” Legislation pending in New York, like requiring landlord disclosure and mandating home insurance options, seems to solve only part of the problem. So stay informed and active on the issue. Save Your Stigma - The intense secrecy surrounding bed bugs may be true to the city’s huge defense presence. Tenants don’t disclose to landlords fearing reprisal, and infested individuals are silent with schools, offices and friends for fear of the stigma. Landlords sign confidentiality agreements with exterminators and may not confide in their tenants and shoppers, fearing lost revenue and liability. But such secrecy might speed the spread and deepen the shame. Destigmatization comes from awareness, education and time. The DC government has launched a public service announcement and held training. More effective than such campaigns is often the coming out and commitment of a celebrity, like Magic Johnson with AIDS. The infestation affects places more than people, so maybe the insect icon will be a building. Victoria’s Secret temporarily shuttered a Manhattan store, and high-end Bergdorf Goodman is being patrolled by bed bug-sniffing beagles. Until then (and after), be open and accepting. Plan to Declutter: Bed bugs – and all vermin – love the dirtier living conditions and hiding places that come with clutter. While cleaning up won’t prevent or reduce an infestation, it could slow the spread and facilitate treatment. Americans accumulate piles of paper and mounds of mish-mash. Adorable tchotchkes and a “really great deal” make them weak in the knees. Abroad, a more minimalist aesthetic often prevails despite less space. And in Europe, biking and walking to stores often eliminates overloading as an option. Shopping and splurging makes sense, of course, but be smart about it. Professional organizers would advise such strategies as ditching one clothing item for each purchased, and cleaning different home areas periodically. Avoid the graphic pictures of teeming bed bugs. But think about the how we can protect our sanity and our community to create constructive change from the critter crisis.

Stewart-Colbert Rally

These photos provide a sampling of the estimated 215,000 people that attended a rally organized by Comedy Central talk show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Saturday October 30, 2010 on the Washington Mall. (All photos by Jeff Malet www.maletphoto.com) [gallery ids="99379,99395,99396,99397,99398,99399,99400,99401,99402,99403,99404,99405,99406,99394,99393,99392,99380,99381,99382,99383,99384,99385,99386,99387,99388,99389,99390,99391,99407" nav="thumbs"]

