The D.C. Attorney General’s office hosted its sixth annual New Direction Awards on Oct. 12, honoring 26 District youth who have demonstrated resilience in overcoming adversity.
Held at the Old Council Chambers, the event celebrated the work of residents aged between 12 and 24 years old for remarkable acts of service to the community.
Attorney General Karl Racine started the awards in 2015 to honor and encourage youth to persevere in the face of challenges. The recognition lapsed in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
“We want our kids thinking about tomorrow and not thinking that they’re not going to make it to tomorrow,” Racine said.
Celebrating young people’s accomplishments is incredibly important, Racine said, especially as youth crime has been the center of debates in this election cycle.
“The Right Direction Award simply is for young people who may have had a stumble — but guess what? They got themselves up like we have to every day as adults, and we celebrate that,” Racine said. “It’s important for them to be recognized.”
One awardee, 18-year-old Ariyah Nash, started a club for survivors of sexual abuse and assault. A graduate of DC International School, Nash experienced homelessness for a period of four months during her senior year of high school. She put her pain into working for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington in Southeast D.C., she said. She’s taking a gap year but wants to attend Spelman, a historically Black liberal college for women in Atlanta, Ga., to study psychology. She and other awardees said the District government needs to involve youth more in governance and lawmaking.
“Nothing will change unless we start to speak up and do what we have to do,” Nash said.
The awards recognized a diverse group of young people all at different stages in their life. Several of the awardees are studying toward degrees in computer science, air transportation and social services — striving to continue giving back to their community.
For Natalie “Flo” White, 23, a University of the District of Columbia student studying to be a social worker, the award ceremony gave her the chance to meet with other inspiring young people.
“I love just being amongst young people who are doing great things in the community,” she said.
White became homeless at 19 when she lost her apartment during the pandemic. Today, she works for a local youth homeless services nonprofit where she had once received help.
Other awardees shared similarly inspiring stories about overcoming hardship. Dieudonne Kazzembe, 21, came to the United States in 2014 from Uganda where he was a refugee for eight years. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of his parents died before he was three, and the rest of his family was forced to flee the Congo when he was about five.
When he arrived in the District, Kazzembe spoke little English but went on to graduate from Cardozo High School second in his class. He fell in love with flying the first time he was on a plane on his journey from Uganda to the United States and knew immediately that’s what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I actually fell in love with it from there on,” Kazzembe said. Today, he attends Arizona State University and is majoring in air transportation, climbing one more step toward his dream of being a pilot.
Jamarri Kane-White, 21, is no stranger to wrestling housing instability. A senior at Howard University majoring in computer science. He was in the foster care system for 10 years, where bounced between homes whilst keeping up with school. His social worker, girlfriend, parents and friends nominated him for an award for his resilience, an honor that carries deep meaning for him.
“When I hold this (award), it’s a representation of not me, but my community,” he said.