by Art Slater
who currently serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Anacostia Coordinating Council.
As the saying goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Not taking any chances, several area non-governmental organizations (NGOs), philanthropic nonprofits and similar entities are incorporating and promoting the notion of “equity”, as in “equitable development”, in their community work and initiatives. A timely conjunction of socially conscious organizations has converged to spread this idea by planting seeds of compensatory, preemptive supports to ensure that the roots will help bear fruit in the fertile soil of the greater Anacostia area.
While difficult to define in exact terms, the concept is fairly straightforward: When business development projects are planned in traditionally underserved areas, they should consider the implications and effects on existing local communities and strive to maintain the diversity of these areas by preserving the ability of long-term residents, small businesses and other stakeholders, who have weathered the storms of boom and bust, to remain and retain a stable but welcoming environment in which to live and work, and also to derive economic benefits from the renewed “discovery” of and interest in their once neglected areas.
The idea of “elevating equity” goes far beyond the traditional model of “planned unit developments (PUDs)” or “community benefits packages”, as they are commonly known, which attempt to offer some percentage of “affordable housing”, amenities (green space, meeting rooms, use of facilities, etc.), or, in rarer cases, direct or indirect funding dedicated for area organizations in exchange for community support for development projects.
Equity seeks to broaden and deepen the level of commitment of economic development and community capacity to strengthen the social fabric in real and meaningful ways with an eye toward righting past institutionalized or de facto inequalities, but without the legal overhead. On several fronts, the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC) has been working with or supporting the efforts of organizations that “elevate” or promote the notion of equity as part of their mission.
Working under a small grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), ACC has implemented initiatives to revive, re-energize, stabilize or support civic associations in Ward 8, such as Hillsdale and Bellevue. Established and stable civic associations not only preserve the status and history of long-time residents and neighborhoods, but also serve as a mechanism to welcome new neighbors, share information and provide a forum to promote public safety, air concerns and maintain face-to-face dialog in an increasingly digital age. This is only one of the types of projects that LISC supports here and around the U.S.
The 11th Street Bridge Park is another entity ACC is working with for its commitment to equitable community outcomes. More localized in scope, the Bridge Park is seeking to implement, for example, a community land trust (where communities have a direct, collective and perpetual stake in land holding for affordable housing), especially within neighborhoods within a one-mile radius of the Bridge Park, as part of a many-pronged approach of attempting to level the housing playing field. ACC participated in the bridge design and architectural firm selection processes, and has also been attending arts and other planning workshops to advocate for strong inclusion of local talent and resources in its programming.
A less-appreciated but vitally important component of equity is the notion of advocating for “environmental justice”, which seeks to right the wrongs that have resulted from segregating segments of the population by the use of physical barriers (railroad tracks, interstate roads, etc.), proximity to factors that threaten public health (landfills, hazardous material sites, dumping, river pollution), limited food options (food “deserts”, dearth of supermarkets, etc.), unequal maintenance of, access within and around, available green spaces and waterways at the local and national park levels (Shepherd Parkway, Anacostia Park, Anacostia River, etc.). Through ACC’s participation in the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC) and our own educational outreach initiative of bringing Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs), National Park Service and other environmental officials together, among other projects, we remain intensely committed to seeing accelerated improvements and advancements not only in environmental clean up efforts but also in greater resilience in the area's capacity to confront the growing challenges of a changing climate.
Can this evolving concept of equity work in practice? Although the idea of “justice”, which is implicit in the idea of “equity”, is recognized as a nearly universal social organizing framework in most societies, the implementation of equity, as with justice, is often meted out locally. Attentive and sustained community participation in all stages of the discussion of equity is key. Having witnessed the limitations of previous attempts at garnering community support, half-fulfilled or empty promises, or dog-and-pony style presentations designed to “manage” expectations, many long-time residents may well have reason to remain skeptical. But as former ACC Chairperson Arrington Dixon has been known to assert: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”, i.e., your unrepresented interests will be ready to be served up at the whim of others when decisions are made.
Can ACC guarantee that a robust community presence at the table will ensure a satisfactory fulfillment of the goal of equity and equitable development? Those assurances can be hard to come by. The best assurances can only come from the genuine good will on the part of those professing the gospel of equity coupled with an informed and prepared community that isn’t afraid to ask lots of questions and reserve some dedicated time on its schedule.
At a minimum, we all must do plenty of research, show up with those representing our interests, determine how well similar initiatives have fared in other localities, understand and articulate what equity means in our local context, ask local representatives to weigh in and be advocates on our behalf, and gauge how well words are backed up with action. As millions of dollars are being spent to ensure that equitable development becomes a success, we as a community know that much more than money is at stake. Our ability to remain at the helm of our own future is also on the table. For now, the push for equity should be seen as a good faith first step. But, as with any good or goal, whether it be a car, a house, or intangible assets, such as diversity or an inclusive society, how much we gain will depend on how much we ourselves are willing to invest in the venture when we sit down to talk turkey. Bon apétit!
Art Slater currently serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Anacostia Coordinating Council.
This post was first published in the souvenir booklet of the ACC 2017 Silver Anniversary Boat Ride, September 30, 2017.