Publications from the work I initiated in Washington DC during my time at Howard University have just started coming out, even though I’ve now moved to Arizona for a new job at Arizona State University.
When I moved to DC in the summer of 2015, I started to nose around to get a sense of what kind of environmental justice work was happening in the area. I met Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, Katrina Lashley at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Lesley Fields at Sierra Club, Mike Ewall at Energy Justice Network, Michael Dorsey, who was then at the National Academy of Science, Rhonda Hamilton from Syphax Gardens near DC’s Buzzard Point, Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper, Kamita Grey in Brandywine, and more. It was a pleasure to meet a whole new host of people doing important work locally and nationally. Many meetings and a few protests later, some potential synergies became clear between my role as an educator, Katrina’s work preserving the stories of people along the Anacostia River with the Anacostia Museum, Rhonda’s activism on the redevelopment of Buzzard Point, and Empower DC’s efforts to support affordable housing and people’s health, both of which were threatened by the Buzzard Point redevelopment.
During my second year in DC, we built a plan around our overlapping interests in which the students in my Environmental Inequality class would conduct oral-history interviews with Rhonda’s neighbors to document their history in the near-Buzzard Point neighborhoods, interaction with the Anacostia River, and current experiences redevelopment. Buzzard Point was undergoing a transformation from an industrial site to a mixed residential and commercial space, and the nearby residents were experiencing the resulting impacts: dust from the construction, rats that relocated from the construction site into their homes, and potential displacement from their homes.
I was pleased with how the project worked out in terms of what the students got out of it. They were introduced to research skills: the first year of the project, students practiced and conducted oral history interviews, and during the second year the next batch of students coded the interviews for cross-cutting themes. We also went on field trips to the Anacostia River and to Southwest DC. Many reported that talking to people struggling with the real-world problems we were reading about in class added a new level of gravity to their understanding of environmental inequality. The archival objectives of the project have also been largely met. Transcripts of the first round of interviews we conducted with Rhonda’s neighbors in Syphax Gardens are held by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, while a second round with residents of broader Southwest DC conducted by graduate student Jesse DiValli (formerly Card) are available at the DC Public Library. However, as often happens, we can’t say that any particular improvement in the material lives of the people we interviewed came out of the work.
Still, we are hopeful that the project was valuable not only for the students and myself, but will also in some small way help raise the visibility of the challenges faced by residents impacted by the redevelopment of Buzzard Point.
Here is the first piece to come out of that work, a profile of the indomitable Rhonda Hamilton, long-time resident and elected representative of her neighborhood in the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission:
Two other prior blog posts about the class project: