Philip Pannell remembers times where, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the District, multiple friends’ funerals were scheduled for the same day. A grassroot advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and care, particularly in Ward 8, Pannell recalls his young adulthood as a time when he spent sad and painful hours with friends in their final days.
For Pannell, activism focused on pressuring the Whitman-Walker Clinic to open its first AIDS outreach center east of the Anacostia River, and working to bring together the District’s LGBTQ+ residents across racial lines.
Pannell was then, as he is now, equal parts empath, organizer and friend.
“At a fundamental level,” he said, “I’m looking at the situation like, ‘Hey, this could be me. I really want somebody to be advocating for me.’ That’s why I got involved with the HIV/AIDS issue.”
Pannell, who turns 70 this September, has remained at the helm of Ward 8 community organizing since he moved to D.C. in the mid-1970s. His lifetime of advocacy has often intersected with his identity as a Black Washingtonian, gay man and Ward 8 resident. Spanning elected official, spokesman, campaign organizer, agitator and loyal local leader, he has transcended labels despite accumulating a laundry list of bureaucratic titles.
His influence is undeniable.
“He really does have a heart for community,” DC Democratic Party Chair Charles Wilson said. “He’s always excited about the kind of work he does, and he’s always wanting to get other people excited about it. He’s always willing to keep pushing.”
D.C. Transplant Turned Ward 8 Leader
Pannell developed a concern for civil rights growing up in “rigidly segregated” Newport News, VA, and as an undergraduate at New York City’s Fordham University joined the burgeoning Anti-Vietnam War movement.
In the summer of 1969, he found himself in Greenwich Village the night of the Stonewall riots, when patrons at the gay, lesbian and transgender bar fought back against a police raid and ignited the gay liberation movement. His activism continued in the District, where getting arrested at protests — from demonstrations for DC statehood to those agitating for HIV/AIDS treatment — became routine.
The 230-mile move from New York City to DC did more than embed Pannell in the country’s political pulse. It sparked an “enduring” friendship with former Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, who hired 25-year-old Pannell to manage the community side of his campaign for Ward 4 Councilmember.
Working for Dixon, then a member of the District’s first home rule government, was a “totally new world,” Pannell recalled. When Dixon won the election, Pannell ran his constituent service office. This was Pannell’s first DC job, but it certainly wouldn’t be his last.
To name a few: Ward 8 Democrats President, Ward 8 coordinator for Mayor Anthony Williams, Congress Heights Community Association President, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Friends of the Parkland-Turner Neighborhood Library Treasurer and East of the River Community Court Advisory Board Member. The list goes on.
Many of these positions he’s held for multiple terms, and nearly all share a location: Ward 8. Pannell moved to the ward 32 years ago, and has served as the Executive Director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC) since 1995.
“I intentionally moved here to see how I can be helpful in a part of town which in many cases is
neglected and underserved,” he said. “When you’re in that type of community and you want to better things, you can’t help but be active.”
‘In the Land of A.R.E’
Pannell has thrived as the Executive Director of the ACC, a role where “his personality and capacity and talent has flourished,” Dixon said. Under Pannell’s leadership, the ACC has attracted hundreds of attendees at its meetings and connected with community organizations serving what Dixon calls “Anacostia River East,” or A.R.E.
“His range is broad,” Dixon said. “From education to crime to environment, you name it, he has a feel for it and commitment to it, particularly as it relates to our community and in the land of A.R.E.”
Like his list of titles, Pannell has amassed a catalog of official-sounding awards, like the 2011 U.S. President’s Call to Service Award, which recognized his five decades of advocacy. That advocacy can be aggressive and, at times, blunt: “When he wants you to do something, he will stay on you,” Dixon laughed. But that’s “why he gets results,” he added.
ANC-6D04 Commissioner Andy Litsky met Pannell nearly 30 years ago when their paths first crossed while working on a political campaign. He said Phil’s quick wit and “legendary rhetorical command” is unmatched.
“If I had only one word to describe Phil, it would be fierce,” Litsky said. “You know, in 1976 he testified before the City Council in support of same sex marriage. Forty-five years ago!”
Pannell’s friends echo that his impact cannot be overstated. From sweeping reforms (moving the Ward 8 Democrats to embrace vote-by-mail in the 80s) to on-the-ground work (sponsoring local Christmas caroling and spending hours registering others to vote), Pannell has “always been there to organize,” Wilson, the DC Democratic Party Chair, said.
These days, Pannell is still organizing, still living in his apartment, even as the pandemic upturns the country and the world. For now, he’s moved the ACC’s activities online.
“I actually wind up being involved in more meetings now,” he said. “Some days, I have literally started virtual meetings at eight o’clock in the morning and will be online until after sunset.”
Though Pannell said he has no hobbies — a regrettable fact he attributes to long work days spent organizing for the ACC — he’s a life-long mentor to many.
“Philip has been instrumental in every young elected person’s life, to get them to where they are,” Wilson said. “If they really look back and if they’re honest with themselves, they can credit Philip Pannell.”
Friends frequently mentioned Pannell’s sense of humor, both for its power to mobilize and spark joy. A few years ago, Wilson organized a Philip Pannell roast, and over 500 community members showed up to poke fun at Pannell’s big personality. “People really cracked up,” Wilson remembers.
Pannell is also a loyal friend, especially to Dixon. Pannell would babysit the daughters of Dixon and his former wife, third District mayor Sharon Pratt. And Dixon gifted Pannell, a musician, his brother’s old ebony clarinet. Dixon peppers his description of Pannell with candid adjectives: smart, sincere, dogged, committed. He called Pannell his best friend.
“We’d love him,” Dixon said. “I love him. He’s a special guy, and it’s impossible to recognize him enough for what he does.”
Eva Herscowitz is a journalism student at Northwestern University currently interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org