News & Politics

40 Under Forty: Young Washingtonians to Watch

Here are young Washingtonians to watch in politics, arts, sports, media, medicine, and business. You may be hearing a lot more about them in coming years.

Teen Multimedia Prodigy

Casey Drogin’s videos have a self-exposing quality that would mortify most teenage boys. The subjects of the videos—all of which Drogin stars in—range from a romance with a stuffed hippo to a struggle to play a video game without bursting into tears. “If I think it’s funny,” the 15-year-old multimedia prodigy says, “I’ll do it.”

Drogin has published cartoons in the newspaper Young DC, and last year his work sold at a National Press Club auction alongside that of professionals such as the Washington Post’s Tom Toles. His rap video featuring his song about kosher bread, “Matzah!,” won a Montgomery County Public Schools contest. Drogin has produced dozens of shorts, including one picked up by Xbox’s Web site; many are on YouTube.

He got hooked on video by Takoma Park Middle School teacher Zack Wilson. “He has skills that can’t really be taught,” Wilson says. “He has a great sense of timing and knows what shot to place where.”

In a video-camp contest, Drogin was voted most likely to succeed in the electronic arts. This summer he’s taking a New York Film Academy course, and he hopes to enroll in New York University’s film school after graduating from Silver Spring’s Albert Einstein High. Drogin gets inspiration from idols such as director Quentin Tarantino, but his talent?

“My mom. She’s got a really twisted sense of humor.”

Chef With a Sweet Future

Naomi Gallego isn’t your average chocoholic. This month, the 32-year-old pastry chef at PS7’s in DC’s Penn Quarter flies to Chicago to compete in the World Chocolate Masters US National Competition.

In five hours, she’ll create a chocolate sculpture and 100 chocolates—50 hand-dipped, 50 molded. Then there’s the Iron Chef–style mystery box: “Using whatever’s in it, I have to compose a dessert that has four textures, without any recipes.” If she defeats the other Americans, she’ll compete for World Chocolate Master in Paris.

Gallego earned a Master Pastry diploma at Germany’s Konditormeisterschule. In 2003, Peter Smith, then chef at DC’s Vidalia, hired her. When Smith opened PS7’s last fall, Gallego jumped at the chance to work with him again: “Peter’s up for anything. It provides the platform for me to blossom.”

Gallego’s desserts at PS7’s are a departure from Vidalia’s Southern sweets. Her skill with chocolate is apparent in the PS7’s Chocolate Bar and an innovative Dark Chocolate Linzer Cake, but fruit desserts are equally impressive—such as a pineapple spring roll with cream-cheese sabayon, spiced-carrot reduction, and carrot mousse.

As for her future, she says: “I’d love to bring a sophisticated dessert restaurant to Washington—with tasting menus and wine pairings. And have my own line of chocolates.”

Sharing the Joy of Stepping

Brian Williams knows the power of stepping. It’s more than the energy pulsing from his dancers’ stomping and clapping. By taking performances into schools, the founder of DC’s Step Afrika! has seen youngsters come out of their shells and students get interested in college.

“Stepping is accessible,” says Williams, 38. “All you need is your hands, your feet, a little space, and some friends.”

What at first just looks like a flashy performance becomes a way of teaching values embodied in the art form: teamwork, discipline, commitment.

Williams leads the only professional company dedicated to the percussive dance style originating in historically black fraternities and sororities. He learned stepping at Howard University; during a fellowship in South Africa, he realized it had roots in folk dances there.

Since 1994, Williams has built a group focused on spreading this distinctly American art form and its message of cultural exchange. Embassies have invited Step Afrika! to perform and teach in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Brazil. In June the group makes its first trip to Asia.

Williams’s newest piece, Nxt/Step, mixes traditional stepping with video and electronic music. It premiered at Dance Place to good reviews; an updated version will be performed May 30 through June 3 at DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Eye on the Olympics

When Joan and Don Lothrop adopted a toddler from China, they never imagined she might go back as an Olympian.

Now a freshman at Rockville’s Ma­gruder High School, Corrie Lothrop is focused on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Working with gymnastics coach Kelli Hill—who trained Olympians Dominique Dawes, Elise Ray, and Courtney Kupets—Lothrop has been defying age barriers.

At eight years old, she finished 11th overall at the Massachusetts state championships; by nine, she had the state title. At 11, she took home the gold on the bars at the AAU Junior Olympics, where she swept the titles on every event two years in a row. That same year, she qualified for the USA Junior Olympic National Championships. In 2006, at 14, Lothrop made the junior national team and is ranked sixth among her teammates.

“Making it to the Olympics in China would be good for me,” she says. “I could see how China is now, and being there for gymnastics would be special.”

Says her coach: “She has an amazing work ethic, desire, and determination.”

Cooking Up Help for the Needy

During a college semester in Venice, Karen Borchert fell in love with cooking. Several times a week, she and a friend bought produce from farmers markets, spent hours making dinner, and then shared it with roommates.

