Colleagues and friends contemplate a remarkable woman who made community development history and whose legacy will enhance D.C. neighborhoods for years to come.
Pioneer. Leader. Mentor. The news that Oramenta Newsome—the formidable Washington, D.C. community development leader—passed away last week has left friends and colleagues reflecting on the extraordinary contributions of a woman who profoundly affected their lives and a city that she loved.
Newsome, who was 62, served as executive director of LISC DC for nearly a quarter-century, helping drive a shift from a singular focus on affordable housing to deeper, more comprehensive efforts that helped improve the overall quality of life across the District.
She was one of LISC’s longest-serving executive directors, part of a group of pioneering leaders who sought innovative ways to connect investment capital to nonprofit vision at a time when there was still great skepticism about whether the formula could bring about real progress. She was also one of the country’s first African-American women to guide large-scale community development work.
“We are eternally grateful for her grace, humility, and passion for justice; her sense of humor and lifetime of service,” said Maurice Jones, LISC President and CEO. “Her spirit will accompany and sustain us as we strive to continue her work.”
Michael Rubinger, who served as LISC’s CEO until 2016, recalled Newsome’s self-effacing manner, even when her “remarkable leadership led to extraordinary outcomes. She was simply the best at what she did.”
Newsome grew up near Montgomery, Alabama and came to Washington in the early 1990s following a decade working on affordable housing and community planning in the South. She spent several years at Enterprise Community Partners and then, in 1995, took the helm of LISC DC as the program was seeking stronger footing and to expand its impact. The results speak for themselves: under her leadership, LISC DC invested nearly $285 million in affordable housing, economic development and jobs across the District. In 2017 alone, LISC DC made more than $50 million in loans to new projects.
Newsome lent “catalytic support for the development of affordable housing and community facilities,” said Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington D.C. “But her true legacy will be to the people she made it her mission to serve: the vulnerable—homeless, elderly, poor—and long-time residents of DC who made it their home.”
This week, the District of Columbia City Council recognized Newsome’s work with a special resolution, noting that her “bold vision and relentless efforts helped transform the lives of District residents for more than two decades.”
“I don’t know anyone who did more for poor people in Washington and took less credit than Oramenta,” tweeted Jonathan O’Connell, a Washington Post reporter who covers economic development in the District.
Community leaders praised Newsome’s willingness to break new ground, to see opportunity where others saw only risk.
The Rev. Dr. Carolyn N. Graham, founder and CEO of The Elizabeth Ministry in Capital Heights, said Newsome was an early supporter of creating housing for teen mothers in the foster care system. “Oramenta made the initial investment and convinced a local bank to back us as well,” Graham said.
Perry Moon, executive director of Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, described Newsome similarly as a champion of the group’s plan for a new headquarters and restaurant before others were. “She was unyielding in insisting that organizations and residents who struggled and stayed during the challenging times be among those first in line to benefit during times of plenty,” said Moon.
In fact, colleagues say, Newsome had a clear understanding of the tipping points in gentrification in the fast-changing DC market. They point to her leadership of Elevating Equity, a LISC DC initiative that is investing $50 million in communities adjacent to the 11th Street Bridge Park project. The fund is designed primarily to ensure long-time residents aren’t pushed out by cost-of-living spikes that might accompany the massive city project.
When the initiative was announced in 2016, Newsome told the Washington Post that improving the quality of life in neighborhoods on the brink of gentrification should be a priority. Indeed, she said, she wanted to “make sure that people with modest incomes have a fighting chance to stay and remain there and enjoy all the goodies that are on the way.”
That sense of purpose permeated all of her work. Over the last 23 years, LISC DC has helped create and preserve 10,000 units of affordable housing, nine arts and cultural facilities, eight health clinics, five early childhood education centers, 11 schools and youth centers, and nearly two dozen other businesses and community facilities that have opened their doors in struggling DC neighborhoods.
“She was the smartest and wisest person I knew on so many issues, and she held on tight to a compelling vision of equitable development,” said Patty Stonesifer, president and CEO of Martha’s Table, a DC non-profit, and the former CEO of the Gates Foundation. “Rather than force her own vision on others, she allowed and encouraged everyone she met to share in leading the way.”
Newsome’s work as a convener was both personal and strategic, according to her staff. Though she relished the relationships she built, “it wasn’t just a random ‘y’all come’ kind of thing,” said Ramon Jacobson, deputy director at LISC DC, who worked closely with Newsome for two decades. “She was a planner by profession. It was a way to advance important work.”
David Bowers, a vice president at Enterprise, recalled how it was part of Newsome’s nature to mix the personal and the professional, and that she would invite people from across the industry “simply to break bread and share fellowship.”
“Once we all walked and talked together at the National Arboretum,” Bowers said. “Another time, we had hot cocoa at the National Museum of the American Indian. Oramenta had the grace, the gravitas, the experience and the connections to pull people together.”
Newsome was also known as a rigorous steward of the funds entrusted to LISC, to the point where staff sometimes teased her about it. “She could squeeze more out of a nickel of grant money than anyone I have ever met,” Jacobson said. “She was frugal in the way of someone who understands what it is to do without and have to stretch resources.”
Today, her influence extends well beyond the District’s borders. She is widely known as a mentor—of both young professionals and peers. “You learned so much just by watching and listening,” said Adam Kent, a senior program officer who was among the staff that Newsome fondly referred to as “my millennials.”
Newsome has also been remembered as a person who could move a meeting past dialogue and toward concrete solutions.
Denise Scott, LISC’s executive vice president for programs, who worked with Newsome for 17 years, recalled a particularly lengthy LISC meeting about policies for executive directors.
“Oramenta didn’t say a word the whole time, while we went on and on about what the EDs should know how to do,” said Scott. At the end Newsome finally spoke: “‘What you need is a guidebook.’ And she was exactly right. We hadn’t come up with anything that people could have at their fingertips, a lasting resource. Oramenta took it all in and distilled it down to what was really needed.”
That guidebook, which Newsome co-wrote, has become an operational touchstone for LISC executive directors, and spawned other guidebooks for program directors and other staff.
Tony Proscio, who collaborated with Newsome on a 2012 book she commissioned about the history of community development in the District, said she was like none other: “She listened before she spoke; she asked before she answered. And when she spoke, it was measured and confident — no theatrics, no hyperbole, no false promises, no double-talk.”
Newsome leaves behind her beloved husband of 22 years, Wallace, as well as siblings, nieces, nephews and a legion of friends and admirers.