Washington Community Scholars’ Center celebrates 10 years at the Nelson Good House in Brookland

Washington Community Scholars' Center director Kimberly Schmidt is flanked by communications director Erica Grasse (left) and assistant director Kelsey Kauffman on the steps of the Nelson Good House in Washington D.C., which celebrates 10 years as program headquarters on Thursday. Previously, the program had been located at the much-beloved, but run-down “This Old House,” a few miles away. (Courtesy of WCSC)

The Brookland neighborhood in Washington D.C. got a little noisier — at least for a few minutes — this week when Washington Community Scholars’ Center (WCSC) director Kimberly Schmidt gathered with assistant director of communications Erica Grasse and associate director of program admissions Kelsey Kauffman to blow party horns on the front steps of the Nelson Good House.

The celebration is small but significant: Ten years ago this week, on Thursday to be exact, WCSC officially moved from cramped quarters at the much-beloved, but run-down “This Old House” to the spacious renovated brick three-story building on Taylor Avenue. (The house was not quite ready for immediate occupancy; the first group of students moved in January of 2006).

The noisemakers and party hats are only a precursor to next year’s 40th anniversary celebration, said Schmidt, a professor of history who can’t resist offering some historical context for the only urban studies program offered through an Anabaptist-affiliated college or university.

“Eastern Mennonite University’s D.C. program started in 1976,” she added. “That’s one year after the Vietnam War ended and two years after Nixon resigned. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.”

Servant leadership part of program vision

One thing that hasn’t changed for EMU’s longest-running cross-cultural program is its unwavering commitment to teaching about servant leadership and social justice, as epitomized by its first director and the building’s namesake, Nelson Good.

Good, who first came to Washington D.C. as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, founded and directed the Washington Study Service Year (WSSY) until his retirement in 1986. As a member of the advisory council, he offered mentorship through programmatic changes in 2002 – reflected in the name-change to Washington Community Scholar’s Center – and then spearheaded the search for a new and larger facility that was closer to public transportation and academic institutions (EMU students at that time attended classes at Catholic University of America and Howard University).

“This Old House” had been used for decades previously by Mennonite service agencies, but despite the nostalgic connections, it was clearly time to move elsewhere: zoning restrictions prevented any upgrades or expansions and the house was not handicapped-accessible.

Good reconnoitered the city, knocked on doors, interviewed prospective sellers, and eventually talked one couple into letting their property go at a reasonable price. The months-long renovation process included “a lot of sweat equity,” Schmidt said, as well as a sizable financial commitment from EMU. Additionally, WCSC alumni and other donors contributed more than $100,000 toward the renovation costs.

When the well-wishers gathered to celebrate Aug. 20, 2005, the afternoon blessing and celebration included speeches, music, remembrances of alumni, and a tribute to Good, who had passed way from cancer just months before. His daughter Deborah, a WSCS participant in 2002, shared a poem, and alumni and friends were also invited to plant a butterfly garden in the backyard.

That garden continues to flourish, Schmidt says. “It’s a beautiful space. The students use it for barbecues and reading a book and just hanging out. If you look in the garden, it’s clearly a place where college students are, and I mean that in a good way.”

Experiencing life in an urban environment

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Nelson and contractor Jay Good at the newly purchased building for WCSC, not long before Nelson’s death of cancer in 2005.

If the garden has been obviously staked out by college students – who come from EMU, Goshen College, Bluffton University, and most recently, through a new articulation agreement with Regis University in Colorado – the three-story brick apartment building, Schmidt says, is quietly innocuous, also in a good way.

Students experience life in a predominately African-American neighborhood with a growing population of foreign-born residents and a Catholic presence (friars-in-training from the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America regularly walk by). The “quietly trending” neighborhood sits between three academic institutions: Catholic American University (CUA), Trinity Washington University and Howard University Divinity School. The CUA/Brooklands metro station bisects the neighborhood and its urban attractions: several restaurants, a coffee-slash-bike shop called The Bike Rack; the mixed-use Monroe Street Market, featuring a thriving studio arts scene with regular music and dance events; a Barnes and Noble; and a few places to find that staple of college life: pizza.

The modern design of the Good House was a perfect and restful complement to the urban experience, says Emily Blake, who lived there that first spring semester and later was assistant director from 2008-2012. “The city can be this crazy collage of interactions and weird and wonderful sights. It’s nice to come home to a place that’s simple and beautiful, and filled with people who know you.”

Fellow WSCS participant Aerlande Wontamo remembers the house that spring was “new, clean and perfect.” She has fond memories of dinners in the common area, walking to and from the metro, and being befriended by local bus drivers. Wontamo took classes at Howard University and worked with the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington, a connection which years later led her to her current position as senior resettlement manager for Lutheran Social Services. She’s lived in the D.C. metro area for about eight years, a decision she traces back to the positive experience of living in the Nelson Good House.

“So many lives continue to be transformed by EMU’s commitment to the WCSC program. This house is the place where that happens, and we honor Nelson Good’s memory by helping students make more memories,” Schmidt said.

Published August 2015.