WASHINGTON — D.C. leaders have announced that Linda Harllee Harper, the Executive Director of the Office of Neighborhood and Safety Engagement (ONSE), has passed away. She was 57 years old. There has been no word yet on her cause of death.
Harper was born and raised in D.C. and had an unapologetic love for the city, its rich history, and its residents. She was known as a youth, criminal and social justice reformer. She was an advocate and champion of positive youth outcomes for court-involved youth and their families in the District of Columbia and nationally.
Before serving as the head of ONSE, Bowser appointed Harper the city’s first Gun Violence Prevention Director in 2021. Previously she served as Senior Deputy Director to D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) – the city’s cabinet level agency serving youth impacted by the DC Juvenile Justice System.
WUSA9’s Delia Gonçalves sat down with Harper just one month after she was appointed to the ONSE office, which ended up being her final interview for WUSA9. During the March 15, 2023 interview, Harper spoke about her work (the challenges and rewards) and her vision for her hometown.
“We have to be able to see the value of redemption," Harper said back in March. "It's hard for public to see because we want immediate change but there's incremental progress we can point to. To witness the transformations in these men who used to wreak havoc in their communities who made a conscious decision to now be positive role models and be peace ambassadors and to be able to tell me what I need to do to help others coming up behind them is exactly why I do what I do.”
But with service comes sacrifice.
"8:30 in the morning every day for the last two years I've been on a phone with MPD and the ONSE office, the mayor joins, the city administrator joins and we talk about the shootings in that last 24 hours,” Harper said. "That has been every single day for the last two years and that's a lot. That's not how you want to start your morning and those things weigh on you.”
But she said she found peace with family including her husband and 17-year-old son and purpose working with and talking to the returning citizens and young people.
“The mass incarceration we experienced during the crack epidemic has impacted our families,” she said. "And our men are now coming back home. We need them in our communities, and we need them to have a chance to be heads of households and take care of their families.”
Sandra Seegars, of Concerned Residents Against Violence, recently collaborated with Harper for a youth job and life-skills workshop in Anacostia. The program is still set for Juneteenth.
“I miss her a lot,” Seegars said. “They can't fill her shoes. Nobody's going to be able to do what she was doing and the way she was doing it. But if the city continues to go the way she was trying to take it, I think we can get some things accomplished.”
Mayor Bowser released this statement following Harper's passing:
"Our hearts are broken by the loss of Linda Harlee Harper. Linda was beloved in the community and within DC Government.
Linda loved D.C., she loved and believed in Washingtonians. She dedicated her career and life to our young people and our community, and when she had a seat at the table, she was bringing someone with her - always listening to and empowering people closest to the communities she was working to help.
She didn't give up on people. Hearing Linda speak about our community and our youth, especially our most vulnerable young people, you knew that this was more than a career, this was her calling and her purpose. Linda touched so many lives in D.C., she made people feel heard, and we know this loss will be felt deeply across our community. Our prayers and love are with Linda's husband and son and the many people in our community who loved and admired Linda," Bowser said.
DC Councilmember Charles Allen released this statement:
“Linda was the most beautiful person, and I am just shocked and saddened. She was a longtime and true public servant, committed to her core to saving lives. She shined around young people and all those who need a second chance in life. She was a natural and skilled leader in the fields of juvenile justice and violence prevention, and she commanded every room she walked into with her smile, poise, and stature. My heart goes out to her friends, family, colleagues, and all those she shaped and supported.”
The D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action also spoke about Harper's passing.
“Director Harllee Harper dedicated her life to public service and was committed to improving the lives of young people and making Washington, DC a safer and more equitable city,” said the Washington, DC chapter of Moms Demand Action. “Her work will continue to have positive impacts for generations to come, and we appreciated her kind spirit and desire to work towards solutions that would create more opportunities for our kids and make the city safer. We offer our sincerest condolences to her husband and son, her family and friends, and the incredibly close-knit team at the Office of Gun Violence Prevention.”
It is not yet clear who will take Harper's place as the ONSE leader. Gun violence is an ongoing problem in D.C. Bowser and her administration recently introduced a new legislation to address the issue.
According to D.C. crime data, there have been 89 reported homicides in the District so far in 2023. That's an 11% increase from the same time last year.
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