When they returned to Wake Forest University, they were “homesick for people to cook for,” Borchert says. The two began making meals for people in need. When friends joined, they knew they had a good idea.

Borchert, 29, now is director of the Campus Kitchens Project, a DC nonprofit that recycles surplus food from school cafeterias and delivers it to the community. There are programs at nine colleges and universities across the country plus a pilot program at DC’s Gonzaga High School. At least three new campuses will take part in the program this year; more than 50 have expressed interest, including Howard University.

Borchert credits DC Central Kitchen—Campus Kitchens’ parent organization—and its founder, Robert Egger: “DC Central Kitchen had a brilliant model in place. Robert took a chance and let us apply it to schools.”

Egger hesitates to take credit. Borchert combines a desire to do good with “a fresh perspective and an intense curiosity,” he says. “Karen exemplifies the new generation surging in the nonprofit world.”

West Wing Phenom

Joel Kaplan is often called Bolten’s Bolten—right-hand man to George W. Bush’s right-hand man, chief of staff Joshua Bolten.

Kaplan, 38, became deputy White House chief of staff last year when he followed Bolten from the Office of Management and Budget, where Bolten had been director and Kaplan deputy director.

Kaplan has taken over from Karl Rove responsibility for crafting domestic policy—and an agenda the President hopes will strengthen his hand.

His Washington rise has been rapid. At his confirmation hearing for the number-two OMB position, Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg said, “I’m not accustomed to calling people as young as you ‘Mr.’ ”

Lautenberg had concerns about Kaplan’s readiness, but even he couldn’t help commenting on the credentials of the “unusual young man”: Harvard for college and law school; four years as a Marines Corps artillery officer; law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and federal appeals-court judge J. Michael Luttig; a member of Bolten’s policy team earlier in Bush’s tenure.

Colleagues are often surprised to learn that Kaplan was once a Democrat. But they weren’t surprised by his actions last year after being named to his top-level post: The workaholic cut short his Hawaii honeymoon to get started.

Portraits With Punch

The highlight of Nekisha Durrett’s young career came last spring. At an international art show in Miami, renowned African-American photographer Carrie Mae Weems bought one of her colorful, large-scale portraits. For Durrett, who had often looked to Weems’s photos for inspiration, the experience was “beyond amazing.”

Just as amazing: Durrett’s work sold out in hours.

Durrett, 31, grew up in Upper Marlboro and graduated from DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Rarely without a sketchpad, she hoped to become a children’s-book illustrator. At Cooper Union in New York, she dabbled in painting, film, sculpture, and other media but eventually gravitated toward photography.

During her senior year, she focused on street photography, snapping candid shots on the subway and in cafes. In 2000, she earned her MFA from the University of Michigan.

Today, Durrett uses graphic-design software to transform photos into oversize, cartoonlike images reminiscent of Japanese anime figures. Says Charles Guice, whose California gallery represents Durrett: “If she can continue producing work that is so fresh and appealing, she will do very well.”

Making the Middle Ages Cool

Somewhere between his Catholic upbringing and his childhood obsession with Dungeons & Dragons, Jeff Sypeck got stuck in the Middle Ages. His first book for adults, Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800, is getting history buffs and critics stuck there, too.

The narrative navigates Charlemagne’s assent to power, his empire’s emergence, and his stamp on future rulers such as Napoleon and Hitler. Sypeck, 35, has been praised for making complicated history readable—“magnificently” so, Publishers Weekly said.

Sypeck writes of the emperor: “Looking for precedents, as poets are wont to do, his flatterers praised him, obeyed him, and hoped that he might be, in their wonderful optimism and faith, their David. Instead, unbeknownst to them, he was becoming Charlemagne.”

A researcher contracted to the US Postal Service, Sypeck teaches medieval literature at the University of Maryland University College.

“I like being the person in Washington who goes to the party and isn’t a lawyer or politician,” he says. “Being an author of a book about Charlemagne is a great conversation starter.”

Leading a New-Media Army

A self-described dork, Rob Curley began his journalism career as a reporter and Web master for the Ottawa Herald in his native Kansas. He’s since taken the lead in redefining news for the 21st century.

Curley, 36, has turned each site he’s managed into an industry standard. When he was director of new media/convergence for the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas, the paper’s Web site won many awards from the Newspaper Association of America.

Now head of product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive—which oversees,, and—the “Internet punk” is finding innovative ways to get news to the public. His achievements include videos that can be transferred to iPod or PlayStation Portable, even text-messaged to a cell phone. As Curley puts it, “We’re not in the newspaper business; we’re in the news business.”

His advice for newsprint’s survival? “If the Washington Post is going to compete with Google, we’ve got to hire a nerd army, too.”

Finding Healthcare’s Heart

Washington Hospital Center cardiologist George Ruiz has spent his life trying to make the big picture make sense for others. As a child, he translated for his Colombian father and Cuban mother. Now he translates medical terms for patients and speaks on Spanish-language television and radio about heart health.

