Reflecting on Nine Years of Refresh DC

Published on .

Nine years ago today, Refresh DC held its first gathering at Ireland’s Four Green Fields in Cleveland Park. It was a casual affair with maybe a dozen or so attending. At the time, I had only an idea of what I wanted Refresh DC to be and never imagined that, nine years later, it would still be a thing.

This past Thursday night, we held our 95th event at iStrategyLabs’ beautiful new office space in Shaw. My colleague Ally delivered a fantastic presentation detailing the sordid history of the English language to a gathered crowd of about sixty curious Web professionals.

Reflecting on this ninth anniversary, I feel it’s as good an occasion as any to finally—yes, finally—commit to writing down a history of the Refresh movement and Refresh DC’s place within it. I get asked about it often enough that I should’ve written this ages ago.

A Brief History of Refresh

“Refresh” as a concept originated in late 2005 when a group of Dallas, Texas-based designers gathered with a purpose:

Refresh is a community of designers and developers working to refresh the creative, technical and professional aspects of new media endeavors in the Dallas area.

The die was cast and the Refresh Manifesto has remained unchanged ever since.

I forget exactly how I first came across Refresh Dallas, but by the time I did, several other chapters had sprung up around the country (notably in Phoenix and Boston). The concept was simple, clearly-defined, and lacked any real structure. That last point was very appealing to my DIY, punk rock, 24-year-old self. In those early days, you could think of Refresh as like Fight Club but without all the ear-hitting.

At the time, I knew there had to be other Web designers and developers in DC who—like me—weren’t interested in formal, print design-centric organizations like AIGA. This was 2005, after all. We were still very much fighting the “Web is not the same as print!” battle. Irrespective of that, and still energized by my first trip to SXSW Interactive earlier that year, I seized the opportunity to bring Refresh to Washington, DC. I registered a domain, asked a co-worker to cobble together a landing page, and emailed my idea to the few people I knew at the time. I implored them to email everyone they knew who may be interested in attending this informal gathering of Web folk.

And that was it, really.

We quickly graduated from meeting at restaurants and bars to meeting at the Library of Congress before moving on to The Motley Fool’s offices in Alexandria, VA. It was at The Fool that things really took off. Our friends there generously offered meeting space month-after-month, freeing me up to find interesting people willing to speak to our burgeoning community. Without that consistency in the early years, Refresh DC never would’ve grown to attract 100 or more people every month.

Things got real. And quick. In February, 2008, nearly 200 people attended that month’s event.

By no coincidence, the very next month, I handed the reins over to my close friend Jackson Wilkinson who shepherded the community through some serious growing pains. Jackson did a masterful job lining up interesting, engaging speakers for two more years before handing organizational duties over to wizard-in-training Dave DeSandro. A year later, I’d find myself back at the helm.

These days, Refresh DC is organized by myself, Audrey Matthias, Rochelle Pennington, and Nick Whitmoyer. We should’ve spread responsibility across several people long ago, but the younger versions of me were too strong-headed to see the obvious forest hidden among the trees.

While Refresh DC draws a smaller—and more manageable—crowd nowadays, we’ve never wavered from our goal of providing a platform for anyone interested in sharing their particular expertise or interest. The emphasis is, and always will be, on education and sharing.

We recently published a Code of Conduct, making public our commitment to fostering an inclusive, collegial environment welcoming to everyone. As I wrote in my post announcing the Code of Conduct, I’m constantly amazed and invigorated by the enthusiasm, passion, and diversity of the community we’ve built together.

I’ve never had a long-term plan for Refresh DC. With our 100th event right around the corner and our tenth anniversary next March, it’s clear that lack of a plan hasn’t held us back. Whatever lightning we’ve managed to bottle here in DC has, over nine years, built a thriving community of Web professionals.

Above all, Refresh DC is just that: a community. One I’m proud to count myself a member of.