13th Cafritz Awards Winners

2014 Cafritz Awards. Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com.
Allam Al-Alami
Operational Manager, Capital Construction Division
Department of General Services (DGS)

Washington, DC, may be known as “the most powerful city in the world,” but it’s not one that often gets recognized for leading the way in innovation, inter-agency collaboration, and on-schedule and under-budget project delivery. That may very well change, thanks to dedicated public servants like Allam Al-Alami, a 15-year veteran of DC Government, who spearheaded two of the District’s largest Public Safety projects: the Unified Communication Center (UCC) and the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory (CFL). These projects, valued at over $335 represent the District Government’s investment in critical-mission public-safety projects over the last decade.The District’s leadership envisioned a state-of-the-art emergency communication center that would house the Office of Unified Communications and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, thus providing DC and the City’s first responders with the much needed capacity to improve the City’s emergency preparedness, the interoperability among local, regional and federal partners, and improve the overall emergency response time. As the lead project manager for the construction of the UCC, Allam was responsible for coordinating multiple agencies and project teams, sometimes with competing roles and missions. The job required someone with the right mix of engineering proficiency, project management expertise, and business savvy, who could also take on issues beyond the typical “brick-and-mortar” challenges – exactly the kind of project you could entrust to Allam Al-Alami.The UCC project was recognized nationally by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), winning the 2007 Best Practices award for Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery. Recognizing his skill in steering complex high-profile projects, the City’s leadership transitioned Allam from the Office of Chief Technology Officer to the Department of General Services, where he took on one of the most complex construction projects the City had ever developed, the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory (CFL).

The CFL is a LEED Platinum, cutting-edge, award-winning science facility designed to provide the District with critical public safety and health science infrastructure. It co-locates the Department of Forensic Sciences, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and MPD’s Crime Scene Investigations under one roof. The sustainable features include innovative design in energy efficiency and water conservation. The Lab’s extensive green roof translates into savings of over two million gallons of potable water annually.

Allam was able to navigate the project through many challenges. “His negotiation skills are impressive and he is a deal-maker, not a breaker,” explains Directorof the DC Department of Forensic Sciences Max Houck. “On a project of that size and complexity, that speaks volumes.” Delivered “on-time” and under budget, the CFL earned numerous accolades for its design and functionality. It is now the benchmark for new forensic science facilities. Delegations from more than 15 nations, including the UK, Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Mexico and Russia, have visited it. “His work has made the District a model for innovative city design and public service workers,” said one colleague.

“The CFL is a marvel, a showpiece that functions brilliantly and beautifully, making the District a far better place to live and work.”

2014 Cafritz Awards. Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com.

Natalie Mayers
Agency Fiscal Officer
Department of Employment Services (DOES)

For Natalie Mayers, being a DC Government employee is not just a job, it’s a calling – a calling that dates back to her childhood. Natalie cannot help but smile as she recalls the excitement of starting her first internship with the District’s Mayor’s ] Youth Leadership Institute and later the Summer Youth Employment Program.“As a 16-year-old, I was given an incredible opportunity to get a hands-on experience and to do real work,” she said.From that point on she was hooked. While attending Indiana Wesleyan University, Natalie continued to trek back to Washington to spend her summers interning with the DC Government. After being hired full-time, she saw her career grow quickly, and in 2009 she was recruited to become the Agency Fiscal Officer at the Department of Real Estate Services (now the Department of General Services). Despite an understaffed office and a tight deadline, she led a massive financial consolidation involving her agency and five others: Municipal Facilities, the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, the Fire and Emergency Management Service, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Department of Parks and Recreation -- creating a one-billion-dollar agency budget. It should come as no surprise that to her colleagues and customers Natalie is known by another name: “The Fixer.”
Beyond her technical expertise with complex budgets and stewardship of financial transactions worth millions of dollars, Natalie is recognized as a true leader and a “people person,” who exudes a calm demeanor, authenticity, and strong personal values. When she came on board at the Department of Employment Services (DOES) in 2012, the agency was suffering from low morale. At the time, the U.S. Department of Labor had placed DOES under a Corrective Action Plan and threatened to impose an $8.8 million fine, due to a lack of financial compliance with federal regulations.

