Flag of the District of Columbia
Flag of the District of Columbia (Courtesy of dpw.dc.gov)

Throughout the pandemic, a committee composed of nearly two dozen Southeast-based organizations united behind the need for a long-term vision for economic development that benefits Ward 8 residents.

This campaign, more than a decade in the making, has garnered support from faith-based leaders and stakeholders in the realms of public safety, social services, the arts, health and education.

Survey data soon to be collected from those constituencies will inform the community economic development plan, what Mustafa Abdul-Salaam described as a preemptive response to well-endowed developers that have often entered the Ward 8 community and benefited from long-standing schisms.

“Funding from the city government, foundations, and the private sector doesn’t encourage connections and linkages. That’s been the culture, but now we’re saying that this doesn’t work for us,” said Abdul-Salaam, co-chair of the Ward 8 Community Economic Development (CED) steering committee.

On the morning of Feb. 26, the Ward 8 CED steering committee hosted a virtual presentation that highlighted its goal of making residents self-sufficient and creating wealth-building opportunities. Strategies outlined in those 30 minutes include cooperative business ventures and the establishment of a Ward 8 investment fund.

Part of realizing the vision of community economic development, Abdul-Salaam told The Informer, involves engaging diverse groups of Ward 8 residents and rejecting outside funders that prioritize projects coordinated by individuals.

He also noted that more community partners, and especially residents, are needed at the table.

Since last fall, when the Ward 8 CED steering committee coalesced, Bainum Family Foundation signed on as a financial contributor while local nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners agreed to provide technical assistance.

For the rest of the spring, the Ward 8 CED steering committee plans to continue collecting data about health, public safety, housing and workforce development, all of which will be incorporated into a plan, scheduled for a June release.

“If you’re going to work in Ward 8, you can’t work in isolation,” Abdul-Salaam said.

“The plan creates a common vision with priorities. [Right now], we don’t have that common vision. The millions of dollars that are pumped into this community are not going at the core issue. We have institutionalized poverty.”

Realizing a Long-Term Vision

Data from DC Health Matters shows that more than one out of four families in Ward 8, a significant number of which have children, live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent surpasses that of the District in totality, which stands at nearly 8 percent.

Within a year, the Ward 8 population has grown by nearly 15 percent, due in part to the increase of people of various races and high educational attainment.

In 2010, then-Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, recognizing the gentrification to soon reach his community, formed the Ward 8 Health Council, the Ward 8 Business Council and the Ward 8 Workforce Development Council. Studies subsequently coordinated by the three groups designated the lack of a unified economic vision as a key barrier to sustainable development east of the Anacostia River.

Years after Barry’s death and that of James Bunn, leader of the Ward 8 Business Council, Abdul-Salaam, through a senior CED committee at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center, led the charge to create a unified health and economic framework for Ward 8.

His efforts throughout 2017 and 2018 led to a partnership between the DC Primary Care Association, D.C. Health Department, United Planning Organization, among others.

The Potential of a Unified Front

In the months and years leading up to the beginning of the pandemic, Abdul-Salaam hosted meetings to expand interest and introduce residents to subject-matter experts with knowledge about similar projects that have taken place across the country.

By last November, the Ward 8 CED steering committee would hold its first meeting at Martha’s Table in Southeast.

For steering committee member Philip Pannell, a concept of this magnitude is long overdue. In extolling his fellow committee members, Pannell spoke about the possibility of attracting more dining establishments in Ward 8, and even replacing a flower shop that shuttered years ago.

At this juncture in the community economic development process, he has expressed a commitment to eliciting Ward 8 residents’ support.

“If there isn’t broad consensus in terms of development, then development will proceed in a rather scattershot type of situation which is not beneficial to the community as a whole,” said Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council.

“[In the past], there hasn’t been any collective focus. It’s been somewhat sporadic and neighborhood-based,” he continued. “Those community voices are pretty much [going to] advocate for things that are specific to their neighborhood. That’s not a bad thing, but we need to at one point come together to find out what our ward needs as a whole.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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