These next few days as we anticipate the start of spring, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum finds itself in the midst of celebrations of particular resonance to the work of the past decade. Standing in the middle of Women’s History month and looking toward the 52nd celebration of Earth Day, the museum is in the planning stages of 2023’s “Our Environment, Our Future,” which will see an exploration of the ongoing role of women’s leadership in environmental efforts in the greater Washington area and an ongoing exploration of stewardship along the Anacostia. These efforts coming out of the ongoing work of the Urban Waterways Project. In 2010, when then Senior Historian Dr. Gail Lowe decided it was time for an exploration of the Anacostia River, she developed a framework that acknowledges the ongoing relationship between the Anacostia and its city … its communities, its people. This humanities-led framing of the river allowed for a broadening of traditional expectations of environmental history by placing it within the larger context of community history…a connection to and stewardship of place.
This shift of expectation was made possible only through an adherence to ACM’s then-43-year practice of respect for and partnership with its community stakeholders. In the development of the project, Dr. Lowe was also building on the museum’s environmental engagement which can be traced to the innovative leadership of Zora Martin-Felton, the late Founding Director of Education at the then Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (ANM). Martin-Felton was a leading force in the development of the groundbreaking and controversial “The Rat: Man’s Invited Infliction.” The museum’s first exploration of an ecological problem in an urban setting, the exhibition came out of conversations with ANM’s youngest stakeholders. Over the next two decades, Martin-Felton’s environmental efforts included the development of a youth garden program, youth-led research projects on air quality, and a 1994 daylong conference, “Environmental Issues and Concerns East of the Anacostia River: Justice or Just Us?”
Ultimately, Urban Waterways has served as the next phase of ACM’s environmental work. Conversations, oral histories, exhibitions, forums, youth programs, and national convenings have allowed for the documentation of community-led efforts to restore and reclaim the Anacostia for all residents. It has also allowed for more nuanced explorations of definitions of environment, how environmentalism can be practiced, and how such efforts are part of larger movements toward justice. As the work has unfolded, Urban Waterways has centered the ongoing role of women as leaders and integral collaborators in efforts to restore their communities (inclusive of its blue, green, and grey spaces) and featured women’s contributions as undeniable facets of communities’ environmental histories. Women have been central to the early days of clean-ups along the Anacostia, members of some of the earliest organizations engaged in restoration efforts for over thirty years. They have led efforts to provide access to the river and its environs through boating, reconnecting residents to Anacostia Park, activating the green spaces of Oxon Run, developing the Festival del Rio Anacostia, documenting the beauty of the river and its communities, and connecting youth to STEM pathways. In recognition of the often-buried legacy of women’s environmental leadership 2018 saw the next phase of the museum’s environmental work with the launch of Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL), an intergenerational initiative guided by the principles of mentorship, education/training, and leadership, which provides a platform through which women of diverse backgrounds and experiences have gathered to explore inspirations behind their work and the multiple ways to action.
This year, the museum prepares for 2023’s opening of “To Live Without Harm: Women and Environmental Justice in Greater Washington” and launch of our Environmental Justice Academy which will gather a cohort of young women of color living in communities along the Anacostia River to explore multiple definitions of environment and available avenues for participation in environmental advocacy. The various community-based collaborations throughout ACM’s decadeslong environmental engagement reveal community histories that push back against convenient narratives which assume a lack of engagement and participation in issues of environmental concern. Environmentalism, in its many forms, is an act of civic engagement that has been an important facet of community history and a practice through which women have contributed to the health of their communities and ongoing efforts toward justice. Environmentalism is community history. Environmentalism is women’s history.