“My first action was to assess the team,” Natalie said. “I found not a people problem, but a leadership one. The team was woefully understaffed for the expected outcomes and team members lacked the understanding of how they fit within the process.”

Her solution was to create an “open” environment where everyone was invited to be innovative, find creative solutions, and take ownership. The results were nothing short of amazing. Relationships were restored. The agency was held up to high standards of accountability and consistently delivered on them. Due to Natalie’s team efforts, four of the five federal audit findings were corrected, and the fifth is waiting to be resolved. The agency saved $5.1 million it would otherwise owe in disallowances.

“The District of Columbia Government is better because of leaders like Natalie Mayers,” said DOES Deputy Director Paulette Francois. “[She is] a leader with a very high level of emotional intelligence and vision… I am honored to work with [such] a talented and phenomenal individual.”

2014 Cafritz Awards. Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com.
Tonya Foust Mead, PhD
Integrity Coordinator
Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)

In the wake of the USA Today’s allegations of massive cheating on standardized tests in many of the District’s schools in 2011, Dr. Tonya Mead was called upon to develop a test integrity program that would meet federal regulations for student test assessments.Amid probes from the U.S. Department of Education and the DC Office of the Inspector General, Tonya undertook the massive effort to develop a multi-level process to investigate cheating claims, ensure effective technical support for concerned residents, and draft policy guidelines that culminated in the passing of the 2013 Test Integrity Act (TIA). Taking on the additional responsibilities in such a high-stakes environment and under intense public scrutiny meant late nights and weekends on the job, without a salary increase. Regardless, Tonya committed to the task, even paying her own way through a Private Investigator licensing program.When asked what motivated her to stay on, Tonya said: “There was this feeling that the only way that students in the District of Columbia could achieve academic success was through educator cheating and misconduct. And I knew that it just wasn’t true.”The implementation of the Test Integrity Act and subsequent other integrity measures, helped restore public confidence in the District’s public education system and its students. Earlier this year, the program was featured at the 2014 International Center for Academic Integrity Conference as a model for discouraging cheating through early detection and deterrence. In addition to her work on the test integrity program, Tonya was responsible for the successful development of the State Athletic Association (DCSAA), a massive inter-agency effort that brought together 52 local education providers, including a number of public charter and parochial schools. As one of Mayor Vincent Gray’s key initiatives, the DCSAA sought to ensure that all student athletes in District schools would have the opportunity to participate in state-level athletic championships.

“Dr. Mead’s work helped solve this extraordinary challenge for the District... [by] bringing together many competing and highly politicized factions for the sake of interscholastic athletics,” said one former colleague.

At the time when it was rumored that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education didn’t have the expertise or the capacity to run a program like the DCSAA, Tonya developed a comprehensive framework for appointing the DCSAA Director, establishing early on OSSE’s competence to bring the program to fruition. Thanks to Tonya’s stewardship, the DCSAA was successfully established in under a year, opening doors to many DC students who sought to compete for athletic scholarships. Tonya’s strong ethics serve as a beacon of light for the District’s educators.

“What I admire most about Tonya is her integrity,” said former State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley Jones. “She would even challenge me or other senior leaders if she thought we were making a decision that wasn’t in the best interests of children or the city.”

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John Thomas
Associate Director/State Forester
District Department of Transportation (DDOT)

The next time you find shade under a leafy canopy here in the District or watch the neighborhood kids climb a tree, think of none other than John Thomas. As the City’s “tree guy,” John is responsible for ensuring the health, diversity, and increase of the urban tree canopy, which has direct implications for the air and water quality here in the District. Under John’s leadership, the City’s tree coverage grew from 35% to 37.2%, which may not sound like much, unless you know that the District Government manages over 140,000 park trees and 144,000 street trees. Under John’s stewardship, the District has nearly doubled the number of trees planted every year, resulting in an on-target trend for delivering a tree canopy that will cover 40 percent of the District’s land mass by 2032.Thanks to John’s efforts, the American Forest recently recognized DC for having one of the “Top Ten Urban Forestry Programs” in the country. Talk about making others green with envy. Such gains would be nearly impossible without John, who helped secure new sources of funding and expand the program’s capacity to respond to service requests, while also establishing one of the most comprehensive asset management systems. No more paper trails! DC’s arborists lead the nation’s urban forestry programs in using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology for mapping active tree removal and tree planting sites.

