In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Rahsaan Bernard. Rahsaan Bernard serves as the President of Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR). This nonprofit organization built and now manages the 16.5 acres of Townhall Health Education Arts Recreation Campus known as THEARC in Washington, DC. BBAR is also building the first elevated park in Washington, the 11 Street Bridge Park Project. In the conversation, Rahsaan Bernard shared the impact of his upbringing in Jamaica, critical parts of his leadership journey, and his focus on impact through Building Bridges Across the River. In addition, Rahsaan Bernard shared historical factors impacting the greater need of residents in D.C.'s Ward 8 and the need for the services provided. Rahsaan Bernard also shared how BBAR has involved the community in planning for the 11th Street Bridge Park Project and how that level of engagement can serve as a model for all leaders.
-Rahsaan Bernard on his upbringing in Jamaica and why his family moved to the U.S.
-What fascinated Rahsaan with bodybuilding and fitness
-Rahsaan Bernard on meeting his wife and starting a business focused on fitness
-Why Rahsaan Bernard chose to take on the role of President of Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) and the goal of the organization
-Historical reasons why there has been very little investment in D.C.'s Ward eight, resulting in food deserts, as well as socioeconomic and medical challenges,
-Why do resident's on the East side of the river live an average of 13 years less than those on the west side of the river
-The thinking behind the 11th Street Bridge Park and the process Rahsaan Bernard used to get involvement and buy-in from the community
-Recognition of BBAR by Highline network as the best-in-class approach to building and investing in communities
-Why Rahsaan Bernard chose to join the National Board of Feeding America
-Leadership practices and resources Rahsaan Bernard has used to lead his team and engage more effectively with the community
Connect with Rahsaan Bernard:
Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR)
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited to speak, to be welcoming. Rahsaan Bernard Rahsaan serves as the president of Building Bridges across the river, the nonprofit organization that built and now manages the health. Education, Arts, Recreation Campus, known as the ARC in Washington dc I really enjoyed the conversation with Raan, finding out his own purpose driven journey and how he engaged the community to make.
A bigger impact and difference. I'm sure you will also enjoy the conversation. I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. Mahan@mahantavakoli.com There is a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast Tuesday.
Conversations with Magnificent Change Makers from the Greater Washington DC DMV region like Raan and Thursday Conversations with brilliant global thought leaders. Now, here is my conversation with Raan Bernard.
Rahsaan Bernard, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Rahsaan Bernard: Thank you so much, Mahan. I've been eagerly anticipating our time together.
Mahan Tavakoli: Raan, I can't wait to talk about the incredible work you are doing with building bridges across the river. But before we get to that, we'd love to find out more about you and your upbringing. So whereabouts did you grow up, Raan, and how did your upbringing impact the kind of person you've become?
Rahsaan Bernard: Maha, 90 miles south of Cuba is a wonderful oasis known as Jamaica. Jamaica has 14 parishes that makes up the beautiful island. I grew up on the southwestern side of Jamaica in a parish called St. Catherine. And that parish has a little city called Bridgeport. I spent 14 years of my life living in Bridgeport it's been a unbelievable journey from Jamaica to America. From a perspective of a little boy in Bridgeport, now in the United States of America doing what I believe are some really incredible things.
Mahan Tavakoli: So 14 years of your upbringing, that's quite a bit of time that you spent in Jamaica. What sticks in your mind the most about those years before then coming here to the states.
Rahsaan Bernard: I would say the simplicity of living. I would say the natural beauty of an island, that many take for granted because they're there. I would say. The calm and levity of a people who are rich in culture and history. It was a time when. I was probably more free in my mind as it relates to just conversations and aspirations and experiences.
Jamaicans are known to have what we call an iry attitude, a really happy disposition. And I have to say that my childhood was very happy. It was very much everything I just mention.
Mahan Tavakoli: What was the transition for you like to the states with your parents?
Rahsaan Bernard: The transition by definition was opportunity. My mom and my father. Both sought opportunity here in the States and really went after it. Both were looking for jobs and got jobs on this side of the country so for a 14 year old boy, it was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying because I left a cohort of.
