District Bridges: An Origin Story
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Written by Brianne Dornbush, Executive Director of District Bridges
It all started on the patio at Wonderland Ballroom back in 2005, no one is quite sure who came up with the initial idea but after a few pints, a plate or two of nachos, and a lot of laughs the idea of hosting a community festival emerged. The festival would celebrate the diversity, unity, and general awesomeness of Columbia Heights and with that, the first Columbia Heights Day was born.
Ten years later, the all-volunteer board was seeking new board members from the community. I was in the process of dissolving a nonprofit I had founded and was looking for a home for the Columbia Heights Tree Lighting Extravaganza we had been hosting for several years. Chris Seek was the board chair at the time and the CEO of Solimar International, whose office was on the corner of 11th St. NW and Park Rd. NW, right above what was then Meridian Pint. Chris offered to adopt my tree, if I joined the board, which was an easy sell for me, and that was how I got involved.
A few weeks later, I sat at Kangaroo Boxing Club (KBC) with several strangers who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would become some of my closest friends. As the board of the Columbia Heights Day Initiative grew, so did the vision for what we could do for our community. In October 2015, I proposed to the board that we take the organization from a grassroots, volunteer-led effort to an organization with a full-time executive director (me) that would serve the community year-round. The board fully embraces the idea and I suddenly had a new job!
When I reflect on my life, 2016 was probably the most pivotal year of my adult life thus far. That year, we built the foundation of the organization that would become District Bridges. I worked INSANE hours, not because I had to but because I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. It was hard, I was super broke. The kind of broke where I’d call Home Depot to get our $3.19 in sales tax refunded because “we’re a nonprofit” kind of broke. But we were all passionate and committed and the community showed up to support the effort in big ways.
That summer, we applied for a grant from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) to manage the Columbia Heights & Mount Pleasant Main Street program. In November of that year, we found out our application had been chosen and seemingly overnight our grassroots operation had secured the first funding that would enable us to develop into the organization District Bridges has now become.
For me this work is personal. I can say without question, some of the most important, impactful, and life-changing relationships I’ve had have come through my work at District Bridges. One could make the solid argument that the Columbia Heights Day Festival has been the event that has made the biggest impact on my adult life. My job and life’s work was created as a result of the festival, I met some of my closest friends through volunteering together, I met my husband because he volunteered for the festival in 2016, we even met the realtor who sold us our first home because he was a vendor at Columbia Heights Day!
So often when we talk about District Bridges we use the data. The number of businesses served. The amount of money deployed in small business grants. The time spent serving business owners. And while all of these numbers are impressive and important, one thing they don’t illustrate is the people and stories behind the numbers.
The metrics we don’t capture are the number of friendships built. The total number of people experiencing a greater sense of belonging and connectedness. The number of dreams invested in and nurtured into fruition. The amount of strength and resilience developed in a community, business, or individual because of this work.
It is the people behind the stories, behind the numbers, that wake me up every morning with a passion for this work. It is the investment in people that will translate into transformational change in our communities. The investments that District Bridges is making today will have an impact for years and years to come.
Today, I want to challenge you with a question: will you invest in our work? Whether that is a commitment to volunteer or make a financial contribution, your investment today will enable us to continue this work tomorrow and into the future.