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.