Who became really my foundation of relationships to a frontier where I not only was a foreigner, but had a strong oi in the way I spoke and in the way I communicated that I just didn't know how it would connect with people here in the States. And at the same time, I felt my relationships just really grew rapidly. So I was involved with so many different people and communicating in so many different ways. It felt really natural.
Mahan Tavakoli: You have a natural talent at building relationships. So I wonder, Raan, if now you travel to another part of the country and people ask you, where are you from? What do you say?
Rahsaan Bernard: I reflexively say, That I'm Jamaican American. But that's a great question because if I'm in California I would say I'm from dc it's reflexive. If I feel like the intention is really to get to know who I am, and it's not just superficial talk, and I think that assessment.
Conversation, I think I'm pretty adept at with, with assessing does someone really want to know me and lean in? Or is this just a surface conversation that will end in, back and forth banter. So if you're leaning into know me, I would say I'm a Jamaica.
Who's an American and came here at 14 and would lean in and go into that.
Mahan Tavakoli: Raan, you then ended up going to university in Maryland eventually. Bow State, getting your mba, anyone that knows you as the opportunity to see, raan knows you are very fit. You exercise quite a bit. You've done body building. So what was it that got you so interested in exercise, fitness, which then you wanted to marry with the studying of healthcare management and business.
Rahsaan Bernard: You know it started out at 12 years old Mahan standing behind a fence in Jamaica and watching a neighbor of mine who was an extremely fit guy. Do pullups on some kind of apparatus he created. I was just fascinated by his fitness level, his diligence the look he had, the confidence he exuded.
At the time I played sports, , so I was already involved in athletics, but I did not look like this guy. And so that really was the first trigger. And from that point onward, it was an exploration and an adventure for me to get to a place where I could.
What this guy to me represented. So one thing led to another. That led to high school sports. High school sports led to collegiate sports. And all the while being in the sports context, also placed me in the gym. And being in the gym one thing led to another. So I started to really try out different things with my body.
Hence the body building. It was a, it's a whole different discipline and it's a lot more rigor with diet and exercise. So I explored that for a period of time. And then, yeah, so all of those things were additive and all those things in aggregation led me to this desire to study more about health and health management.
Mahan Tavakoli: So you also took that and started a business in health management with your new wife , what's the story of you wanting to start that business and have your wife as your partner?
Rahsaan Bernard: In the spirit of full disclosure, I married up, I married way up. My wife is brilliant. She is the smartest woman I know. I met my wife 19 years ago and the two years prior to actually being married, we discussed many things, but one of the things we discussed more specifically was business. Her dad was an entrepreneur. She grew up in an entrepreneurial family. I had big desire to own my own business, throughout college and post-college.
And that was something that we just really clicked on. So we spoke business for pretty much two years. So when we got married, We decided she was in a place where she was ready to leave her job.
I was in a place where I was ready to leave my job and what we did was really staggered how we did it. So she left her job first. We lived on one income. Cause we went from two incomes to one income and then I left my job and we had no income besides this business idea. And one thing led to another thing and we landed our first contract with Amerigroup.
Then our second contract came with the Federal Reserve Bank and then another contract. So it was just building on these building blocks. And here we are 17 years later. I'm no longer involved in the day to day of that business, but the business. Is running and has weathered the storms of Covid. And my wife after our first child was born she left the business and started really to do the business of homeschooling.
So she's been homeschooling our kids for the last, 15 years. My son this year will go to conventional high school. He'll attend St. John's here in Washington, but he's the first really to go to a conventional private high.
Mahan Tavakoli: That business, Has thrived over the years, then, what was it that got you to look into and become the president of building Bridges across the river?
Rahsaan Bernard: I would say for me from a very early age I knew I had a desire to serve in a capacity that placed the people who. We're the most in need or people who were the most left behind in the center of my work. There's always been this magnetic pull to lead in this context, and I think having the opportunity show up.
And having the relationships to support that opportunity is the reason why I'm at building bridges across the river. What I mean by that is, after meeting Skip McMan and after meeting Chris Smith, who are both co-founders of building bridges across the river and after studying what they had contributed to this community and just their hearts, their desires I wanted to be a part of that story.
