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Celebrating Achievement

Award promotes Northern Virginia’s leadership diversity.

The nonprofit organization Virginia Leadership Institute (VLI) held its Top 10 Under 40 awards reception on May 7 at Kora Restaurant in Crystal City to honor black leaders in Northern Virginia. In a room filled with dozens of attendees along with award recipients and their families, 10 people were celebrated for their achievements in business, politics, civic engagement and philanthropy. Representing the scope of cities and counties making up Northern Virginia, honorees were from Alexandria, Arlington, the Town of Dumfries, Fairfax County, Loudon County, and Prince William County.

The diversity of leadership that resides in Northern Virginia was a key theme repeated by those who gave remarks during the reception, including U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8): “There is an increasing need for wider representation and leadership among the entire community. No offense to the white guys here, but politics can’t be an all white guys thing anymore. It’s got to open up.”

Part of opening up the area’s political establishment to diversity is creating support for young black leadership, according to Krysta Jones who founded the VLI in 2006 as a way to increase the number of black elected officials in Virginia. As Jones told the crowd, she was inspired to start VLI while completing her master’s degree in legislative affairs at George Washington University and researching Virginia’s lack of black congressional representatives. During her research, Jones came across an article that described one African American family’s move to the Washington, D.C., Metro Area and the advice they received.

“They were told not to move to Virginia,” Jones said. “The family was told about stereotypes, that they can’t get involved and that there is not really a strong black professional class [in Northern Virginia].” As Jones described, VLI’s presence and the existence of organizations like the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, which was founded in 2008, help to change the perception that black families can only find a strong community in the District of Columbia or P.G. County, Md. “For us to be able to sit here and honor these outstanding 10 shows how far Northern Virginia has come in terms of representing African Americans,” Jones said.

The six men and four women who received awards represented the nonprofit, government, business, education and philanthropy sectors. Three of the recipients were military veterans and the group included on elected official and one current political candidate. Among the honorees was Arlington resident and entrepreneur Dana Taylor, who noted the significance of showing the diversity of emerging black leaders living and working in Northern Virginia.

“I was excited to see that we had a good break down of male and females being recognized. We’re across the board — nonprofit, major for-profit, leadership — really making things happen and making real change happen in Virginia.” Taylor also noted the importance of bringing leaders together to collaborate and support one another’s efforts. “A lot of people think the leadership in the region resides in D.C. or P.G. County,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of black leadership in Northern Virginia … unfortunately, we’re all just in silos. Events like this bring us all together so we can collaborate and do bigger things.”

Showing support and learning more about VLI’s work motivated Del Ray resident Ajashu Thomas to attend the reception. “It’s definitely important that we support each other and that kids grow up seeing representations of themselves,” Thomas said. “The only way we’re going to reach equality and reach equity is if we’re represented in politics, [the] education system and the American economy as a whole.”

Leonard N. Smith, senior minister of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Arlington, which was a sponsor for the awards reception, said he believed events such as the Top 10 Under 40 awards help inspire others to tap into their own leadership potential. “This helps to inspire and encourage young leaders to get involved,” Smith said. “There are others who are standing on the sidelines, waiting, wondering what they need to do to become one of the dynamic 10.”

The entire list of VLI’s “Top 10 Under 40” included:

  • John Chapman of Alexandria, an educator and Alexandria City Council member;

  • Howard A. Foard, III of Fairfax County, an Army veteran and community leader;

  • Erica Jeffries of Fairfax County, an Army veteran and senior executive;

  • Monte Johnson of Loudoun County, a corporate executive and candidate for VA House District 10;

  • Cydny Neville of the Town of Dumfries, an entrepreneur and community leader;

  • Ryane LeCesne of Alexandria, a program director and philanthropist;

  • Rahman Parker of Fairfax County, founder of a health nonprofit and professor;

  • Joshua Porter of Prince William County, an entrepreneur and public servant;

  • Terron Sims, II of Arlington, an Iraq war veteran and author;

  • Dana Taylor of Arlington, an entrepreneur and organizational leader.