Raymond Tolson: Community Servant

ANC Commissioner Janis Hazel (7D05) has called 68-year-old Raymond Tolson a “neighborhood jewel, a native Washingtonian, and our community's historian.” Hazel met Tolson at a community meet-up during President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, and they have worked together since. A lifelong Ward 7 resident, Tolson is constantly serving his community, whether as secretary of the Central Northeast Civic Association, photographer, or church deacon. However, it is his work with fellow seniors and youth advocacy that keeps him the most active. 


An avid cyclist, Tolson can be seen every day using Capitol Bikeshare around the neighborhood. “I've been riding all my life,” he said. “I started at nine years old, when I was delivering papers.” In recent years he gave up his car and began using public transportation, car sharing services like Car2go and Enterprise, and Uber. However, cycling is his main mode of transportation. Although Tolson has two bikes at home, he often uses Bikeshare to travel. “For $75 a year it's worth it to leave them in the basement,” he explains. “It saves money on tires and repairs.” He recommends Bikeshare as a cheaper alternative for recreational cyclists. 

While cycling is good exercise, Tolson does it to help keep the community informed. “I told Ray we needed to engage our residents and disseminate information that can assist them because the majority in our area do not have Internet access or computers in their homes and many don't have smart phones,” said Commissioner Hazel. “So, Ray and I routinely split up the blocks and walk around to pass out my ANC 7D05 newsletter, flyers, and other publications.” Tolson also delivers copies of East of the River to home-bound seniors. “When they're home, we talk about what's happening in the neighborhood,” he explained. “Then I'll pass along information to those who can make the most good of it.”  


Tolson is a freelance photographer who uses his skills to document community problems. “I work in partnership with Ray alerting him to trash issues I've seen or a call or email I received from a constituent about trash, abandoned vehicles and illegal dumping,” said Commissioner Hazel. “Since he has a more flexible schedule than I do during the day and a better camera, he rides by the problem area on a bike, takes pictures, and I'll forward them to DC 311, or if the problem persists I send the photos directly to my agency liaison to follow up to get the cleanup completed.” 

SOME Senior Summer Camp

This summer Tolson will continue to serve his fellow seniors during the annual Senior Summer Camp of So Others Might Eat (SOME). Twice every July the nonprofit sends low-income senior citizens to a two-week retreat at a country house in West Virginia. “It's more like a hotel setting,” Tolson said of the experience. “You can chill out in your room or you could participate in movie nights, church, a choir, or the talent show. They don't put a demand on you.” After attending the program as a camper for two years Tolson was asked to serve as a counselor. He discussed it with Father John Adams, president of SOME, “and he was excited about the idea,” Tolson related. “I know that a lot of people there want to serve as counselors, but they can't. As long as I'm healthy to serve, that's what I'm going to do.” 

Youth Advocate

While he enjoys helping his fellow seniors, Tolson is adamant about helping Ward 7 youth. Reflecting on his upbringing, Tolson is shocked at how things have changed. “It was a big thing when someone got shot,” he said. “Some people fight to solve their problems, but there was still a consideration for life.” Tolson argued that this consideration should be nurtured at a young age, starting at home. “You have to have someone to care about you,” he said. “If you don't, you have to find your value somewhere else, like the streets.”

The key to improving the community, he explained, is to invest in better youth programming and teach parents to instill good values and habits in their children. “Our biggest investment is our children,” he said. “If we spoil the children, then try to correct them as adults, we can never change.” This is why he campaigns on behalf of organizations like My School DC, attends community-wide meetings, and talks to representatives from the Office of the Mayor attending the Central Northeast Civic Meetings about youth jobs and education. 

When it comes to staying active in the community, Tolson does not see his age as a hindrance. “I don't claim to be old,” he said. “You can still ride a bike at 68; you just have to keep moving.” As for when he will stop moving, Tolson replied, “Until my legs get rotten, I don't expect to stop.”