Monday, October 30, 2017

Real Solutions for “Marion Barry Park”

The petition to fence off the heavily used portion of Shepherd Parkway along Martin Luther King Avenue (see my October 16 post) may be an expression of scapegoating and despair, but it is having a positive effect:  those already working to build hope and pride in the park are coming together, their passion and resolve renewed.  

For years, local clergy and church volunteers have provided ministry, food, clothing, and other services to needy park users. The Park Service, Congress Heights Community Association, and others have held family-friendly events in the park, and conscientious park users make it their business to pick up the litter.  

And of course, the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway has removed hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash from the wooded areas of the park, including those adjacent to the picnic area. Park users have been friendly and appreciative towards our volunteers. Ellen Williams, our most loyal volunteer, got involved in 2015 after we invited her and others sitting in the park to join a clean-up.
In the photo above, more than 50 people gathered on October 17 for a financial empowerment workshop with real estate entrepreneur Jay Morrison. The park has also been the sight of Black Lives Matter protests and Art All Night.

None of these positive activities were even mentioned in the petition. 

On October 27, ANC 8C Commissioners Karen Lucas and Sharece Crawford convened a meeting at the RISE Center to bring together those working to attack the root causes the joblessness, addiction, and violence seen in the park. Many had never met and were unaware of the others’ efforts.

All were united in their embrace of those who some call “the people in the park” as our brothers and sisters, each with their own story, neighbors with as much claim to this space as us.

Commissioner Lucas drew applause then she broke it down: “The park will not close, because the park is not dangerous. Trees and grass are not dangerous. Tables and benches are not dangerous. Some dangerous things happen there, as they do throughout our community. Some people chose to fixate on the park, but it it’s really about our people.”

Those in attendance were also roused by the incisive, truth-telling words of Aiyi’nah Ford, Executive Director of the Future Foundation. Founded in 2012, the Foundation works to “empower and activate “future adults” (13-21 years of age) and their families with trauma-informed social justice advocacy, community organizing and resource development skills to improve their future.”

Ford spoke of GLBTQ youth seeking refuge in the park after being put out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.  

The Rev. Dr. Nicole Johnson-Douglass of the Deliverance Temple A.M.E. Zion Church described how she leads Sunday worship services in the park every Sunday; afterwards they discuss the challenges residents are facing and help connect them with services. Contrary to the claims of some, those who enter the park with a humility and respect for those there, are welcomed, she said.    

Travis Dread-Hughes of the DC Department of Behavioral Health promoted the department’s Access HelpLine as a humane alternative to calling the police. One of the most comprehensive services of its kind in the United States, DC residents can call 888-793-4357, 24-hours a day, seven-day-a-week to speak with mental health professionals who can refer them to immediate help or ongoing care.

National Capital Parks-East Deputy Superintendent Ann Honious, a veteran of previous community discussions about Shepherd Parkway, spoke about the Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Program (REAP) being carried out by Howard University students in the park. “Instead of rushing in and doing something that looks nice but might turn out not to be what the community needs and wants, we are doing to take a long hard look at what this place means to people.”  

This comes as a disappointment for those impatient for long-overdue physical improvements, but it’s hard to argue with the need for changes to be sensitive to the uniqueness of Congress Heights.

Captain Green of the Park Police Anacostia Station, a Ward 8 native, spoke eloquently about his commitment to respecting the civil liberties and dignity of the citizens. He alluded to “broke windows policing,” in which people of color are stopped by police and often criminally charged for minor “quality of life offenses” and concluded “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”  Echoing Mr. Dread-Hughes, he argued that involving police should be a community’s last resort, not the first.  

He acknowledged the problem of understaffing- four officers on duty at any given time, covering 4,000 acres of federal parkland from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Piscataway Park. Still, he said his department is committed to maintaining a presence at Shepherd Parkway.  “Just because you don’t see our cruisers parked there all day, or our officers marking arrests in the park, doesn’t mean we aren’t working it make it safer.”

Other panelists included Ward 8 State Board of Education representative Markus Batchelor and Saleem Adolfo of the Black United Fund, which works to serve critical needs of special populations; and that promote community based problem solving.”   

The meeting could have continued all night, but when the building’s closing time arrived, all departed energized, promising to increase dialogue and coordination.

Perhaps the most important take-way was articulated by Aiyi’nah Ford, who referenced the Rev. Jesse Jackson: The tools to heal and build up our communities already exist within our communities. We need not, and cannot, wait for a government agency to rescue us.



As noted in previous posts, the area under discussion comprises less than one percent Shepherd Parkway’s 197 acres and really needs a name of its own. The idea of naming it for Marion Barry -who toward the end of his life lived a few blocks away- seems be gaining momentum.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Regarding the petition to close Shepherd Parkway

Dear Friends,

On October 10, Nikki Peele, author of the Congress Heights on the Rise blog, launched a petition on to “CLOSE Shepherd Park (corner of MLK Ave SE & Malcolm X Ave SE) in Ward 8, DC.”

