A six-person army is fighting to clean up Ward 8

This article is written by Will Lennon and was first published by the DC Line, spotlighting Ward 8 Woods, a member of the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative.

Ward 8 Woods park stewards descend into a wooded area across the street from a residential neighborhood just blocks from Suitland Parkway. (Photo by Will Lennon)

Ward 8 Woods park stewards descend into a wooded area across the street from a residential neighborhood just blocks from Suitland Parkway. (Photo by Will Lennon)

In his backyard in Congress Heights, Nathan Harrington has a collection of bowling balls. He found them in the woods.

He doesn’t know for sure how the 10 or 12 colorful spheres ended up out there, but he guesses it has something to do with a recent decline in the sport’s popularity. Another item Harrington frequently turns up: old license plates.

“I nail ‘em to the side of my house,” Harrington said in an interview. “It’s like a mural.”

Harrington is a DC native who spent years working in the Washington area as a Spanish and social studies teacher before becoming a professional tour guide. He has also been picking up trash in wooded areas around Ward 8 for the better part of a decade, starting when he began working with the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway. In the summer of 2018, he launched Ward 8 Woods as a pilot project — a reimagining of the committee with expanded responsibilities and, until recently, oversight by the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Recently Ward 8 Woods became an independent nonprofit.

The roots of Ward 8 Woods stretch back to legendary local activist Phil Pannell, who recruited Harrington to chair the Shepherd Parkway committee after meeting him through the Congress Heights Community Association. At first, Harrington worked alongside volunteers to clear trash and invasive plant species from Shepherd Parkway. 

“Ward 8 residents were always asking, ‘Hey, are you hiring?’” said Harrington. “And the answer was always, ‘No, we don’t have any money, but you can volunteer.’ And they were like, ‘Well, thanks for doing it, but I need a job, I need some money, I need to support my family.’”

To this end, the DC government stepped in to provide grant funding that allowed the committee to evolve into Ward 8 Woods and to hire and pay five “park stewards.” The park stewards work with Harrington to clear trash and debris.

Using Facebook and email, Harrington advertised the positions as an opportunity for people facing barriers to employment. The organization received more than 70 applications for the five positions. 

According to the Ward 8 Woods website, the organization was supported in 2018 by a $25,040 grant from the DC Office of Planning through a program that funds the beautification of federal lands. In 2019, the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) chipped in $20,000.

With the new name came an expanded mission. Harrington and the stewards worked to clean up problem areas they identified by sight as well as spots suggested by locals. The Ward 8 Woods team worked to clear these areas of invasive plant species, car parts and construction debris as well as garden-variety litter such as empty bottles and discarded packages. 

“A lot of times when we came to work, somebody would call the police on us,” said Robert Carpenter, Ward 8 Woods’ acting supervisor. “The neighborhoods weren’t used to people back there doing something positive. … Then, once we came back to that site two months later, people were giving us waves, offering us water bottles and stuff like that, saying, ‘How are y’all doing today? You need something to drink?’”

Although he wasn’t selected in the first round of hires, Carpenter was called up after another steward dropped out. (Staff churn was a serious issue in the early days of Ward 8 Woods, according to Harrington. He said that about 15 people were hired and left before the steady team working today coalesced.) 

Carpenter has worked with Ward 8 Woods for about a year. Prior to joining up, he had struggled to find work. 

“I went on interview after interview,” Carpenter said. “They talk good on the phone, but when it comes time to put a face on the application and stuff, they always shut me out.”

Carpenter says working with Ward 8 Woods has helped him fine-tune his leadership skills. The team members have become comfortable with taking direction from him and collaborating with one another to get jobs done. 

Since last August, Harrington says, he and the stewards have removed about 145,000 pounds of trash from the woods in Ward 8. That’s about the equivalent of one World War II-era tank on top of another World War II-era tank. Their work doesn’t go unnoticed. 

Darrell Gaston, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner, praised the organization’s efforts and expressed hope for its future.

“Ward 8 Woods have been great with working with at-risk young adults in providing both employment and exposure to the importance of keeping our environment clean,” Gaston said in an email to The DC Line. “I look forward to the continuing partnership and also expanding this program to high schools where scholars can receive community service and appreciation of the environment.”

