Development from the Grassroots Up

Ward 8 Community Economic Development Collects Data to Direct Growth

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W8CED Ambassadors Sora Robinson and Antoinette Cotton collect data at a United Planning Organization (UPO) event. Courtesy: W8CED

Development is coming at a fast pace in Ward 8. Building is underway near the Frederick Douglass Bridge, Congress Heights Metro and St. Elizabeth’s East Campus. Construction on the 11th Street Bridge Project could begin as soon as a team is selected, bringing up to a million visitors a year crossing the Anacostia River into Ward 8.

Amidst this flurry of activity, one organization wants residents to have a leading role in the planning happening throughout their community. Mustafa Abdul-Salaam, founder of the Ward 8 Community Economic Development (W8CED), says that residents have formulated a common vision to guide neighborhood renewal. Abdul-Salaam, a former managing director with urban venture capital firm Smith Whiley & Company, is part of a leadership team that also includes life coach and activist Dr. LaVerne Adams and community activist and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jamila White (ANC 8A05).

“There’s an opportunity for those who live in Ward 8 right now, particularly those of color, to really define what the community can look like going forward so that everyone can benefit,” Abdul-Salaam said.

Bottom-Up Approach
Community economic development, or CED, is a grassroots approach to local development that is driven by the community’s social, environmental and economic priorities.

“From the construction development perspective, people feel helpless, they feel like, ‘I can’t do anything, this is already happening’,” said Dr. Adams. “So this is the time for us to get in and say, hey, look we need to have a voice here in what’s happening in our community.”

CED is not all about bricks and mortar either, organizers say. It also means helping current residents get the resources they need to be part of economic success where they live.

This is not a new idea. The Marshall Heights Community Development Organization (MHCDO) has been working on projects since 1979, most recently in partnership to develop the Skyland town center. In 1988, the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation (CHCTDC) began with a focus on increasing employability via education before moving into development. The 11th Street Bridge Park project has focused on making the whole community part of growth. And there are more.

W8CED Founder Mustafa Abdul Salaam has a background in organization and urban development. Courtesy: W8CED

Grassroots development organizers say they should have a role in development planned in their communities. The Office of the DC Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) said they welcome all voices to the table. “We are committed to delivering projects that the community wants and needs,” said a representative, “and we do that by listening to a diverse group of voices during our RFP [Request for Proposal] processes, comprehensive plan, as well as more local planning efforts.”

But Abdul-Salaam says what’s different about W8CED is that it is a model of bottom-up organization unique in the country. “I don’t know any other model in this country that have done this deep of a bottom-up process,” he said.

Rather than a government entity coming in to propose solutions to a perceived “problem” in the community, the W8CED process is resident-driven, asset-centered and focused on a holistic list of the needs of the community, organizers say. It’s aimed not at mitigating discreet problems but aimed at creating durable wealth that would move the entire community forward.

The group has its origins in a workforce development council formed by former Mayor Marion Barry as Homeland Security began making plans to move their headquarters to St. Elizabeth’s Campus.

That council fizzled out, but Abdul-Salaam, who was a member, resuscitated the concept, bringing stakeholders together to form a steering committee. In 2021, the Bainum Family Foundation gave W8CED $500,000 to begin data collection. The Foundation invests in children and families with a focus on racial equity, mostly in DC’s Wards 7 and 8.

The Plan
The W8CED collects and collas data they will then put together in a vision document to guide planning and development. The scope is large, but the community is stepping up.

Over 2,000 residents have registered to be part of W8CED, Abdul-Salaam said. More than 22 businesses and service providers are part of the steering committee. About 1,500 people attended training sessions W8CED offered on the concept of CED; 50 of those individuals went on to work directly on the project, spending 18 months gathering data, speaking with residents about their priorities and goals for the community.

They did this at tabling and outreach events, as well as via phone surveys with residents. Questions focused on their concerns, their sense of wellbeing and the direction they’d like to see the community move. W8CED is also leveraging Streetwyze, an app that allows residents to identify and geolocate community assets and point to places for improvement.

After early meetings, W8CED determined 11 subjects of concern, forming subcommittees to focus on each. They held town halls on each subject to talk about what specific recommendations residents have in those fields, their priorities and desired outcomes. They will use that information to help shape long and short-term strategies that are expected to be released later this fall.

One part of the plan is a Ward 8-focused community investment fund that will help establish small businesses. Urgent needs include equitable development resources that will help support the businesses already in the community and enrich those to come, such as incubators and support and assistance with technology.

The group wants to help more residents become homeowners, prioritizing education and training on credit and credit repair but also down payment assistance as well as funding for maintenance and renovation. They also want to focus on workforce development. Already partnering with the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), W8CED would like to leverage that relationship and foster another with DC Public Schools to provide training for food businesses.

Antoinette Cotton started working with W8CED as a data collector in late 2021. As part of her work, she said she spoke to about 60 senior citizens every month over a period of about six months. A Ward 8 resident for six years, she heard about W8CED on Instagram. A mother of four children in four different schools, she was discouraged at how difficult it was to find resources to help with transportation, education and mental health. She said what is important about the effort is that resident views are being documented and actually acted upon. “If we hadn’t created this for the Ward 8 CED, nobody’s voice would have gotten heard,” Cotton said, noting that many residents told her that they knew services were available but not how to access them.

Abdul-Salaam said the goal is for W8CED to become an interest/lobby group with a membership model along the lines of AARP, giving residents a voice and an opportunity for residents that live in underserved communities. He’d like to see expansion to Ward 7 and 5 —to anyone who could benefit from that support.

Eventually, says Dr. Adams, they’d like W8CED to become a digital co-op where people can “get in where they fit in.”

“Whatever it is that they feel they want out of this [W8CED] plan, they’ll be able to access it through this digital community,” said Adams. The vision is of a place for people to connect and find events. W8CED will act as a master collaborator, bringing together all of the resources that are available so that they can be leveraged towards achieving goals.

The plan will be shared with private developers and with District agencies. Change is coming, Abdul-Salaam said, so the W8CED plan is a way of asserting community needs, rather than having outside forces make the decisions.

“Being proactive is laying out a plan for the city and developers so that if they want the community’s support, they need to support that agenda,” he said. “It just changes the dynamics in a community like Ward 8 that historically has not had a plan, and therefore they were historically planned upon.”

Learn more about W8CED and get involved by visiting www.ward8cedplan.com