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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Using Nature to Heal and Empower Communities Along Our River

There are a number of special people who are working to make t3he Anacostia River come alive as a place to learn about nature and to use that learning to serve our neighborhoods and communities.  Tying life in Anacostia and other neighborhoods to the River and its tributaries adds new layers of activities and learning to traditional communities throughout the watershed.

One of these people is Akiima Price, who grew up around the River in Southeast DC and nearby Prince Georges County.  She studied communication at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and in 1991, after working for the National Park Service out west on Lake Mead, she began thinking about how to use the benefits of nature to help people in stressed communities. This led her to work in the 90’s for the Earth Conservation Corps, Anacostia Watershed Society, and other organizations working to improve the Anacostia.  She even spent a spell in New York City in 2006 working on restoration issues.

When she came back to the area, she began working with social service organizations, connecting them with environmental groups working to improve the Anacostia.  Early on she met Brenda Richardson, President of Chozen Consulting LLC, and was impressed.  “Brenda was an inspiration, a model of caring about social and environmental issues together for what I call ‘trauma-informed environmentalism.’ She has a gift for engaging people with the River, parks and trails east of the River as a natural resource they can use for healing.”  And both women have joined forces with APACC (Anacostia Parks and Community Collaboration) to help achieve these goals by getting folks out and along the River for a range of recreation and community service activities.

Since 2018, Akiima has been on contract with the National Park Foundation to help build Friends of Anacostia Park, a new group slated to start early this year.  This group will prioritize not only the goals of the National Park Service, it will also empower stressed residents to inform projects and programs.  Friends of Anacostia Park will not only add to the other organizations that make up APACC; it will assure that the efforts in and along the River are not simply for the partners and the River, but benefit the people living nearby in every way.

There are a number of ways that Akiima’s talents might be useful.  First, there are always proposed improvements to access and use of the lands along the River and its waters.  Some are well thought out and support the goals to use the River and its lands to broaden public knowledge and provide recreation – a good example is the City’s plan for Kingman Island developed with neighborhood participation.  At the other end is the confusion and lack of clear plans for Kenilworth Park, where the City Department of Environment wants to rebuild the tidal wetlands, the City Department of Transportation has plans for a trail in the same place, the Park Service wants to put in a bridge to the National Arboretum that will be big enough to handle police and emergency vehicles, and upstream citizens want to protect the long natural vista and the safety of their children practicing with their school team in racing boats.  Access options are not always clear and simple.

Second, the River can play a major role in education about nature, land use and protection, wildlife, and water quality.  The schools for younger students seem to have found a number of groups to work with on trips and activities along the River.

Third, neighborhood and community groups such as churches can be organized to go forth to explore and become engaged in projects to improve areas in and along the River.  As the water quality improves, there is bound to be more interest in fishing, boating and swimming.   And the 11th Street Bridge Project promises to provide spaces to gather and enjoy the views along the water and a range of associated activities.

Fourth, the River and its parks can bring to the public the spirit and blessings of nature.  Simply walking along the water is the easiest.  But working together on gathering data or completing projects sponsored by the Park Service or non-profits broadens the experience of communing with nature.

As Akiima sums it up, “There is the opportunity to serve both the land and the people when we expand the definition of environment to consider not just the physical factors but the social as well.”  She sees the value of considering “affective” outcomes as well as “cognitive” outcomes when teaching about the River.  “Cognitive outcomes focus on beliefs, ideas or knowledge about something.  Affective outcomes focus more on feelings, emotions, attitudes, motivations, appreciation, etc., which gets to the root of necessary behavioral changes to sustain efforts to improve the River and its surrounding lands.  For so long it has been about the River and not the people; that, thankfully, is changing.”

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.

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