FotoWeek DC Goes Global

In its third year, FotoWeek DC has already proven to be one of the most comprehensive and innovative photography festivals, not only in Washington but the world. The week-long festival takes place November 5 – November 13 and is comprised of programs that include monumental photo projections on the façades of DC’s famed architecture, all-night photo experiences, evocative exhibitions of award-winning images, as well as lectures and workshops led by internationally renowned photographers. During the festival’s inaugural year, its awards competition was limited to the metro area. Theo Adamstein, President and Founder of FotoWeek DC, quickly realized that, in order for the festival to reach its full potential, they needed to think on a larger scale. “Photography is a universal language,” Adamstein said. “No matter where you are, how you grew up, if you can snap a photo, you can communicate.” The competition’s international appeal is evident, as this year FotoWeek DC received over 6,500 submissions from 34 countries. The International Awards Ceremony will kick off the festival on November 5, preceding the much anticipated launch party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art & Design, the festival’s official partner. Taking into account the broad, global scope of entries, the events this year will highlight the shifting growth of FotoWeek DC as a hallmark for the photography industry. It is clear there is a greater emphasis being placed on key genres such as social justice causes and environmental issues, as well as fine art. NightGallery, an exhibition which projects colossal images onto the façades of significant local architecture, will be showcasing these themes. “NightGallery is a visually dynamic theater, presenting large-scale projections of powerful photography that address important issues and themes from around the world,” said James Wellford, Senior Photo Editor of Newsweek Magazine and curator of the show “Projections of Reality,” which will be featured in NightGallery. “The images offer the opportunity to experience a series of visual stories that poignantly reflect upon our shared human condition.” Wellford is accompanied in the NightGallery exhibition by three other distinguished photographers: Cristina Mittermeier, Executive Director and a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and curator of the environmental program “Life Live Here”; Andy Adams, Editor & Publisher of FlakPhoto.com; and Larissa Leclair, photography writer and curator, whose fine arts show will feature work published on FlakPhoto.com over the past four years, entitled 100 Portraits — 100 Photographers: Selections from the FlakPhoto.com Archive. The NightGallery exhibition will be on display at eight Washington locations, including the Corcoran, whose programs will include “The City Unseen,” and “Literary Adaptation: 1920 – Contemporary Times,” both produced by nineteen students from the school’s BFA program. Along with the Corcoran, NightGallery can be seen on the Newseum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, American Red Cross, National Museum of the American Indian, Satellite Central (3333 M Street NW), the Human Rights Campaign building, the House of Sweden, and Dupont Circle, located right in the heart of the hustle and bustle of the city. NightGallery literally turns an entire city into a massive canvas of work. By partnering with FotoWeek DC, the Corcoran will serve as FotoWeek Central. It will be open to the public at no cost during FotoWeek, including Monday, November 8 and Tuesday, November 9 — days when the gallery is typically closed. Visitors will be able to view the award winning work from the International Awards Competition, listen to lectures by renowned photojournalists, and participate in workshops or portfolio reviews, where amateur and professional photographers can register to have their work critiqued by some of the best in the business. A second location, the aforementioned Satellite Central, will feature FotoWeek DC programs as well. The 7,000 sq. ft. building will house a series of events to complement those taking place at the Corcoran. Satellite Central will showcase projection theatres, exhibitions, lectures, FotoBooks, special events, a thumbnail display including every photo submission to the International Awards Competition, and the 10-hour photo marathon known as NightVisions. Photographers from any background can burn the midnight oil from 8pm on Saturday, November 6, to 6am on Sunday, November 7, for NightVisions. Participants will literally create a photo exhibition from start to finish overnight by taking photos, editing, having them judged, and printing by the next morning. The purpose of the NightVisions program is to recreate the adrenalin rush of a photo student’s end-of-term all-nighter or a professional’s laser-focused intensity against a drop-dead deadline. “It’s all about sucking it up, creating an image, meeting the deadline, and doing something great,” declared Washington photographer Peter Garfield, one of NightVisions’ originators. With the plethora of programming and partners involved with FotoWeek DC, this festival has evolved into something larger than life. Whether you are a photographer trying to make it big, a professional hoping to learn from the best, or just a casual passerby who is moved by a giant image you see on a building, the beauty of this festival is its accessibility, connection to people, and the power of telling a story without words. [gallery ids="99428,99438,99437,99436,99435,99434,99433,99432,99431,99430,99429,99439" nav="thumbs"]

NPR: Eyes on the Prize

There is a new level of irony in Juan-gate at NPR. Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, who spent nearly three decades at NPR, recently "resigned" over the issue, and for CEO Vivian Schiller withholding her bonus. Journalist Juan Williams, whose mishandled firing led to these actions, built a career on brilliant journalism, including a nomination for a Pulitzer and his seminal work on civil rights in “Eyes on the Prize.” The irony is that his case has become a distraction from keeping the eyes on NPR’s true prize. Lost in the accusations and responses about a news organization gone awry is the bigger existential threat to NPR. Although NPR’s listeners are abundant and loyal (bigger than the combined nightly network broadcasts by some measures), and its endowment flush, we should remember that Vivian Schiller took over an organization with a business model that is fundamentally broken. Schiller’s task is nothing less than reinventing the NPR business. Here is the problem. NPR is not a broadcaster. For all its own fundraising and other undertakings, it relies heavily on local public radio stations to pay to air its programs. But NPR sees a major part of its future online. Yet if the “big money” broadcasts, such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are put live online, then there is no reason for listeners to tune into local stations or their websites to hear them. Obviously, that would eat into the listener loyalty to, say, WAMU (DC’s public radio station) and effect how much listeners will feel compelled to send into the legendary pledge campaigns, which make up a sizable part of their annual budgets and ability to pay NPR’s fees. Furthermore, these local stations control NPR’s board, a development after the stations saved NPR from shutting down in bankruptcy in the 1980s. Schiller has a history of building new successful media business models, from CNN, to Discovery-Times documentary network, to leading the New York Times newspaper into its current online incarnation. But this is her biggest challenge yet. To be successful at NPR, she needs to find a way to reconcile seeming mutually irreconcilable needs and get the local stations to go along. Withholding her bonus and forcing management changes because of this one personnel issue doesn’t help in that crusade. NPR has long had a checkered past in its handling of human resource issues. But wherever one stands on Juan-gate, if you are in any way invested in NPR’s existence, there is a far bigger prize to be focused on today. Survival. [gallery ids="99586,104913" nav="thumbs"]