“Prior to his tenure, the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) employed a somewhat random, redundant, and inefficient strategy for establishing and managing the population of healthy street trees in the District,” said John McGaw, the Director of the Capital Improvements Program. “In order to correct a backlog of over 5,000 requests, John increased the staff from four to 17 arborists, who as a team are now able to respond to service requests in less than five days on average, compared to the previous six-month average response time.”For John, nurturing working relationships is just another extension of his effort to grow the City’s urban forestry program. With someone as friendly and personable, it is easy to see why he was so effective in bringing together multiple community groups and the UFA team to make the City greener. Under John’s leadership, the Urban Forestry Administration staff was encouraged to think about their long-term career paths with the UFA, and find opportunities for advancement. As a result, employee retention rate increased from 60% to 90%, and in 2008 the UFA was named “the most improved” administration at DDOT. In the wake of storms when the volume of service calls increases, or when a neighborhood community group asks for help planting trees, you should not be surprised to find John, in his hard hat and service vest, helping out.“That’s where the reward comes. And, I think, future generations are going to be very happy that we took this time to make sure the trees are healthy, and they are putting more trees in. It’s not for today, the trees are always for tomorrow.”

2014 Cafritz Awards. Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com.
Beatrice Williar
Program Manager
Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA)

Every morning Beatrice Williar comes into work at the Child and Family Services Agency with a vision: to improve the lives of children and youth entrusted into the District’s foster care system. She wants to make them feel valuable. Proud of who they are. Normal. Just like any other kid. It is with this vision that Beatrice came to the DC Government 11 years ago – something she thought she would never do – to establish one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the District, the Partners for Kids in Care (PFK). PFK is a broad community and corporate outreach initiative that generates in-kind and monetary donations to the tune of $400,000 a year. Here are just some of the things that PFK has supported annually:

  • Volunteer Mentoring Program Books for Kids (5,000 books)
  • Project Prom, Graduation & Career (400 dresses and suits)
  • Project College-Bound (100 computers)
  • Food Baskets (300)
  • & Holiday Toy Drive (4,000 toys)

Much of the donated clothing, toys and books can now be found in the brand new Children’s Donation Center (soon to be renamed the “Aspire Center”). What before was just a storage space is now beautifully refurbished room space, with a floor-to-ceiling mural, racks of neatly organized supplies, shoes, and clothing. It doesn’t feel like a place to get hand-me-downs. It feels like a fashion boutique all the “cool” kids would go to.

Doug Norwood, the Deacon of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a PFK partner, describes his first conversation with Beatrice: “Picture this: A child is removed from a household in crisis and has her belongings thrown into a garbage bag. Beatrice wanted to buy luggage for that child. ‘Garbage bags are for garbage,’ she says, ‘not for children.’ And thus began our relationship.”

The in-kind contributions and monetary donations that PFK generates serve to buy brand-new clothing, school supplies, toys and books. For Beatrice, much of the effort has to do with removing the negative stigma of foster care, making sure the kids aren’t stuck with wearing things nobody else wanted.

One of her proudest achievements, and the most popular among the youth, is the Annual Youth Fashion & Talent Show that Beatrice puts together once a year, with the help of her staff and local community volunteers. “It’s very a heartwarming experience to see our young people work on the show and, once they are on stage, to see them beaming with joy and confidence,” she says.

CFSA’s community-giving program has come a long way since Beatrice came on board 11 years ago, when the Agency lacked the capacity to put together engaging programs for children and youth. Partners for Kids–Beatrice’s brainchild–filled the gap, operating like a nonprofit. While the Child and Family Services Agency covers all of the PFK’s overall costs, the public is guaranteed that 100% of their donations go directly to serving children and families.

“[She] is smart, creative, passionate and compassionate,” adds Deacon Norwood. “If I were to look up ‘leader’ or ‘public servant,’ I’d expect to see her picture next to the definitions.”