Streetcar 82 co-owner Mark Burke honored for nurturing area’s Deaf ecosystem
By HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG
Hyattsville’s own Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. has already made its mark as a popular watering hole in the four years since it opened — and now, one of its co-owners has received top honors from the State of Maryland for his contributions to the local Deaf community. On Oct. 11, Mark Burke, co-founder and co-owner of Streetcar 82, received the Spirit of the Deaf Ecosystem Award, presented by the Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, “for his support and empowerment of the economic mobility of Deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” according to the press release.
The Hyattsville Life & Times recently spoke with Mark Burke about the award’s significance and the Deaf ecosystem championed by the governor’s office.
“We did not open [Streetcar 82] with the intention of being a Deaf brewery — just a brewery that happens to be owned by Deaf people and brings the community together,” Burke said through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. “But with the Deaf ecosystem, I think that we have had a lot of impact.”
Burke described the Deaf ecosystem as a network of Deaf businesses, individuals and organizations that sustain and support the local Deaf and hard-of-hearing community by providing employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, raising awareness of Deaf culture and ASL among the hearing community, and attracting more Deaf families and individuals to the area in a supportive feedback loop.
According to the Institute on Employment and Disability, Deaf and hard-of-hearing adults are chronically underemployed, with fewer than 40% of people with a hearing disability working full time.
Kelby Brick, director of the governor’s office presenting the award, said that Burke’s work with Streetcar 82 epitomizes how the Deaf ecosystem should work. The brewery maintains an all-Deaf staff, for instance, and prioritizes Deaf contractors whenever possible, according to Burke.
Burke pointed out that people who are deaf, especially young people with no experience, face significant barriers to getting service jobs like bartending. After working at Streetcar 82, however, “there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to work at another bar or brewery,” he said.
Employee Daniella Reyna agrees. A student at Gallaudet University, Reyna credits Burke’s mentorship with prompting her to open her own dog treat business using spent grain from Streetcar 82.
“S82 is like a home to me, where I can go and be myself with my S82 family and customers,” she said in an email.
With Burke’s support, Reyna presented her business plan at a “Shark Tank”-style contest at Gallaudet, winning first place and a $5,000 prize. Now, she sells her treats at Streetcar 82. “It’s a close-knit community, just how it should be,” said Reyna.
In a 2019 interview with WOAB radio, Burke described his own experience with underemployment. Prior to opening the brewery, he said, he’d been unemployed for two years; in that time, he applied for hundreds of jobs but received only two interviews and zero offers. “Twenty-five years ago, Deaf-owned businesses were not a thing because the resources were not there,” said Burke.
Now, it helps that Maryland has a policy-coordinating office for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing that reports directly to the governor — an organizational structure that is unique to the state, according to director Brick. He said this structure “enhances accessibility” and “strengthens the network of services that Maryland provides.” Brick called Deaf ecosystems “a critical tool in combating the pervasive underemployment and unemployment that many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals experience.”
In addition to providing opportunities for Deaf individuals, Streetcar 82 offers widely popular ASL classes to the hearing public.
Streetcar 82 regular Christine Blackerby said of her recent class, “I always felt like I should know a few [ASL] basics so that I can communicate without all the work falling on the deaf person, and Streetcar gave me a reason to use it. They offered ASL a few times pre-pandemic, but the classes sold out super fast. I jumped on this one — and it sold out within an hour of posting.”
Burke credits the fun factor of the brewery atmosphere with getting people over the inertia required to learn something new.
“I think people want the opportunity to learn ASL, but it’s not exciting to go to a community college,” he said. “Doing it here, that’s like a cool thing.”
North Brentwood-based artist and activist Melissa Malzkuhn, who is third-generation deaf, said over email that it was impossible to know if the Deaf ecosystem was the primary factor attracting Deaf residents to Hyattsville and surrounding areas, noting that home prices were one reason. Still, she said, the vibrancy of sign language, the Deaf community and openness to learning sign among the residents could certainly be a draw. “I love living here and appreciate the inclusion and access as a part of the community fabric here. I hope to see more Deaf businesses down the road.”
Burke made it clear that although he’s quite proud of the award, ultimately, his mission is simply to make great beer and provide a wonderful gathering space for the whole community. From the beginning, “that was my emphasis,” he said. “And still to this day, that is my emphasis.”