Kaya Henderson Up Close

When Kaya Henderson was chosen to be Interim Chancellor of the District of Columbia School System in the midst of a turbulent political sea change, things in her life began to change in a big way. It’s not like she didn’t have a big job before: she had been Michelle Rhee’s right-hand person for years, first at The New Teacher Project, then as Deputy Director, running the Office of Human Capital at DCPS when Rhee became the District’s first chancellor. “I was used to being kind of under the radar. You could talk to people without talking shop, or that ‘hey—you’re so and so, wow!’ kind of thing,” she said. “Before this happened, I could come home to Brentwood, stop at the nearby tavern because their kitchen stayed open until closing, talk to my friends, have a hamburger and relax.” “Now, you can’t do it anymore,” she said. “People come up to you all of the time. You end up talking about the schools even among my friends.” Henderson has become kind of famous in her own way. People write articles about her now. They want to know not only about the efficacy of the Impact Evaluation System for evaluating teachers, but about her dog and her boyfriend. That’s not likely to get any better soon. Rumors have been swirling in the press this week that Mayor Vincent Gray was going to announce that he would make Henderson’s status as DCPS Chancellor permanent. When I asked her if she actually wanted the job, which she’s probably been asked hundreds of times by now, she shot her head back and sighed. “People said I was, I don’t know, ambivalent about it,” she said. “I just don’t like that word, that’s all. This is a job you have to get used to. You have to decide to do it and do it right, that you make progress, that you make it better for the kids. The mayor and I get along. We meet once a week. I think he wants reform as much as anybody. “So however it works out, I’ll be fine with it.” “You know what happens when you get at the center of things like this job,” she said, not entirely happily. “People get to know your business. They want to know your business.” That probably comes with the territory, which brings with it the media. She knows that, pretty well too. Her first foray into the land of flashbulbs came when she was introduced to the public as interim chancellor in a giant hug-a-thon, featuring presumptive mayor Vincent Gray, then-acting Mayor Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, who had just announced her resignation. The appointment came at a tumultuous time. Gray had only a short time ago upset Fenty in a Democratic Primary election, a seismic political event which many saw as a referendum against school reform, Rhee and Fenty. “That whole thing was a shock in some ways,” she said. “If you told me when we first got here that I would be here, where I am, interim chancellor and all that, I’d have said you got to be kidding. We all thought we would be in the midst of a second Fenty term, doing our jobs, continuing on with the work that had begun and so on. But it was Michelle who asked me to do this. She said: You’ve got to make sure this continues, and that’s why a lot of the team remained, assuring continuity.” Now she’s here, and very much a public figure. Not that she’s exactly shy. Henderson, 40, can command a room, even when its practically empty, as when she went with Gray on a series of town hall meet-and-greets that not only introduced Gray to the folks in the various wards of the city, but also Henderson. She came in out of her office hands outstretched to sit with me at one of those big long conference tables. This is a woman who doesn’t leave you much room not to like her. She’s direct, with an open, animated face that breaks easily into a smile or laughter. She is also a serious person, something of a wonk whose comfort zone is probably three-hour banter about policy. Nobody should make any mistakes: she is totally committed to school reform, which includes notions that you ought to be able to fire bad teachers and reward good ones, and that the Impact Evaluation System is an excellent and fair way of evaluation. Listen to her talk, and you get the notion that she’s spent a lot of time with Michelle Rhee: “I believe with all my heart that a great teacher can change a classroom, can change your life.” This is practically a mantra of reform—just the other day the governor of Indiana used almost the exact phrase talking about teacher’s unions. She is also a patient worker and a relationship-builder; that much talked about revolutionary, dynamic contract signed by the Washington Teachers Union under George Parker was led by Henderson. “It’s about trust, it’s about relationships and building a process,” she said. “We all—our team, Parker’s team—worked on this long and hard under difficult conditions, but in the end we got there…Now we sort of have to start all over.” Nathan Saunders, a strong critic of the Impact Evaluation System, defeated Parker in an election for the WTU’s presidency. “Philosophically, I agree with Michelle,” Henderson said. “She has been and is my best friend. But that doesn’t mean I’m her, or that I work like she does, or have a similar personality, or always agree with her.” Henderson exudes certain straightforward warmth, a no-nonsense straight talk, and an optimism that is obvious. She’s had some hurdles to deal with—a faction-driven problem over principals at Hardy School in Georgetown for one, facing budget cuts and possible school closings. You’d think that Henderson would have been a natural fit for the education world, given that her mother Kathleen was a teacher and a principal. But in fact, she went to Georgetown University and the School Of Foreign Service. Because she was interested in policy, she ended up at Teach for America, teaching middle school in the South Bronx. “Still, I grew up in the suburbs, Westchester. And my mom was a huge influence on me, that’s absolutely true,” she said. “We lost her in 2003 to colon cancer. She was 53. Just 53…We decided—she decided—to make the most of the time she had left. We spent a lot of time together, with her friends, teachers, principals and superintendents, and it was such a time. It was full of life. She wanted to spend her last hours with her friends and that was a blessing.” Just with the open tone that she talks about her mother, you can tell this might have happened last year and that she thinks a lot about her. “Oh yes,” she said, “You have to wonder what she would have thought about this. It’s funny…I talk to her old pals, superintendents some of them, and I look where I am and I think about her, sure.” And when the interim tag comes off, she’ll think about her again. As of Wednesday, March 9, the day of The Georgetowner's publication, Ms. Henderson was officially named Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School system.