Mahan Tavakoli: Raan, what is this story? What is building bridges across the river?
Rahsaan Bernard: So building Bridges across the river is a Ward eight nonprofit whose primary purpose. Is to reduce the barriers to social and economic mobility for residents east of the river. And if you were a Washingtonian or if you are someone who lives in Washington but not necessarily born here, it's very evident just by the four quadrants of the city and knowing the east and west side of the city to understand that 900 feet of water, which is the Anacostia River, really separates.
The city in many ways economically medically. Socioeconomically in the context of even food deserts, there are more food deserts on our side of the river. There are more opportunities for debilitating disease. There's a study out that says folks east of the river live 13 less years than folks west of the river.
Housing prices due to redlin over the many years are lower here. This side of the river, it's four times higher in many places on the west side of the river. So ease of the river families have been left out of conversation and it has been under resourced for many years
Mahan Tavakoli: Raan I think it's important for us to put it in context. Why? Eastern part of sea been neglected over generations. Why has the eastern side of the city, most specifically east of Anacostia River, had such issues, as you say, food deserts medical deserts, you name it,
why is that? What are the historical factors and roots of this?
Rahsaan Bernard: That's a great question. So there are confluence of issues, but at the root of it, much of it has to do with race. So when you look systemically at history, 90% of the city's black and brown population lives east of the Anacostia River so over the last 30 years, Even before that, the types of investments that would come this side of the river were stymied because of race. People didn't want to invest this side of the river. Schools that are on this side of the river, were not performing at the results of schools on the west side of the river.
So because there was a lack of investment due to race, There's also a lack of investment in the assets that are here. So redlining, for example, was a big reason why many dollars from banks weren't flowing readily east of the river. And
we know when there's a concentration of poverty, there's a concentration of a lot of melodies like crime. A lack of healthcare because doctors and physicians and institutions don't want to come across the river to invest here. There's a lack of grocery store healthy food. So we have one grocery store until recently for 80,000 residents.
So it goes on and on. But to answer your question more specifically, systemically, it was because of.
Mahan Tavakoli: That is why it's important to have an organization like building Bridges across the river. Just want people to understand it we have listeners across the globe now in hundred countries, but even I find people that. Have been Washingtonians for many years, born and raised in this region.
Don't understand why there are these differences in different parts of the city, and therefore, what initiates the need for a mission based organization like building bridges across the river.
Rahsaan Bernard: Yes, and I would say this Mahan, our co-founders, Chris Smith and Skip McMan. Before the word equity became sexy, they were doing equity work in bringing building bridges across the river here. East of the river, providing the best in class and facilities, programs and partnerships for the folks who deserved it, but were never invested in.
So this work has been going on now for 17 years and now that the word equity is sexy. People have looked to our work to learn from us and to learn how we did this, but really the reality was they took an opportunity, and I would say a risky one at that, to invest in a community at the time when no one was investing.
And what we have today are metaphorical bridges that have been built with the community in a way that have forced, multiplied our progress. We have young people who have been here. Gone to school here, got their healthcare here, and are now doing amazing things. People who have never been exposed to dance and arts and culture have gotten an opportunity to be exposed here.
So it's unbelievable what has happened over the last 17 years and I look forward to what will happen the next 7, 10, 15 years from.
Mahan Tavakoli: So you already touched on some of those Raan. What are the services that building bridges across the river provides to the residents?
Rahsaan Bernard: Building bridges across the river. Really has five signature projects. I call them our value proposition to the community. Our first project is a humanitarian mall of sorts. We aggregate on one campus, 60 and a half acres. 203,000 square feet of programming space, 14 nonprofits that serve in five sectors, health, education, arts, recreation, and workforce development.
So anybody living in these neighboring communities can step on our campus and have a one stop shop for healthcare, for education, for workforce development, for arts, for culture. So really what we provide. Is an easy pass to not only excellence but opportunity and so we have been bridging communities and building opportunities with the ARC for 17 years.