Ruiz, 34, is one of a handful of cardiologists in Washington specializing in the treatment of adults who had congenital heart defects as children. These patients may have unmonitored long-term complications, such as arrhythmias, that create multiple problems. Ruiz enjoys sorting out and solving those problems.

“It’s the difference between an off-the-rack suit and a custom suit that I’m making for someone,” he says. “I want to be that individual tailor.”

On leave as a White House Fellow, Ruiz works with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson on ways to improve the healthcare system for vets. In the process, he’s learning how a government agency works from the top down—skills he plans to use in the future so that patients won’t fall through the cracks.

Ruiz likens his heart patients to a large organization: “They’re both complex. You just have to believe you can change the course.”

Educating the Educators

Andrew Rotherham can’t keep his ideas about education to himself. In the late 1990s, while an adviser to President Bill Clinton, he started sending mass e-mails of news, analysis, and commentary on the “eduworld” to friends and colleagues. This turned into a twice-monthly newsletter and then, in 2004, one of the first education blogs—Eduwonk (

Now the online mouthpiece of Rotherham’s think tank, Education Sector, the blog has helped propel the 36-year-old Reston native to the forefront of US education policy. He’s been a member of the Virginia State Board of Education since 2005 and has written opinion pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, Rotherham could find his way into the Education Department.

Rotherham is proudest of the people he has worked with and mentored at Education Sector: “They’re the ones who are going to make a difference.”

New Face of Jewish Orthodoxy

In 2004, DC’s oldest Orthodox synagogue, Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, had dwindled to a tiny congregation. Some proposed selling the building on upper 16th Street and disbanding. Instead, the synagogue recruited a young New York City rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld.

Only 12 people attended Herzfeld’s first Sabbath service at Ohev Sholom, but under his leadership, the congregation has grown to 300 families. Many couples have moved nearby to live within walking distance.

His “modern Orthodox” approach appeals to Conservative, Reform, even nonpracticing Jews. Herzfeld, 32, welcomes all into his “heterogeneous congregation” and gives out his cell-phone number. Hundreds attend Ohev Sholom’s free High Holy Day services, Passover Seders, and Purim parade on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Following Orthodox law, men and women sit separately in services, but at Ohev Sholom, women give sermons from the pulpit and study Torah; girls celebrate their bat mitzvahs by reading from the Torah at a women’s prayer service.

“There is a deep spirituality in the Orthodox approach,” Herzfeld says. “I try to do a better job of communicating the message—a commitment to tradition, to Torah, to the principles of our parents and grandparents.”

On the Capitol Hill Beat

In the summer of 1992, then-18-year-old Brody Mullins had an internship at the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. His work was routine—sorting and delivering mail to reporters such as Gerald Seib. But the newsroom was buzzing with the upcoming presidential election, and Mullins—who had grown up in Chevy Chase DC talking politics at the dinner table—was in heaven. “From that point,” he says, “I knew the Journal was the paper I wanted to get back to.”

In 2005, after college at Northwestern and two years at Roll Call covering lobbyists, he landed back at the Journal, hired by Seib to cover the Hill beat. For his coverage of the Jack Abramoff scandal, he received the 2006 Dirksen Award, honoring distinguished reporting of Congress. The Journal recently moved him to its investigative unit.

“Everybody wants a job where they don’t realize they’re working,” Mullins says. “Journalism is pretty good for that.”

Key to School Success

When Susan Schaeffler founded KIPP DC: KEY Academy in 2001, she hoped to create one good middle school. She didn’t think she’d create the best.

KEY Academy has been DC’s highest-performing middle school since 2003, swelling its waiting list and inspiring Schaeffler, 36, to open two more schools.

“There’s a sense of urgency throughout our nine-hour day,” Schaeffler says.

Her schools are part of a nationwide network of Knowledge Is Power Program schools founded to serve disadvantaged students. KIPP kids spend 40 percent more time in school than the average public-school student. They take enrichment classes such as ballet and orchestra. Eighth-graders complete algebra.

Schaeffler wants her students to receive the same education they’d get at private schools: “They’re going to be competing against those kids for slots in high school and college.”

This past year, officials from KIPP DC and the District’s Scott Montgomery Elementary met to share ideas about curriculum and culture—a move that draws together traditional and charter schools, two systems typically at odds.

By 2009, Schaeffler will add two elementary schools and a high school: “This job isn’t an option. It’s something that needs to get done.”

Artist Connecting the Dots

As far back as she can remember, Amy Lin, 28, loved drawing and painting. But when she was accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design, her parents said they’d pay for college only if she chose a major they were sure would pay the bills. She opted for chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon but promised herself she’d use her career to finance her first love: “Art is one of the few things I can do all by myself and make all the decisions.”