Undercover Dining

  -The appointment was for 12:30 p.m. at a fairly new restaurant in Georgetown. The reservation was under the name of Fred, but the rendezvous was with Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s food critic. Depending on what he writes, Sietsema is either the most beloved or the most reviled man in the Washington restaurant universe. Right on time, there’s a tap on my shoulder. “Hi, I’m Fred,” he says. “Nice to meet you.” Fred-slash-Sietsema is dashingly dressed, and not looking at all like a man who eats out 13 times a week. He is trim and fit, and not by accident. “The day the Washington Post hired me, I hired a personal trainer to work me out three times a week. It is more a professional necessity than a personal indulgence,” he says. He also gives himself a break, sometimes skipping lunch on Saturday. This lunch is one of what Sietsema calls his first takes, his first visit to a restaurant. He normally tests a restaurant at least three times before writing a review, believing anybody can have a bad day. But he also makes sure he sees restaurants at their worst and that is Monday, the slow day of the restauranting week. The dining room is virtually empty as we are led to our table. In the 1990s Taiwanese movie, “Eat Drink Man Woman,” the best chef in the country has lost his ability to taste the food he cooks. I wondered the same of Sietsema. Can he still tell good food from bad? Doesn’t it get boring to eat out all the time? Like one of his reviews, which mixes considered praise with cutting criticism, his answer is a contradiction. He doesn’t get bored because “you have to love this to really do it well.” At the same time, “I eat mediocre food so you don’t have to.” But when we pause to consider the menu, it is clear that familiarity hasn’t dulled Sietsema’s approach. At first glance watching him casually scanning the menu is like watching a rerun of “Colombo,” where you know the innocuous look around the room has revealed some hidden truth nobody else can see. But then as Sietsema continues to study the menu I realize I am actually watching a museum curator examining a newly found piece of the Dead Sea scrolls, relishing in the discovery of seeing something potentially wonderful for the first time. Almost out of nowhere, a hyper-attentive waiter springs over to offer his advice and promote what he believes are the unique characteristics of some of the dishes. Sietsema orders. We order some of the recommendations but also a few “benchmark” dishes to check how the restaurant is on the basics. It is said the best spies do not stand out. Sietsema has same low-key manner. But it becomes clear very quickly that this is not just a job most people would envy. To Sietsema, this is a sacred trust — keeping chefs honest, and serving the people. And despite the obvious thought that it would be fun to eat out all time, it is a job, “most food is generally somewhere in the middle. Some of it can be good, most just ok.” But he has to try it all. It is a little ironic that in a town where power and perception are currency, one of its most powerful journalists doesn’t write about politics. There is no doubting Sietsema’s clout. When he wrote a wonderful review of an Indian restaurant newly opened in what had been a funeral plot for a number of restaurants that preceded it, it was suddenly impossible to get a table. But when he dismissed the service at one of the most prominent restaurants in the city, taking away one of his impossibly hard-to-win stars, even people who couldn’t afford to eat there noticed. “It’s the small mom and pop restaurants I feel most responsible towards,” he says. But it is not bad reviews he worries about. He is concerned that if he gives a good review, small restaurants will be overwhelmed by a wave of expectant — and often disappointed — customers. He generally gives his smaller reviewees a heads up a few days before the review comes out. I have a very personal relationship with food. But when the first course arrives I realize Sietsema is in a different class. As I dive into what promises to be a tasty appetizer, I realize he is just isn’t here to eat. He is here to taste. To experience. He seems to have an almost cold