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
Among the many local groups represented were:
Anacostia Waterfront Trust/Federal City Council
Anacostia Coordinating Council
Earth Conservation Corps
Student Conservation Association
Washington Parks and People
Anacostia Watershed Society
Washington Area Bicyclists Association
Alice Ferguson Foundation
Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
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
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
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
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.