In addition to that, because this place is a food desert, we have a farm that's about an acre and a half and seven other urban farms networked around east of the river communities, specifically Ward eight, that feed our residents. So we aggregate our produce. We distribute that produce through our csa, which is the community supported agriculture, and people get produce for low cost organic produce from our organization on a weekly basis.
Right here on our doorsteps, we also provide a standalone workforce center. That center is called the Skyland Workforce Center. We provide workforce training in construction, retail, Allied. We certify folks with CPR and First Aid who require certification for their jobs.
We help with resume writing, we put people in jobs, and that standalone center is on Nailer Road located in Ward Eight. It's right across from the Skyland development. Importantly, we have the largest theater east of the Anacostia River. If you want to know how society is doing, Just scan their arts and culture.
And we have a platform here. Our Peridium theater seats 365, these stages as deep and wide As the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center. And we've created a platform for artists in this community to have a place to express their gifts and talents and abilities, a place that they've never had before.
And we've paired that with a black box theater. A smaller theater so that the artists who need smaller spaces can use that at their own behest in this community. So we provide an arts and culture space for our community. So those things in aggregate is the genius of building mergers across the river.
What's coming and we are excited about is the physical bridge that we will build. So over the last 17 years, we've built these metaphorical bridges. In 2025, we will build the first elevated bridge park in a nation's capital that will actually connect this physical edifice that really it's a size of about three football fields put end to end.
To end, this physical edifice will connect the two areas that are separated by that 900 feet of water. I have four mentioned. This is the Acosta River, so we are actually building. A connection point known as the 11th Street Bridge Park to connect those communities so that now our neighbors can literally walk across to connect with each other, and that's to come.
So we're really excited about that. That's $139 million project, and we're already 92% there.
Mahan Tavakoli: That will be a magnificent way, to connect the people and connect the communities building on the wonderful services you have been providing raan. Now, one of the things I wonder is what can the community do or what are some of the conversations you all have at building bridges across the river to ensure that the residents, when.
The. Actual bridge is built in addition to the metaphorical bridges. The residents can continue to afford to live in the neighborhood. In that there are parts of DC where I love seeing the beautiful developments and everything else that's happened, but there were communities there that no longer.
Exist. So I wonder in the back of my mind what happened to those people. I'm sure they are not the ones inhabiting the million and a half dollar, $2 million condos. So as you are building this physical bridge, what are the conversations around and what are you doing to make sure that it is the resident?
That benefit from it rather than quickly get out-priced and pushed out to another part of the city or outta the region.
Rahsaan Bernard: That's a great question and that answer resides in. Approach. So we have been building this bridge, this physical bridge, not the metaphorical ones I mentioned over the last 10 years. So the physical edifice, it's manifestation is earnest, right? So it's to come, but the actual bridge, , the details of that bridge, it's design it's structure.
Its uses, All of those things have been community driven from the very beginning. In fact, the design of the bridge itself started out with community meetings. We've done about a thousand of those right now. Where we have literally empowered the community to be agents of their own change. So this community driven project received national recognition.
For its equitable development plan. So prior to us even talking about getting a contractor to put one brick, a top, another brick, we have been building with our community, their desires, their wishes, and their intentions. And it's been driven by that. And our equitable development plan is proof of that. So let me give you an example.
We now have. In a one mile walk shed of the bridge, which we believe is the hottest place to be once the bridge gets here, meaning without intervention it would be the most gentrified area in the city. Once this bridge is built to know Ward eight, and to know that one mile walk, she is to know that it's littered with renters, not homeowners.
So what we have done is partnered with Manna housing. To ensure that renters who have been here for generations get the opportunity to purchase the home that they're living in. And how have we done that? We started a home buyer's club. That Home buyer's club today have more than 102 homeowners who were once renters.
In that one mile walk. She, So now just think about that. You are now a owner of a home. You are one of 102 people that were renting and would've been displaced when this bridge gets here, now you own your home and you can really experience the yield that is to come with a rising tide that is to come.
And that's just one of many strategies. We've also partnered with organizations like JP Morgan Chase and others who've invested in our equitable development plan to shore up small business z, provide micro loans for small businesses to provide technical assistance for small businesses. We also have a community land trust that we've set.