analytical relationship with what sits before him. Our adrenalined waiter reappears concerned because Sietsema has barely nibbled. Sietsema is ready with a disarming reason: “Saving space, big breakfast.” In reality, he has what he needs. “Where I grew up all the food was beige,” Sietsema, raised in rural Minnesota, says. His mother was a great cook but there was no history of gastronomy in his family, although he fondly remembers occasional visits to the city where his dad would treat them to great restaurants. His arrival in Washington is the classic D.C. story. He spent a semester interning here during college, fell in love with the city and decided to stay. A professor had a contact at the Washington Post that landed his first job, which led to being assistant to the legendary restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman. His main job was to try out the recipes (“That’s when I learned how to cook”). Stints followed in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle (where he was food critic for Microsoft’s Sidewalk.com) before returning to take over at the Post. Today he is a virtual one-man industry with his biannual roundups, video blog (which was just a whimsy that seems to have taken off), and a seemingly never-ending stream of other writing. He makes at least one trip out of town a month to add variety. The first bite of the main course proves as disappointing as the appetizers. Sietsema is clearly not impressed. He takes several more bites and puts down his fork. This experience unfortunately is not uncommon. While D.C. has been growing as a food town, Sietsema says it is a growth more of quantity than quality. Both Georgetown and Downtown are becoming, he says somewhat dismissively, like Bethesda, where there are a lot of restaurants, but not many are really good. He believes the most exciting areas gastronomically in the city are the up and coming Logan Circle and H Street N.E. corridors. Part of the problem, he says, is that too many chefs try to be too fancy. Sietsema could be the personification of the food critic in the animated movie Ratatouille. In the climax of that film, the legendary and feared critic is wowed by the simplest of dishes. For Sietsema, likewise, a simple burger or well made roast chicken will impress more than rich and ambitious sauces, which he says are like a crutch. Dessert is offered, promoted, encouraged. A house speciality, nothing like it anywhere else. Sietsema listens attentively and as the waiter heads off shares a glance to say he deserves effort points, if nothing else. Unfortunately, our waiter’s ardent proselytizing is once more undermined by the food. I suddenly realize Sietsema is going to have to endure this food at least twice more. Just as suddenly I am feeling slightly less envious. When the bill comes, it raises another interesting question: how does he pay without revealing his undercover identity? And yet for a decade, Sietsema has been able to eat in anonymity. He credits eating with different people (the best part of the job, he says), 15 OpenTable restaurant reservation accounts and never calling from his office, since the prefix is identifiable as the Washington Post’s. On occasion he uses disguises, but he says they take over an hour to get right and he only does those rarely. But there is still the point of paying. Cash is the obvious answer, but it turns out he also has a rather clever, but legal, credit card trick. All the same, he has had some close calls, and he is certain he has been recognized by a waiter or two. But fortunately they tend to move on, he says. His biggest concern is leaving his dry cleaning, which has his name on the label. As critic-for-a-lunch, I have assumed an air of authority and casually write off this restaurant. But Sietsema gently chides me. Everybody has a bad day, he reminds me. He reiterates a point made early in the meal that it is not just the food. People tend to be forgiving if the overall experience is good. He will be back, and I get the distinct impression there will be fresh chance to win those coveted but stingily awarded stars. But as Sietsema heads off, without a far more impressive second act, those stars are looking pretty dim.