Lin has had four solo shows of the colorful dot drawings she creates in her Fairfax apartment, with two more shows lined up. Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote that her artwork “fascinates, and lingers, long after you have left the gallery.”

For each work, she uses colored pencils to draw small—sometimes minuscule—dots with open centers on a white background. In her early designs, some of which took her 300 hours each, the dots formed structured images using straight lines. Her recent works, which she finishes more quickly, are random, sometimes fluid.

It wasn’t always easy following her dream: “It’s almost like a milestone, when I think I’m just doing it my way regardless of what anybody else says.”

Giving Hope Through Jobs

When Summer Spencer got an accounting degree from the University of Richmond, she knew what she wanted: “I was sure I was going to be CEO of my own Fortune 500 company.”

But when she took a job as an auditor in Washington, she saw homeless people for the first time. “I couldn’t just do nothing,” she says. So she volunteered in a shelter, helping people find jobs: “It was the best part of my week.”

As her interest grew, she helped lay the groundwork for a nonprofit that would match employers with jobless people. At 24, she became executive director; four years later, when the charity—Workforce Organizations for Regional Collaboration—became an affiliate of Goodwill of Greater Washington, she took on the additional role of Goodwill’s head of training and employment. During her tenure, she helped member organizations improve their relationships with local businesses.

Last October, Spencer, 31, became executive director of a new group called the Center for Alexandria’s Children, whose focus is child abuse. Her accomplishments so impressed those around her that in March, DC mayor Adrian Fenty nominated her to be director of the Department of Employment Services. She plans to work with schools and other DC agencies to improve the system for helping people find jobs.

At the mayor’s news conference announcing her nomination, Spencer called her department a “sleeping giant.” Chances are good that giant’s going to wake up.

Football Coach to Remember

When Germantown’s Northwest High School opened in 1998, then-25-year-old Randy Trivers was tapped to run its football program. His team struggled through a 2–8 opening season.

Trivers has since led the Jaguars to five division championships, three regional championships, and a state championship. The Redskins named him the area’s 2006 High School Coach of the Year, applauding his influence on and off the field.

Trivers—who played running back for Northwest rival Sherwood High—stresses the importance of academics. After ten years teaching English, he now runs Northwest’s Skills for Success program, which teaches time management, organization, and motivation to at-risk youth.

“Those years between 9th and 12th grade are crucial,” says Trivers, 34. “Young people are making decisions that can impact them forever. I try to set a good example.”

He keeps in touch with graduates, many of whom have won college scholarships. Anwar Phillips of the New Orleans Saints was his first alum to reach the NFL.

Says Trivers: “There’s no better profession where you can see the difference you’ve made in people’s lives.”

Poet With an Ear for Music

Kyle Dargan’s debut poetry collection, The Listening, won the 2003 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, awarded to a previously unpublished African-American writer. The New York Times praised Dargan’s attention to language and sound, saying, “The Listening is right; Dargan has a marvelous ear.”

In the book, jazz and hip-hop references are juxtaposed with expressions of African-American culture. In “Misornithology,” the Newark native writes:

Barber hands move like hummingbirds,refining my abstract ’fro.Bergan Street, Newark. Of course,he’s talking jazz while snipping—all the older scissorsmithsbeing avid squint-faced toe tappers.

Dargan, 26, teaches at American University, where he’s studying for a master’s in arts administration. He’s also an editor of Callaloo, a black literary journal.

His next book, Bouquet of Hungers, due in October, draws on his experiences in such places as Virginia, where he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, and Indiana, where he taught at Indiana University. As such, the book is a departure. Readers, he says, “expect me to write about hip-hop. They expect me to write about being black.”

His own term for this next step in his career? “A necessary risk.”

—Bethonie Butler

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Julie Lee says her Korean-American family’s hard-work ethic led her to where she is at age 30—head of a $40-million information-technology company.

At 12, Lee made $5 an hour doing data entry for STG, her father’s Reston IT company. She was still working for him when she started her own IT company, now called Access Systems, during her senior year at James Madison University. The family affair continued when she, her brother, and her father all got master’s degrees in systems engineering from George Washington University in 2004.

Access Systems, based in Reston, has contracts with 11 of 15 Cabinet-level departments for software development, Web support, and network security. Last year, the US Small Business Administration’s Washington office named her Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Lindsay Godwin, director of programs at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, calls her “probably the best young businesswoman in the area.”

When Lee isn’t working, she goes to Wizards and Redskins games and volunteers with Girl Scouts of America; she’s on the local chapter’s board. She wants the girls she mentors to grow into successful women: “I’m an example of what they can be, and I hope that they surpass me.”

Rising Star From Montana

Stephanie Schriock keeps trying to leave Washington politics behind, but it keeps sucking her back in.

In 2002, tired of her job with the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, she left for Vermont to be finance director on the presidential campaign of a little-known governor, Howard Dean. Thanks to the grassroots passion surrounding Dean’s campaign, she broke nearly every fundraising record in Democratic presidential politics. When Dean lost, Schriock moved to San Francisco to advise a group of tech entrepreneurs as they moved into the political realm.