That purchased land to hold in perpetuity so that people who desire to live in place and thrive in place can live and thrive in place on that land. And that land trust, though it's not run by us, , is a non-profit organization that will hold that land into perpetuity. So the development doesn't come and really chase or move residents out of that place.
So our strategy, has, about 34 strategic points. The idea is that our strategic plan the e equitable development plan has led us to believe that if we're gonna do development, This is the way you do development. That's thoughtful, that's community led, community driven and community changing in a positive.
Mahan Tavakoli: I love the approach you've taken, Raan, engaging the community ahead of time and considering the impact on the c. All throughout making sure that the long time residents of the community benefit and get a chance to participate rather than get displaced. This is a great approach to thinking about inclusive and equitable development, improving our spaces for everyone's benefit, but enabling
lifelong and in many instances, generational residents to stay part of that community and keep the community thriving the way it should. So I love the approach that you have taken to this and look forward to the physical bridge when it's. Done because that, , will be the culmination of all of this community engagement and involvement and the many metaphorical bridges that you have built in supporting the community.
Rahsaan Bernard: Yes, indeed. And I would say one of the pieces of this that I think is a standout element. Of our equitable development plan are the cultural strategies that we have put in place to ensure that sense of belonging. Mohan, one of the things I love about Jamaica is that when I go back to Jamaica, it's topography, it's culture, it's reggae, the food, the people. It has stasis. It hasn't changed. It hasn't morphed from something that's unrecognizable. Money hasn't poured into it, and that's changed it's disposition. It's Jamaica. You get off the plane and you say, Ah, I am home. We desire the same thing for the residents ease of the Anacostia River, our cultural strateg.
Our goal with those strategies is to ensure that they feel belonging in their neighborhoods despite the money that's being poured into it. So we look forward to the day where someone can get off the plane from a visit to another country, come back to Anacostia and say, Oh man, I am home.
It looks the same. It feels the same. So those are some of the things that we're really proud about and our national recognition for that we're a member of the Highline Network which is a group of folks who are doing the same kinds of infrastructure projects throughout the country to support communities.
And our project has been highlighted by the Highline network as the best in class approach on how to build and invest in communities.
Mahan Tavakoli: That's outstanding and a lot to celebrate With that Raan, there's also a lot of celebration with respect to you having joined National Board of Feeding America, what is Feeding America about and what do you look to contribute through that board involvement?
Rahsaan Bernard: So Feeding America is a national organization. It is really the national office represents 200 food banks across the country. With the goal of ending hunger in America that's really the goal to end hunger in America. To have no person in America go hungry. For me, it's a wonderful organization because I get a national lens of what's happening across the country as it relates to food insecurity and I get to opine and also sharing strategies to help.
People across all of America become more food secure. And for me it just gives me an opportunity to think strategically and bring that strategic thinking locally as I'm also a member of the capillary of food bank. And to see how those national strategies once distilled, how they can impact local communities like ours.
And so it's really been a wonderful experience for me being on that.
Mahan Tavakoli: Raan, one of the things I love with respect to what you've done with building bridges across the river and is really important to keep in mind with respect to leadership is that for quite a while, leadership was very much top down where.
Senior executive or group of senior executives would think, What's the right thing for the organization? Roll it on down. And that's also the way we approached as a country and in many countries, communities where a group of people would go sit in a room and decide what they thought was best for the community and implemented it.
How you have been approaching building bridges across the river is the way leaders of all kinds of organizations, not just community based organizations, should think about leadership, which is, it is through the engagement, through the participation and active involvement of the people that you build up the strategy, not a strategy that is cascaded down to everyone in the organization.
Rahsaan Bernard: Yes. I couldn't agree with you more. What I've learned about leadership is that it is defined as service. And that service looks many different ways To your point it's the service of empower. It's the service of deep listening.
It's the service of motivating ideas. It's the service of facilitating those ideas. It's the service of, at times acquiescing to the ideas that are brought to the table. And so I agree.
Mahan Tavakoli: In addition to your own leadership, raan, you. Focused a lot on doing the right things in the right way with the community.
So what has informed your leadership and what do you recommend when it comes to leadership practices? Resources in order for people to lead more the way you have at building bridges across the river?