What’s Your Smart Phone App-titude?

Once — it now seems a time long, long ago in a place far, far away — you picked up a phone, dialed a number and actually spoke to someone. How naïve we were. Then came texting. How quaint! Today, it is all about that “app,” those programs that bring your smart phone to life and have made good old telephony all but redundant. From social phenomena like Four Square (essentially a homing beacon that screams “I’m over here!”) to mobile GPS to help you get to that Four Square friend; from apps to run your business to iFart (yes, one app will let out unsociable sounds and now even smells from your phone — set it on your friend’s phone and watch the fun), there are more apps than you will ever get to try. It is estimated there are about 150,000 iPhone apps and at least 15,000 Droid apps (Droid is Google’s answer to the iPhone operating system). So we thought it would be interesting to see what Washington’s media community uses or, as we found out, doesn’t use. Kate Michael Blogger, K Street Kate I use Twitter for many reasons: to help tell people what is going and where I am, and to share information that is useful to my followers. Carol Joynt Multi-media journalist Interesting that you should ask. I'm just back from a spring break getaway with my son and the iPhone saved our you-know-whats in two critical instances, both having to do with traffic … Special mention to the WTOP "Glass-Enclosed Nerve” app. Kiki Ryan Reporter, Politico I love the Google maps app. Whenever I take road trips, I am obsessed with watching the blue blinking light as the car moves. And because I am obsessed with the Food Network shows about the little diners with weird fried food, I'm always searching for them on Google maps when I'm driving in the middle of nowhere thinking I may come across one. Kitty Kelley Author, journalist I can barely handle my cell phone. I haven't progressed to smart phone apps yet. Give me another five years. Jeanne Jennings Marketing consultant, author [My favorite] would have to be the Facebook app for my Blackberry. It makes it easy to keep up with friends and family when I am traveling. The interface is clean and intuitive — it's a great example of how to “boil down” a website for viewing on a mobile device. Ben Bradlee Legend A smartphone what? I don't even have a cell phone. John Donvan ABC News correspondent Google maps on Droid allows me to speak in a request while driving and it finds the route and starts speaking back directions. It has built-in GPS navigation that fills a gap that I had of wanting: not to have to stop and pull to the side of road and enter an address. And it gets you there. Bill Press Talk radio host I'm fairly new on iPhone and don't have any apps but the most basic ones. Someday, but not yet! Robert Allbritton Publisher, Politico Why, the Politico iPhone app, of course! Second is the Apple Remote app, because I can run the house stereo, which is hooked up to iTunes. Other than that, I use a Blackberry. Not exactly sexy answers, but they are very honest. I'm all about functionality. I am very excited about the new "Metro" project app we are working on for local news in the D.C. area, but it is unreleased. Sonya Bernhardt Publisher, The Georgetowner and The Downtowner My favorite is the Google Mobile app. The best feature is the voice search, which lets you find whatever location you’re looking for — in the car, on the street or elsewhere — just by talking into the phone. It also plugs in with Google maps, giving you exact directions to what you searched for from wherever you are. Amos Gelb is the director for the George Washington University’s Semester in Washington Journalism program. Contact him at gelb@gwu.edu. Claire Sanders Swift is a former broadcast producer turned national media specialist. Contact her at claire@clairemedia.com. [gallery ids="99104,99105,99106,99107" nav="thumbs"]