This article is written by Malusi Kitchen, the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative Coordinator
In Washington, DC, Anacostia Park and Anacostia River have been a divider in the District for decades due to segregation and many other factors. But one program is fighting to change the perception about Anacostia River, Anacostia Park, and the environment. And it's doing it with young people.
The Green Zone Environmental Program (GZEP) operated by the Department of Energy and Environment is helping change all of that. GZEP is a five-week program that introduces predominantly African-American youth of all ages from the east side of city to the park and river. Participants talk with speakers, engage in art projects, and best of all, get outside to experience these tremendous assets first hand.
I was invited to speak to speak to a group of these youth, as an African-American who cares about the river. Most times when the environment is discussed, the people involved are majority white. Changing perceptions of the environment to a group of African-Americans from southeast and northeast DC—who don’t often visit the river—is both a challenge and an exciting opportunity for me.
Visit 1: Wariness
The first time I presented, I talked with teens and young adults about the challenges and opportunities of the Anacostia River, and how the Anacostia Park & Community Collaborative (APACC) is engaging community residents to be advocates for themselves, for their own future. At times there was disbelief that the park and the river would ever become clean. In that moment I realized that we had more work to do because they never truly felt that the park was theirs.
Visit 2: Interest and engagement
The second time I visited we talked about ways to be more involved in their respective communities. The teens were engaged and thoughtful, and hopefully jazzed enough to be more engaged and involved in their neighborhoods. Engaging these young minds throughout our session taught me a valuable lesson. Engaging these young minds throughout our session taught me a valuable lesson. That there is still a great deal of work to do in changing the way young people see the river and the park.
Culturally, the young African-Americans I met had no connection with the Anacostia Park and Anacostia River. And while the river is on its way to becoming clean and the park accessible and engaging, the challenge remains convincing young African–Americans that these places are for them.
GZEP is doing important work to change the perception of the park and the river for these young adults. The Anacostia River and Park are currently playing prominent roles in policy, the environment, and public discourse in DC. And with all the improvements happening around the river and the park, the negative perceptions are slowly but surely fading away.
Some who see Anacostia Park and Anacostia River as theirs