A Tale of Two Cities: Belief & Identity in Washington D.C. with Andy Shallal

By Jackson Law —

(131209RREI1817) Mayoral Forum on Education co-sponsored by the Washington Teachers Union and EmpowerDC at Eastern High School. Washington DC.  Dec. 9, 2013  © Rick Reinhard 2013   email  rick@rickreinhard.com

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness–a world-recognized introduction not only portraying revolutionary France, but now canvassing the urban zeitgeist of Washington, D.C., as told by activist and Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal.

“We [Washington D.C.] have a tale of two cities” Shallal explains, “one side has a certain perspective, another side has a certain perspective, one side has certain opportunities that another side doesn’t have.”

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Shallal emigrated to the United States in 1966, the same time
when Saddam Hussein would begin to rise in power in his native country. Having his feet
planted on American soil that still haven’t to this day traveled back to Iraq, Shallal was accepted to medical school in Howard University in Washington, D.C. Upon completion, instead of following a prestigious career with a stable future, Shallal decided to set forth towards finding what he was truly passionate about.

“We have to redefine what success is” Shallal states. “Sometimes we are too focused on goals and outcomes and we forget the process… it’s what will help us achieve the ultimate goal of peace not only within ourselves but in the world.”

After spending some time working in the other side of the country as a waiter, Shallal decided to try out the restaurant business himself in the Washington, D.C. area.

Eventually, this experimentation would develop into the opening of Busboys and Poets in 2005: a restaurant dedicated to gathering freethinkers, innovators, and artists of all spectrums of race, class, and identity in order to harness the conversations of future ideas and resolutions. Future advocates of Busboys and Poets would include Alice Walker, Larry King, Common, and Danny Glover.

“Trying to bring those people together under one roof was really the inspiration and
motivation bringing Busboys and Poets” explains Shallal. “Everybody eats, no matter where you come from, what background you come from, what race, religion, what ethnicity you have, everyone eats. So [Busboys and Poets] this was an opportunity to bring the DC community together.”

Busboys and Poets still remains as a hotspot for the most consciously uplifted, holding a larger-than-life legacy as a breeding ground for innovation and progression. Now planted in six locations throughout the Washington D.C. area, Busboys and Poets’ vision expands beyond the discussions that occur within the restaurant, but the impact that holds for the rest of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area, making sense that Shallal was an active running candidate for Mayor of Washington D.C. during 2014.

“I think this city has a lot of potential” expands Shallal. “We some of the highest poverty rates in the entire country, we have the highest illiteracy rates in the entire country, the highest incarceration rates in the entire country, all of those are just bad marks on our ability to be great, and I think we can do so much better. And that was my intention [to do better], we have the resources, we just need the will.”

Even yet, Shallal believes that change within the city is a precursor for larger amounts of change, throughout the United States, and even worldwide.

“We can have such a huge impact on what happens in this city, and what happens in this country, and what could happen around this world as well” Shallal enlightens. “What we do here doesn’t really stay here; it goes away and people notice it… We can show what’s possible; that’s one of the advantages of being in a high-profile city like Washington DC.”

In a nation that is notorious for its race and ethnic relations, Shallal notes the importance of resolving these issues and the significance that understanding and developing relationships between each other has on a progressive and improving country, stating that “interracial connections are so important and underappreciated,” yet how there is a diminishing interest in these issues than before because of how complicated they can be. Yet, race relations remain one of the top priorities to be addressed for the progression of the nation.

Although the macro-implications of connecting the community can seem obvious, Shallal notes an observation of micro-aggressions occurring in our vocabulary and stigmatizations on a constant basis.

“I used to call myself Iraqi-American, but now I like to think of myself as American. When I speak to family, sometimes they say ‘oh… those Americans,’ referring to White-Americans as really being American, while everyone else has to have a hyphenated-something, so you’re African-American, you’re Cuban-American, you’re Korean-American, or Asian-American, etc. But whites are always called “whites.” I don’t hear “European-American” often.

So I feel like when we hyphenate our names, we’re giving up our status of being equals, and I want to make sure we’re equals.”

“When people say ‘Oh, this person is an American,’ they don’t think of people that look
like you or me. They think of European. Even the original inhabitants of this country have a hyphenated name. White are THE Americans, everyone else is just there. Often times we give up our rightful place by falling into the paradigm that has been sent for us by the predominant culture.”

Growing up and still identifying himself as culturally Islam, Shallal considers organized religion serving as more of a cultural group. However, Shallal keeps spirituality through a connection between the energies that largely remain unseen to the human eye and the vast universe that it lays in. What started as a simple skydiving trip with a team of coworkers resulted in a spark of curiosity for the forces that Shallal experienced, and the potential for so much more to uncover. To Shallal, the appreciation of the unseen and the powers that cannot always be touched or felt by human hands can be the strongest connections to the individual that one can experience.

“For me, religion is a culture… but I’m a spiritual person” Shallal explains. An active leader in social justice, Shallal notes the energy that youth involvement brings, but also explains the misconception that today’s youth can have on what it means to be a change for progression and the importance of self-awareness before entering the social battlefield.

“What’s important for young people to know is the impact they’re having on themselves”
Shallal highlights. “You have to have a good spirit in order to do this kind of work, it’s hard to do it otherwise. Young people tend to want to be heroes, and sometimes that can detract you from doing good work. We get impatient and expect to have amazing things happen, to do one thing and expect it to go viral, and then we become famous… and I think that sometimes its unrealistic expectations that we set for ourselves, and expectations that will mean a whole lot once we finally reach them.”

And Shallal’s advice seemed to do just that for himself–from origins as an Iraqi emigrant to discovering his calling in the West Coast, the impact that Shallal carries for the greater D.C. area is not slowing down for the future influence even globally.

As Shallal continues to maintain and direct thinker-friendly Busboys and Poets, Shallal also remains well-decorated as an activist, opening another Busboys and Poets-esque restaurant titled Eatonville Restaurant in Washington D.C. (frequented by Michelle Obama and Zora Neale Hurston’s family), as well as receiving the Mayor’s Arts Award, the Mayor’s Environmental Award, United Nations Human Rights Community Award, and the Man of the Year by the Washington Peace Center. Shallal serves as the treasurer for the think tank Institute for Policy Studies, as well as the co-founder of the Iraqi Americans for Peaceful Alternatives, founded prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Peace Café, the largest of Arab-Jewish discussion groups at 800 members, all done with a humble and serving state of mind.

“Sometimes we get too focused on how important we are” Shallal says. “The reality is, in relation to the universe, we are not.”


1 thought on “A Tale of Two Cities: Belief & Identity in Washington D.C. with Andy Shallal”

  1. I like that last quote there..too many people in this world think they are better and more important than they really are.

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