In 2005, Schriock—a Montana native—met Jon Tester, who wanted to run for the Senate from her home state. The granddaughter of farmers, she admired his fervor and background: “To have a shot at electing a farmer to the US Senate, I said, ‘I have to do this.’ ” She signed up as his campaign manager.

Tester’s unlikely victory—he upset incumbent Conrad Burns amid the 2006 Democratic wave—helped establish him as the buzzcut poster child for a new breed of rural Democrat. Says Schriock: “There’s still a struggle in rural America, and it’s significant.”

Now back in Washington as Tester’s chief of staff, the 34-year-old is a rising power player. But she’s not entirely sold on living and working on Capitol Hill: “I’d like it better if it was in Montana.”

Tender Care for Sick Children

Yewande Johnson rarely wears a white coat. An anesthesiologist who specializes in treating pain in children, Johnson wants her patients to feel comfortable. So she makes rounds at Children’s National Medical Center wearing a fleece jacket because “those white coats can be intimidating.”

Johnson, 33, came to Children’s for a fellowship after medical school at the University of North Carolina and a residency in Birmingham. Now she’s an assistant professor in Children’s pediatric anesthesiology department—and a rising star in a developing field. Last year, the National Institutes of Health awarded her a research grant in pediatric pharmacology.

Johnson recalls a 12-year-old boy dying of a brain tumor and screaming in pain. Rather than increase his dosage—the typical response—she worked hard to find a more effective medication.

“Giving children peaceful, lasting memories with their parents,” Johnson says, “is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”

Telling Stories of Teen Life

In 2001, Sarah Grace McCandless tired of telling people she was a writer without published books. So she wrote Grosse Pointe Girl, an essay collection about adolescence in her Michigan hometown, where, she says, teen suicides were common and adults “dealt with feelings mostly through martinis.”

McCandless—now 32 and a Falls Church resident—was working in marketing for an Oregon comics company. She paid the printing costs for Grosse Pointe Girl, made press kits, and sold enough copies to cover expenses. Then she sent the book—her “demo tape”—to agents and landed a deal to turn it into a novel.

With the narrator’s youthful voice (Emma is in sixth grade), the illustrated novel has drawn lots of teens. People wrote that the book’s “humiliations and pretensions are timeless.”

In her second novel, The Girl I Wanted to Be, McCandless explores betrayal and loss through a 14-year-old. Up next: a novel with an adult narrator, a nonfiction book, and a screenplay. McCandless also maintains a witty blog on her Web site, “It keeps me processing and thinking.”

Service Goes to College

During her freshman year at Yale, Kirsten Lodal sensed a gap between university service programs and the New Haven community. “You would work at a soup kitchen for one night and never see those people again,” she says.

To bridge the divide, Lodal cofounded a program that connects college students with New Haven residents. Called National Student Partnerships even before it expanded, it harnesses young people’s energy to help the needy file taxes, apply for jobs, and obtain healthcare, housing, childcare, and transportation.

Lodal says it works because students have the enthusiasm and tenacity to navigate bureaucracy—and the community sees them as open-minded and trustworthy.

Since NSP’s 1998 founding, 12 cities have opened offices; the headquarters, in DC’s Penn Quarter, has 12 full-timers. Volunteers from Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard universities staff a second DC office.

Says Lodal, 27: “The idea is to bring students out of the campus bubble.”

In 2004, Lodal received a Jefferson Award for Public Service alongside Sandra Day O’Connor and filmmaker Ken Burns. A McLean native, she credits her parents—who spent their careers in public education and government—for instilling her ethic: “Community service is in my blood.”

Radio Reporter With a Twist

“When you’re done listening to a Guy Raz piece,” says National Public Radio news chief Ellen Weiss, “it could have only been done by Guy Raz.”

Weiss hired Raz as an intern in 1997. At 32, he’s now covering the Pentagon—and is one of NPR’s rising stars.

After seven years in Berlin, London, and Jerusalem—the last for CNN—Raz returned to NPR in June. He was ready to settle down with his wife, a lawyer, but was also glad to return to his roots. NPR is where he feels comfortable; its format allows him to do “the kind of work I wanted to.”

Raz doesn’t want simply to report the news but to “explain why it’s important and what it means.” Last year, he did a five-part series in which he deconstructed terms that have taken on new weight, such as “jihad.” He has a talent for creating memorable pieces out of seemingly mundane stories; Weiss says he made a report about a Senate confirmation hearing “fun to listen to.”

Raz works to make his stories engaging. When interviewing, he listens for elements that sound expressive—a regional accent, for example: “It’s not just about what’s being said. It’s about the pace and the rhythm. It’s like a song.”