Rahsaan Bernard: Warren Benic has a book unbecoming a leader that I think is a great primer for anyone understanding leadership. And what it does Mahan , it goes through everything you just said. It really talks a lot about. Thinking through and listening to the audience that you have at hand. It in many ways puts the people that you are working with, the people that you're leading putting them on the stage and allowing them.
To be empowered and to generate ideas as you, almost like the conductor, orchestrate a symphony with all of their gifts and talents. I've spent a lot of time reading books by Pat Lensioni. I think he's done a really good job with his leadership books. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is one of those that I think every leader should understand when putting a team together, understanding the context.
Of what debilitates a team I think is also very helpful. I spend a lot of time doing reflection, introspection and writing those introspection and reflections down to get insight in who I am. So I would say a lot of leadership is knowing by. A lot of leaders get in their own way, and I think it's because they don't know themselves enough to deploy their talents, gifts, and abilities.
And I would say, leadership is tantamount to service. If you're not serving, you're not leading. And a leader really is a leader when people who do not have the obligation to follow. If you are leading and people are following you and they have no obligation to follow you you're doing something right.
And I think that the ingredients for that is servitude it's deep listening. It's counting others really more highly than you count yourself as it relates to your own disposition your thoughts, your ideas. And it's fostering a community where people feel safe to share ideas because they know that they belong.
And that they're gonna be empowered and motivated to act on things that are, they're convicted about. So all of those things are things that for me over the years have helped shaped my leadership thinking. And I would suggest those things to any other leader taking part.
The last thing I would say is this, leadership requires imprint. And what I mean by that is leadership requires a modeling of really strong leaders. So a leader who can spend time with other leaders like our leadership, Greater Washington network of leaders, being around other leaders to allow that imprinting to take place.
And that learning to take place, I think is extremely efficacious to any leader that wants to get their leadership skills and abilities sharpened.
Mahan Tavakoli: I love the recommendations, the resources, the imprinting that you mentioned. Raan is really important. The reducing of our blind spots in that getting to know ourselves is one of the things that I find becomes harder as we move. In organizations as we move up in experience, sometimes we tend to become more convinced of our own knowledge, our own experience and success.
So getting to know ourselves deeply is important, and I love the way you put it, that leadership is getting people that don't have. Follow you to want to follow you. I've had conversations with great authors from Greg Satel on where they talk about movement thinking and the fact that when you think about it, People follow movements because of a belief, not because they're being paid.
This is not to say that organizations shouldn't pay their employees. However, the employees or the people that work for you shouldn't wanna follow you only because they're getting paid. There is a desire to. Contribute. So those are great recommendations on leadership , I can't leave you with just recommendations on leadership , being that you mentioned the pride in Jamaican cuisine,
Rahsaan Bernard: Yes.
Mahan Tavakoli: So the question, at least for the people in the greater Washington DC region and those planning to visit the Greater Washington DC region is the best places to hit to get great, authentic Jamaican cuisine other than your house, which I'm sure you're inviting all listeners and Me too
Rahsaan Bernard: Yes, definitely my house. There's several places. Gotta give my folks. Here in the southeast quadrant. A shout out Rick's Cafe that's right here on Nailer Road is terrific. He's an authentic Jamaican Rick and I, whenever I go to his spot, we're always exchanging Potw.
So you can come in, hear some authentic Jamaican conversation going. The food is incredible. I would absolutely recommend that there's a place called The Jerk. That is in College Park, Another great Jamaican family. They moved and migrated here, I think they live above , where the restaurant is.
So I'll throw those two out. There you go. Check those two out. And let me know what you think. And, again, I love refine wine, love to get out there on the lengths and play golf and, I'm still relentless and consistent with being in.
Mahan Tavakoli: You are with that and I really appreciate you sharing your leadership journey, the resources, and most especially your example. Really appreciate the US on Bernard.
Rahsaan Bernard: Mahan, my pleasure to be with you today and thank you for all those kind words. You lift my spirit. It's a. We reciprocate and I believe at, iron sharpening iron. I just love being around you too. So I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today.