Workers say they also see enthusiasm on the ground as well.

“Before I started working with Ward 8 Woods, you couldn’t get nobody to come to these woods and be interested in what you’re doing,” said Carpenter. “Now … the last person you’d think would volunteer will be out there volunteering with you.”

Volunteers come from every corner of the Washington metropolitan area to help supplement the core team’s work. Sometimes they even come from across the country or overseas. Harrington recalls working with volunteers from Canada, Mexico, India and the United Kingdom.

Claire Shelby, a newly minted business student at The George Washington University, came from San Jose, California, via Foggy Bottom as part of GWU’s welcome day of service for freshmen. Shelby had barely acclimated to living on GW’s campus when she found herself picking up trash on Suitland Parkway.  

When Shelby and other student volunteers boarded a school bus in Foggy Bottom, they knew they were going to participate in an outdoor cleanup project, but not where they were headed. The volunteers worked for three hours. 

“‘Here’s the side of a roadway. Enjoy,’” Shelby said of her introduction to the project. “There was so, so, so, so much trash.” 

Her team found bottles, tires and a guitar. When they found a pile of discarded hard drives, they joked that they were turning up terabytes of hastily dumped Pentagon secrets. Shelby said picking up trash on Suitland Parkway had not been her volunteer activity of choice, but because of her experience she would like to volunteer east of the river again, maybe tutoring or coaching sports. 

Thanks to a grant from the DOEE, Ward 8 Woods will be working on Suitland Parkway until the end of the year. Originally constructed during World War II, Suitland Parkway is a major artery that links DC and the Maryland suburbs. Unlike many of the other sites where Ward 8 Woods works that are administered by the National Park Service, Suitland Parkway and the urban forest on either side of it are DC mostly managed by the DC government.

“It blocks the noise, it cleans the air, it soaks up the stormwater,” said Harrington. “But it’s also really severely polluted. There’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash. … There’s also invasive vines from other parts of the world that are growing much faster than the native species. You have a lot of trees that are dead or dying, and in order to save those trees we’ve gotta get those vines off.”

According to the Ward 8 Woods website, invasive species present on Suitland Parkway include English ivyoriental bittersweet and Japanese rose.

A park steward adds another tire to the day’s haul alongside a broken television and several bags of smaller trash. (Photo by Will Lennon)

A park steward adds another tire to the day’s haul alongside a broken television and several bags of smaller trash. (Photo by Will Lennon)

Ward 8 Woods employees have their work cut out for them. The DC portion of Suitland Parkway stretches for nearly three miles before winding into Maryland, and it is surrounded by about 100 acres of forest that need attention — just part of the more than 500 acres of wooded areas throughout the ward. (An acre is slightly smaller than a football field.) 

But according to several of the stewards, resources are spread thin. Ellen Williams, the only woman currently working with Ward 8 Woods, moved east of the river nearly two decades ago. She said that originally the team was working five or six days a week, but their schedule has been cut back to just two or three days a week. 

In an interview with The DC Line, Williams said she hopes that new grant money will allow her to work more hours. Chris Williams, another steward, expressed the same sentiment. (Though they share the same last name, the two team members are not related.) 

“We do spectacular work, man,” said Chris Williams. “And I’d appreciate it if we could get more funding. Because we deserve it and we really need it.” 

Harrington says he’s hopeful that the group can continue to grow with support through grants and private donations. A GoFundMe campaign launched last fall has raised about $2,300 from 23 donors.

“There’s all this work that needs to be done, and all these people that want to work,” Harrington said. “All we need is funding and we can put those two things together and give people meaningful work and try to undo decades of pollution and neglect.”

Some of the areas that Ward 8 Woods cleans up are administered by the National Park Service, which doesn’t have the resources to do much more than provide the group with supplies like gloves, trash bags and first-aid gear, said Harrington. He noted that the Park Service is “under-resourced” in terms of budget and staff.

“Really we need a new Congress and a new [U.S.] president who can put a lot more resources toward defending our national treasures because right now they’re practically abandoned,” said Harrington. “There’s all kinds of benefits that come with living next to a forest. But there’s all kinds of negative consequences that come with living next to a dump. And unfortunately a lot of the woods in Ward 8 are sort of both.”