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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: It’s Our River: A Decade of Urban Waterways

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s an annual event first conceived as a moment to honor the earth and promote peace that eventually transformed into a teach-in aimed at addressing environmental challenges through participatory community action. This significant anniversary takes place in a remarkable moment in which the global community finds itself in the midst of the uncertainties, disruptions, and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day also takes place in an era of growing tensions and calls for action in the face of the undeniable impacts of climate change, particularly on communities who bear the least responsibility and the most burden.

In 2010, against the backdrop of ongoing discussions around the restoration and redevelopment of the Anacostia River, the Anacostia Community Museum’s late senior historian Dr. Gail S. Lowe decided to more thoroughly explore this body of water. The Anacostia River not only lends its name to the surrounding area but has shaped life along its banks for thousands of years and has been, for many, a psychological and physical barrier. In the narratives of East of the River’s isolation, the Anacostia River is often mentioned as the cause, but few have explored the history and the life of the river itself. How had the Anacostia become “The Forgotten River”? What had this invisibility meant for the communities, the people living along its banks? What were the human, psychological, social, economic, and political costs of such invisibility?

The resulting exhibition, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways & Civic Engagement,” opened in 2012. Since then, the Anacostia Community Museum has continued with community-based research, programming, and community-building efforts, including workshops, community forums, a national symposium, summer programming and a project newsletter. The Urban Gardening program (now in its 8th year) connects participants to the existence and accessibility of the natural world in their community. In its third year, the Women’s Environmental Leadership initiative (WEL) builds the capacity for future environmental leadership by convening a national and international network of established women environmental leaders with emerging and aspiring leaders for in-person discussions focused on the exchange of best practices, wisdom, and experience. Through annual summits, associated programming, and oral histories, WEL addresses mentorship, educational and career opportunities, as well as leadership models. The launch of the Urban Waterways website occurring later this spring and the summer publication of the first volume of Women, Environmentalism & Justice (an illustrated publication highlighting the impacts of women in the environmental movement) serve as the next steps in the project’s ongoing effort to provide a platform for community leadership and expertise, in its many forms.

A decade of Urban Waterways documentation and programming dispels the commonplace narratives that urban communities are separate from and uninterested in the natural world. By evidence of their personal and professional experiences, our community partners help to push back against narrow definitions of environment and environmentalism. By framing their understanding of the environment through the lenses of justice, equity, civil rights, sense of place, culture and identity, collaborators provide pathways to action. These actions serve as reminders that, in times of uncertainty, communities can turn to a history of active citizen participation providing blueprints for possible ways forward. In the face of seemingly insurmountable pressures on a global scale, communities continue to do the work.

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