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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: Women Lead in Protecting Our Environmental Health and Rights

The weather is getting warmer and we can feel the humidity approaching. Maybe you have the windows open, the fans or the air conditioning running. What will this summer feel like to you? Do you greet it with joy or dread?

Perhaps your thoughts are turning to gatherings of family and friends—if you and they are vaccinated—with picnics and barbecues in a nearby park or by the river, children’s voices raised in play. But you may be grieving family members lost to the pandemic or fearing summer’s heavy air and the increasing worry it brings about your child’s asthma attacks.

How we feel about summer’s approach is deeply shaped by where we live, where we work and where we play. Do we have access to the best the environment has to offer—clean air, clean water, safe and healthy food, green spaces that allow for recreation and reflection? Or are we bearing the burdens of pollution from factories and highways, or overcrowded neighborhoods with few natural amenities?

This month, in addition to greeting summer, we celebrate Juneteenth. As we mark the day that news of the emancipation proclamation finally reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, our thoughts turn to what freedom means. How do we define it? How do we know when people are fully liberated?

What does our environment have to do with liberation? In recent online conversations hosted by the Women’s Environmental Leadership program at the Anacostia Community Museum, women who have been deeply involved in the environmental justice [EJ] movement probed how our ability to be truly free—to enjoy self-determination—is deeply tied to the environment around us. The EJ movement seeks not only to protect earth’s natural resources, but to protect people from environmental burdens like industrial toxins, lead in water pipes and nuclear waste that have been unfairly situated in marginalized communities. It also seeks to ensure that all people, no matter their race or class or where they live, have access to environmental benefits, like parks, healthy food sources, and recreational amenities. Some of the women who participated in the conversations, like Dr. Mildred McClain and Vernice Miller-Travis, have been towering figures in the EJ movement for decades. Others, like playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza, are new young voices energizing the future. Dickerson-Despenza has written a series of plays that focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Who are the prophets?” she asked. Who do we need to be listening to? She uses her art to remind us that there are lessons to learn, if we pay close enough attention to what has already happened. (You can watch recordings of these powerful conversations.)

In 2018, the Women’s Environmental Leadership Program (WEL), under Katrina Lashley’s guiding hand, grew out of ACM’s Urban Waterways project. WEL has hosted leadership summits, community forums, workshops and lectures that highlight women’s longstanding activism in the environmental justice movement and help support and nurture emerging leaders. Now we are building toward the next phase of WEL’s development, with the creation of my position, Curator of Women’s Environmental History.

I joined ACM at the end of March 2021 and I am working on plans for an exhibition in 2023, which will feature stories of women’s leadership both locally and nationally in the environmental justice movement. If you or someone you know has been active in the movement, please feel free to reach out. If you have objects or archival materials you think we might want to consider including in the exhibition, please contact me. I can be reached at seidmanr@si.edu.

Editor’s Note: The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is scheduled to reopen on Friday, August 6, 2021 after almost 18 months of closure due to the pandemic. The museum days and hours will be Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and no timed-entry passes will be required. More information will be available beginning in July at anacostia.si.edu.

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