Rocker on the Rise

For a young rock musician, Timothy Bracken has racked up big accolades. Stephen Negrey, owner of Arlington’s Iota club, became a fan after hearing Bracken’s first solo set six years ago. Neg­rey booked him to open for musician Todd Snider, who told Bracken, “That was really good—you should be a folksinger.” He then handed him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Bracken, 26, was invited to play on a tribute album to singer/songwriter Peter Case, who said Bracken’s rendition of “Turnin’ Blue” was better than his own.

Bracken taught himself drums at age eight, then guitar and piano. He went to Baltimore School for the Arts and was recruited to play bass in June Star after meeting the band’s leader, Andrew Grimm.

Bracken’s mature-sounding debut, 2005’s Disrepair, five Wammie nominations, and steady work—50 shows a year at places like Velvet Lounge and the Red & the Black—are an impressive beginning. From his stockpile of 200 songs, he plans to record this year—and produce an album each year thereafter—and hopes to hit bigger clubs like the Birchmere and Black Cat.

“I feel like I’m just starting out,” he says, “even though I’ve been playing forever.”

New Life for a Staid Menu

In November, Ashok Bajaj—who owns six DC restaurants—sat down to a lunch prepared by a New York City chef, Tony Conte. Bajaj wanted to see if Conte could take over the kitchen at the Oval Room, a power spot better known for Condoleezza Rice sightings than for its cooking.

After the beet salad with passion-fruit gelée and horseradish shavings, Bajaj walked out. With one taste of that salad, Bajaj says, “I knew.” Conte got the job.

Conte, 35, worked through high school at a New Haven pizzeria and went to the Culinary Institute of America. He landed at one of Manhattan’s best restaurants, Jean-Georges, and in about a year rose from entry-level cook to executive sous chef.

He’s been at the Oval Room since July and has given the dining room new life. There’s still a cobb salad and turkey club, but those stalwarts are outnumbered by Conte’s artful dishes—tuna tartare with ribboned fish and fried tapioca; striped bass with lily bulbs and vanilla oil.

“We’re going to keep changing things,” Conte says. Even the beet salad? He laughs: “That guy’s never coming off the menu.”

Arbiters of Uncommon Style

If you see a local society matron in a strapless ball gown made from vintage T-shirts, she probably bought it from Unsung Designers. The DC-based online boutique (, with an Adams Morgan showroom open every Saturday) is the area’s best place to find cutting-edge fashion from little-known California and New York designers.

It’s the brainchild of Alishia Frey and Grace Wang, both 34. Frey, a Texan, and Wang, who grew up in DC, met working in fundraising. They bonded over their habit of traveling to Manhattan to find unusual fashion. “Two years ago,” Frey says, “there wasn’t a lot of choice if you didn’t want to shop at a chain store.”

Neither had extensive retail experience, but with help from the University of the District of Columbia’s Small Business Development Center, they turned Unsung into a national success.

Many brands the site carries are available only there. But for both women, it’s about more than selling one-of-a-kind dresses and handmade jewelry. They also hope to mentor young designers and help them develop business plans.

So how are the clothes selling in Washington? “A lot of the funkier items are harder,” Wang says. “So many people say they can’t wear something to work. We’re like, ‘Come on—you can go anywhere to get your work clothes!’ ”

Getting the Words Right

Sarah Courteau grew up on a farm in the Ozarks as the eldest of seven. For a time her family lived, by choice, with no electricity or indoor plumbing—a lifestyle, she says, without “distraction from the central business of living.”

Courteau, 31, brings that nothing-extraneous sensibility to her nonfiction, which she describes as “going for the essential meat of any story.”

Her essay “Chicken 81”—published in the journal Witness and reprinted in Harper’s and the anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth—begins, “My mother is a killer.”

She goes on to describe her mother’s experience on a chicken farm: “My mother had charge of three chicken houses, forty-eight thousand chickens to a house, and several thousand Cornish hens besides. She had three main duties: feed them, water them, and kill any of the chicks that weren’t uniform and spry.”

Courteau attended Yale and the University of Iowa nonfiction-writing program before landing a job at the Wilson Quarterly; she was named literary editor last summer. In 2005, she helped edit Washington Post writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a National Book Award finalist.

“I tend to get sort of romantic about editing,” she says. “There’s a real sense of satisfaction in getting something just right.”

Putting Humanity on Film

For Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, watching War/Dance, their first feature documentary, at the Sundance Film Festival in January was terrifying and exhilarating. “The first wave of laughter came at a moment we didn’t expect,” Sean says.

After that, the husband and wife relaxed into the audience’s energy. When the crowd left talking about the movie, the pair knew their directorial debut at the festival was a success.

Set against Uganda’s 20-year civil war, War/Dance tells of three children going to a music-and-dance competition. Critics have praised its striking cinematography and seamless editing; it took the Sundance Director’s Award in the documentary category.

