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Anacostia River - In the Shadow of the Capital

Our Backyard

Our nation’s capital casts a long shadow. Just a few miles from the Mall – famous for the White House, Lincoln Memorial, and Washington Monument – lies a troubled world that bears little resemblance to these iconic representations of democracy. No mobs of tourists throng the streets snapping photos there. Few world leaders ever visit.

Anacostia, in southeast Washington, D.C., is famous for entirely different reasons. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And its river is one of the most polluted in the country. 

In this dark landscape, home to so much violence to nature and human beings alike, the Earth Conservation Corps shines a bright light. Part of AmeriCorps, a government-funded public service program, ECC’s mission for the past 17 years has been: “To empower our endangered youth to reclaim the Anacostia River, their communities, and their lives.”

Many of the African-American teenagers and young adults who form the Corps have spent time in prison. Few have high school degrees. Their opportunities for career advancement without ECC training and the small stipend it provides would likely be limited. The dedicated, somewhat harried ECC staff offers not just environmental education, but also leadership and problem-solving skill development, GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma) classes, and assistance with budgeting, time management, and life planning.

21 year-old Robert had a broad, white-toothed smile and mischievous demeanor. He joined ECC in January 2009 after attending the third of his closest friends’ funerals. “I want to live a long life,” he said emphatically. “If I stayed out there in that world, I probably would be dead.”

We spent the day with the Corps. First, they gathered at their riverside headquarters, brightly decorated with paintings of the Anacostia and its wildlife, including bald eagles and barn owls. After a brief physical training session, they sat around tables to share recent news stories about the environment. Next, we traveled by bus to a housing project that hires the ECC to do its landscaping. Corps members picked up trash, pluck weeds, and mow grass. Then we returned to headquarters for a pizza lunch.

In the afternoon, we headed to a tributary of the Anacostia. There, the Earth Conservation Corps had installed a metal basket in the water, the nation’s first “trash trap.” An unbelievable mound of garbage had drifted downstream in just three days. A few of the guys donned waders and galoshes and trudged into the murky, smelly water to gather up dozens of plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags. In the end, they filled eight large garbage bags with rubbish people had thoughtlessly tossed into the river.

“People need to pay attention!” Patrick shouted as he scooped up the refuse. “If we weren’t doing this, the garbage would flow into the Potomac, out into Chesapeake Bay, and out into the ocean. Everyone gets affected by this stuff, not just people here in our area.”

I asked Robert what the ECC experience had brought to his life. He said, “It’s helping me get my life on track. I don’t want to live like that anymore. I don’t want to die. I want to get married, have kids. I want to rise up. We’re cleaning up the river and we’re cleaning up our lives.”

The president of ECC, Bob Nixon, spoke of “environmental injustice”: the way that societies dump their pollution from human waste and industry into the poorest communities. Unfortunately, this is true not just in the United States but in many parts of the world. It takes tireless devotion on the part of staff members and participants as well as outside funding to make a program like ECC’s possible. But there can be no doubt of the benefits to the environment, the people involved, and the world at large.

Two offsprey, eagle-like birds who prey exclusively on fish, have built nests along the filthy river’s shores, beneath the ruckus of a freeway overpass. As they soared gracefully overhead, Robert grinned. “That’s tight. Tight.”