The petition includes the phrase “Congress Heights Residents To Restore Community Safe Spaces.”

I want to make clear that the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway is not involved in this effort. We oppose the closure of the park and urge our supporter to NOT sign the petition.

The text of the petition identifies serious, longstanding issues in the heavily used picnic area, a small strip of Shepherd Parkway that juts into the center of Congress Heights. It lacks an official name but has been called many things by residents and is known within the Park Service “Parklands.” It's where we meet for our monthly clean-ups.

We share the author’s frustration with the littering, public intoxication, fights, and other illegal activities in park. The petition calls for meetings to “establish a plan of action that involves NPS, DC Government, local law enforcement, community groups, local businesses etc. to establish an action plan,” and we agree that this is long overdue. She calls for the opening of a day-time facility for residents of the 801 men’s homeless shelter, which is a great idea.

Unfortunately, Ms. Peele also makes sweeping generalizations and uses loaded language to dehumanize and justify the removal or our most marginalized neighbors.

The petition was launched without the input of ANC commissioners or leaders of the Congress Heights Community Association and without regard to discussions taking place between between National-Capital Parks-East and community leaders.

Her proposed solution- is to fence off the entire areas for at least 90 days- is a simple, answer to problems that have no simple answers.

The people she dismisses as “the criminal element” are Washingtonians, and human beings we complex stories. The problematic behaviors she describes are symptoms of poverty, addiction, mental illness, and homelessness, with roots going deep in the history of our country, the structure of our economy, and the polices or our national and local governments. 

Closing the park might temporarily move some people and their problems to another location, but would, but it would send a terrible message about the type of community we want to be.

Contrary to what Ms. Peele (and Mr. Trump) say, erecting fences will not heal our social ills  or create a safe, vibrant public space.

We hope that the attention generated by the petition will lead to constructive discussion of the future of the park that includes all users as partners in community.

In Peace and Unity,

Nathan Harrington
Chair, Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway

Friday, October 13, 2017

Energy- and impatience- at National Park Service Partnership Summit

On October 10, nearly a hundred people gathered at THEARC, in the Parklands section of Ward 8, for a "Partnership Summit" convened by Tara Morrison, the Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East (NACE), which is the NPS unit responsible for all federal parklands on the east side of DC and in Prince George's County.

The entire office staff of NACE- as skeleton crew of about a dozen- was in attendance, along with a dozen others from the National Capital Region and NPS central offices.

Among the many local groups represented were:

Anacostia Waterfront Trust/Federal City Council
Anacostia Coordinating Council
Earth Conservation Corps
Casey Trees
Groundwork DC
Student Conservation Association
Washington Parks and People
Anacostia Watershed Society
Washington Area Bicyclists Association
Alice Ferguson Foundation
Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Georgetown University
DC agencies, include Department of Parks and Recreational and Department of Energy and the Environment, and the Mayor's office

It was the most significant public outreach undertaken by NACE in many years, and perhaps the largest gathering to date of people concerned with East of the River parks. The sense of energy and common purpose was palpable.

But so too were some harsh realities: the scandalous lack of funding provided the Park Service by Congress, and  the dire conditions in many of the parks, a legacy of  and the chronic neglect of low-income communities of color.  This was clearly NACE's attempt to improve its relations with "the community."

NACE staff led all the breakout groups, and they did most of the talking. Their presentations were long on abstract topics of policy and structure, delivered by means of the inevitable PowerPoint slides. The focus was explicitly on how to partner with NACE, so there was limited discussion of specific issues facing the parks or concrete action to make them better.

Their most common refrains involved "limited capacity" "competing priorities," "doesn't happen overnight," lines which seasoned activists have come to understand as polite ways of saying Sorry, we can’t do any of what you’re proposing.

At times it was just plain boring. A guy from the C&O Canal and a woman from President's Park spoke at length about the structures they use to manage volunteers. During an exercise intended to map out which groups are engaged in similar activities or serving the geographic areas, half the time was spent explaining the procedure to be followed.

The tenor of the day was constructive and civil, with none of the lively theatrics one sometimes sees at civic meetings in Ward 8. One of the few explicit criticisms of NACE came during the opening introductions, Representatives from Malcolm X Day Committee and East River Jazz voiced their frustration with the slow and unresponsive NACE bureaucracy.

The most productive part of the day for me was the networking, made easy by the participant list provided by conference organizers, complete with affiliations and email addresses.

At the conclusion of one workshop, the representative of an influential advocacy group turned to me and asked, in earshot of the NACE officials "What's is going to take to make them do their job?” or something to that effect.

Surprised by his candor, I told him with equal candor that the only way to impose one's agency upon the Park Service- or any public institution, for that matter- is to have a great deal of money and political connections. I went on to cite several local examples of extraordinary things done by the Park Service at the behest of the well-healed.

He shook his head in sadness then said earnestly, hopefully, “We should talk.”

I am indeed hopeful that the countless contacts like this one made at the summit will spawn new collaborations to bring more resources- and engaged residents- to the parks.