Sean, 33, and Andrea, 37, met as producers at National Geographic Television. His parents, Paul and Holly Fine, made award-winning documentaries. Andrea landed her dream job at NGT after graduating from Colby College, then worked her way up.

In 2003, they founded the Chevy Chase–based Fine Films, which specializes in documentaries that examine social issues through individual experience. True Dads With Bruce Willis, about fatherhood, aired on Spike TV in 2004.

Their goal is to create films that have an impact but are fun to watch. Says Andrea: “We look for stories of amazing human triumph in the most dire circumstances.”

Whiz-Kid Sportswriter

Eli Saslow’s key to success in his leap from covering Anne Arundel County high-school sports to writing features for the Washington Post’s front page might be this: “I became less into sports once I started covering them.” Or this: “It’s hard to retain the viewpoint of the fan when you’re writing about teams.”

Rather than covering teams, Saslow, 25, writes about people and situations that reveal the more bizarre or poignant aspects of America. Such as Justin Jenifer, a star in Maryland youth basketball, courted by shoe companies at age ten. Or Yogi Kinder, coach of West Virginia’s Matewan High, who pushed running back Paul McCoy to rush for 658 yards in a one-game record that infuriated opposing coaches. “I ended up writing about a lot of weird stuff,” Saslow says.

A Denver native, Saslow covered sports for Syracuse University’s Daily Orange. He came to the Post as an intern in 2004. Now, as a feature writer on the sports desk, he has one of the paper’s best jobs. His Sunday-magazine piece about Drew Hixon—son of a Redskins coach—who suffered a brain injury playing college football, was chosen for The Best American Sports Writing.

Says Saslow: “The Post has been awesome about encouraging me.”

A Place for Black Voices

In 1993, Simba Sana felt unfulfilled with his auditing job at Ernst & Young, so he quit to help his friend Hoke Glover sell jewelry and incense from street kiosks. They added books and in 1994 opened a store in Prince George’s Plaza. That was the beginning of Karibu Books, now the nation’s largest black bookstore chain.

Karibu—meaning “welcome” in Swa­hili—has six locations including Pentagon City and Bowie Town Center. The store carries titles on topics from fiction to art to health, all from the black perspective. It hosts community events such as children’s readings as well as discussions with authors including Maya Angelou and Cornel West.

“For blacks, Karibu is a place of refuge where they can be more of themselves,” says Sana, 39. “They can speak about issues in their own language. They don’t have to whisper.”

With Karibu’s future bright—it’s doubling the size of its Mall at Prince George’s store to include a coffee shop—Sana reflects on the risk he took 14 years ago: “It’s the things you’re passionate about that help you through those difficult times.”

—Elahe Izadi

Politics Wonk to Watch

Preparing for college, Yuval Levin—a self-professed politics wonk—decided to meet his passion on its home court: He came to DC and majored in political science at American University. After a college internship with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, he was a staffer for the conservative leader.

Levin later was executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics and then associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He now directs the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a DC think tank. Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, calls Levin, 30, “a truly remarkable person.”

In a Weekly Standard article, Levin argued that conservatism has largely ignored American families’ needs—particularly middle-class parents. His ideas were cited in a recent Time cover story, “How the Right Went Wrong.”

Levin’s book, Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook, was published when he was 23. Says Levin: “It’s probably been read by about six people.” His next, slated for 2008, will focus on science and democracy.

Levin has changed his opinion of Washington: “It’s not really a city of smoky backrooms and corruption. It’s a place of pretty earnest people trying to make a difference.”

—Bethonie Butler

Blogger in the Courtroom

David Lat is hardly the epitome of a blogger—a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate with a law degree from Yale, where he served on the law journal and as vice president of the campus Federalist Society; he also did a stint as an assistant US attorney in New Jersey. In 2004, he launched a blog called Underneath Their Robes, where—using the female pseudonym Article III Groupie—he gossiped about the federal judiciary.

“Like many lawyers, I had frustrated writerly impulses,” Lat says. “I decided to write what I knew: random trivia about federal judges.”

The blog became popular, and his alter ego struck up an e-mail friendship with the New Yorker’s legal writer, Jeffrey Toobin. When they met, Toobin’s first words were “So you’re a guy.”

After Lat’s identity became public, Lat moved to Washington and took over the gossip blog Wonkette. After a few months there, he’s back to his roots with Above the Law (, a blog chronicling court personalities and the absurd salaries at big law firms.

“Washington’s a great place to do what I do,” says Lat, 31. “Lawyers are such an important part of what happens in this town.”

Plus it’s a good place to build his collection of Supreme Court–justice bobblehead dolls.

Sportscasting’s Hometown Girl

As a kid, Lindsay Czarniak played lacrosse at Centreville High School and rooted for the Redskins. In 2005, she moved back to Washington as a sports reporter for Channel 4—“a dream come true,” she says.

Czarniak, 29, was soon tapped to cohost Gameplan, Channel 4’s Redskins show. She proved her anchoring chops beside George Michael on his nationally syndicated Sports Machine. “Lindsay’s the best hire I’ve ever made,” Michael says. “She connects with the audience, works incredibly hard, stays open-minded, and checks her ego at the door.” When Michael stepped down in March, Czarniak and Dan Hellie took over the station’s sports department.

After a postcollege job at CNN in Atlanta, Czarniak landed her first on-air post in Florida. She started covering sports at NBC’s Miami affiliate, working on a Miami Dolphins show. She left when the chance came to move to DC.

In two years at News 4, Czarniak has traveled to the Super Bowl and to Italy to cover the 2006 Winter Olympics. But her most memorable experience was covering the George Mason basketball team’s 2006 Cinderella run to the Final Four.

“I felt like I was living a movie,” she says. “I had taken classes there. It was unbelievable.”

Teacher Making a Difference

When Kim Oliver was in preschool, she already had her heart set on a career thanks to an exceptional daycare provider.

“I remember her sending books home with me and talking about them when I’d come to school,” says Oliver, 30. In her memories of those days, it’s as though she were the only kid in the class: “I know there were other kids there, but that was her ability to make me feel special.”

In 2000, Oliver got a job teaching kindergarten at Silver Spring’s Broad Acres Elementary, where 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-cost meals and 75 percent spoke English as a second language. Oliver’s ability to home in on each child’s needs and abilities and to involve parents so impressed peers and mentors that she was chosen National Teacher of the Year for 2006.

She sends children home most Fridays with a paper explaining what they learned that week and tips for activities and conversations parents can use to support classroom work. She and colleagues host “book and supper” and math nights, when children show parents what they’re learning.

In a National Education Association speech, Oliver summed up her philosophy: “The quality of a child’s teacher can outweigh any of the factors—race, language, socioeconomic status, education level of their parents—or any obstacles that children may face.”

Architect With a Green Heart

Rick Harlan Schneider’s architecture turns heads, but his mission is to change minds. “Green design is my calling,” says Schneider, 39, a principal in DC’s Inscape Studio.

Schneider—whose honors include the American Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year—aims to go beyond preventing environmental damage. His projects—from a DC playground to a cottage in Virginia’s Northern Neck—regenerate the environment through rainwater harvesting and carbon-dioxide-absorbing green spaces.

He brings outdoor beauty in with glass panels that allow both views and privacy and with features that make the most of their surroundings: An Arlington apartment building has angled roofs and wide balconies to maximize residents’ connection to its sunny slopeside location.

Schneider—who advocated for the District’s “green building” regulations—is pushing to transform East Potomac Park into a green gateway to the city, with a transit hub topped by a landscaped expanse for gatherings, museums, and monuments.

His proposal is one of many before Congress for the park as planners work out the Mall’s future under “legacy” guidelines set forth every century. Schneider says getting some green into that plan will set a standard: “It’s the front door of the nation’s capital, and it’s the model for the next 100 years.”

Bridge Builder Plus

Marta Alonso plays a key role in one of the nation’s largest transportation projects—the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Notorious to commuters along the lower Beltway, the bridge’s six lanes are being doubled to 12.

Alonso, 26, is interested not only in easing rough commutes but in “improving transportation in sensitive environments.” Her part in the $2.4-billion bridge project is to protect the Potomac River: “We avoid environmental impact whenever possible, and when we can’t, we minimize it.”

Born in Spain, Alonso came to Washington when she was eight. Her father—an engineer working on transportation projects for the World Bank­—fostered her interest in science and math and encouraged her career. She studied civil and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins.

On the Wilson Bridge project, she also teaches Spanish to engineers and inspectors—particularly terminology useful on the job site. “The workforce is largely Hispanic and does not speak English,” she says. “Having the consultant staff able to communicate with the workers improves the project as a whole.”

Says Alonso, recently named a “new face of civil engineering” by the American Society of Civil Engineering: “Being able to work with the environment is very rewarding.”

All Business to Her

Suzanne Clark has never had a career plan—one reason her rise in business has been so impressive. In 1990, when she was 22, she took a secretarial job at the American Trucking Associations in Alexandria; a few years later, she became chief of staff. When her boss left for the US Chamber of Commerce in 1997, he took her with him to be chief of staff and run its communications division. While there, Clark entered Georgetown’s executive MBA program. As she was graduating, the chamber was looking for a chief operating officer. She got the job.

In January, she became president of the National Journal Group, where she oversees nine publications, including National Journal and Congress Daily.

“People say it’s such a big change going from a trade association to publishing, but it’s about running a business,” Clark says. “They’re more alike than you’d guess.”

She chairs New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit that recruits and trains principals for troubled urban public schools, and volunteers with KIPP DC charter schools.

Clark credits her parents with her job philosophy: “Don’t worry about your career; worry about your boss’s career. Too many people are worried about themselves.”

Also contributing to this section were writers Bethonie Butler and Elahe Izadi.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].