In early December the Anacostia Community Museum Urban Waterways project headed to Gulfport, Mississippi to continue fieldwork on communities facing a myriad of issues on the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts. Long before Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil spill created environmental havoc on this major urban waterway of the Gulf Coast, communities like Turkey Creek, MS, and Africatown, AL, were being formed by newly freed slaves (Turkey Creek), and by slaves that were brought to this country and released before they were sold (Africatown).
Today the damaging legacy of the Jim Crow south where racial inequality informed urban planning has been compounded by natural and man-made disasters which threatens the communities researcher Katrina Lashley and I visited.
Turkey Creek, Mississippi is the subject of a documentary by Leah Mahan, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. The film follows local Derrick Evans’ struggle to defend the coastal Mississippi watershed where his ancestors settled as former slaves. Following his journey for ten years, Derrick and his allies confront blatant racism of city officials and short-sighted plans for development that would destroy the ecology and culture of Turkey Creek only to face our nation’s most devastating, natural and manmade disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster.
By finding community stakeholders, like bird lovers, Turkey Creek was able to tell its story on the national level, by partnering with migratory birds and the Audubon Society, awareness was raised and action taken to protect the watershed.
Today, Turkey Creek is a small community sandwiched between the Gulfport International Airport, and strip malls. Like many successful communities, Turkey Creek negotiated a livelihood for its residences when it established a Creosote Plant to employ its residents. The Creosote Plant is long gone, but we toured one of the buildings associated with the plant that the community is seeking to preserve.
Listening to the stories of what these communities struggle with, and witnessing their coalition building as they gather support among like-minded communities along the Gulf was a powerful lesson before the winter holidays. I was poignantly reminded about how fragile our history is, the depth of human suffering, and the power and necessity of partnership in speaking truth to power. It is through recording and disseminating stories like those of Turkey Creek and the Gulf Coast that the Anacostia Community Museum seeks to share and store history and culture for the betterment of communities in the future.
This issue highlights the steps residents in communities along urban waterways have taken toward the creation of economies which use social, environmental, and economic factors as measurements of success. Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 5
The State Farm Youth Advisory Board is a unique charitable giving board. It is comprised of thirty students, ages 17-20, from across the United States and Canada. They are charged with helping State Farm design and implement a $5 million-a-year signature service-learning initiative to address issues important to State Farm and communities across the United States. The Anacostia Community Museum is grateful to State Farm and their Youth Advisory Board for making the Urban Waterways Citizen Scientist Program possible.
About the Citizen Scientist Program at the Anacostia Community Museum:
The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) Citizen Scientist Project (CSP) is an out-of-school time, scientific-inquiry-based enrichment program that introduces at-risk students to STEM concepts and careers through learning about the environment and civic engagement. CSP participants contribute to local, statewide, and national efforts to protect the Anacostia Watershed, one of the nation’s most densely-populated waterways. Program activities include independent and group research, field work that emphasizes science-based inquiry, public presentations, and behind-the-scenes access to Smithsonian scientists and educators.
Important community partnerships allow CSP participants to access professional facilities, world-class research and activities, and supplies and equipment facilitating meaningful community work. CSP began through a partnership with the United Planning Organization (UPO)—a nonprofit that serves low-income residents in the nation’s capital. The UPO group of 40 African American students hails from Washington’s Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods which are largely affected by the degradation of the Anacostia River. The original group began the program as rising high school juniors, and will graduate this spring. A new cohort of rising sixth graders will join the UPO program this summer and will begin CSP activities in September.
Through CSP, the museum is training four classroom science teachers in Prince George’s County, MD to help implement this unique youth leadership program with students in an out-of-school time capacity. This will impact an additional 40 to 60 students in grades 5 through 12, serving predominately-minority student populations. By engaging students in Prince Georges County and the District, CSP students will collect water quality data in two of the three jurisdictions of the Anacostia Watershed. Future plans to add classrooms in Montgomery County, MD will see the program “cover” the entire watershed with CSP activities.
Rising 7th graders at Hart Middle School gathered with family and friends in ACM’s program room to give their first presentations as part of Urban Waterways’ Urban Ecology Engagement initiative. The middle schoolers (cohort2.0) have just completed a six-week summer program made possible by the collaborative efforts of UPO’s P.O.W.E.R program, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The community stewardship initiative follows students from 7th through 12th grades and engages them in the collection of biological, chemical, and habitat data from five tributaries of the Anacostia River, the development of a database, the exploration of the impact of pollution on the watershed and the development of recommendations and possible solutions.
The event started with several members of the previous cohort (cohort 1.0) who are in the final preparations for the start of their freshman year at college. Students will be attending such schools as The University of Pittsburgh, Trinity University, Capitol Technology University, and Virginia State University to pursue degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Telecommunication Engineering, Astrophysics, Childhood Education, and Electrical Engineering.
Members of the new cohort then stepped forward to present their experiences over the last six weeks. Unlike some of their friends who spent their days swimming or playing basketball, the middle schoolers spent part of their time in classrooms on the campus of Bowie State University. A significant part of their time was spent pushing their boundaries in the exploration of the Anacostia Watershed with boat rides on the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and field trips to Sandy Spring, MD – a watershed headwater site and a major Underground Railroad depot, Washington Aqueduct, which provides the drinking water for DC, some surrounding counties and DC Water’s Blue Plains Wastewater treatment plant. In their presentations, students provided definitions of a watershed, shared their favorite experiences from the field trips, and discussed future career goals. Many were impressed by the boat trips and the wildlife they saw in and along the river. Others were also struck by the amount of pollution they saw floating in the water. A major question asked by many of the presenters was how can the water be cleaned and the watershed made safer. Many students, impressed by their tour of Blue Palins, expressed an interest in pursuing careers in wastewater treatment by obtaining more information on the subject.
Students will continue their exploration of the Anacostia watershed as the school year continues through a variety of Saturday programming.
This summer I was honored to host Sergio as my summer fellow. He was exceptionally organized, curious, and thoughtful. I am excited to witness his future accomplishments. Below is a small sample of what he worked on and worked through during his weeks as a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow at the Anacostia Community Museum. – Ariana Curtis, curator
By Sergio M. González/ Summer 2015
This summer, my charge as a fellow with the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies Program(LMSP) has been to assist in increasing the representation, documentation, and research of Latino art, culture, and history throughout the museum’s many units. My field placement at the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) has offered me the opportunity to work in a museum in the process of redefining its own mission, as it expands its purview to include the representation of Latino communities. Working with Ariana Curtis, ACM’s first curator of Latino Studies, I’ve spent most of my practicum experience surveying the museum’s permanent collections in search of ties to Latin America and Latino communities specifically, but immigration more broadly.
I decided to commit some of my practicum experience to researching the object and rewriting the description, as it seemed to meet the criteria of being “current, compelling, and connected,” three C’s that help guide ACM’s mission.
I began researching and writing a new description to accompany the image of the boat on the Smithsonian’s website. I asked myself how, as a historian, I might convey the significance of this object and place it within a broader historical context. How, as a storyteller, might I engage my audience with vivid descriptions of the hazards that Cuban migrants confront on their ninety-mile voyage between Cuban and Floridian shores? My initial instincts for writing the description relied upon the writing of museum educator Larry Borowsky, who asks curators to pose three questions as they craft a narrative arc in their writing for museumgoers:
Does it create an air of suspense and/or tension?
Does it trace a journey through time and/or distance?
Does it encourage the reader to suspend disbelief?
In my first attempts to write what I considered to be an “effective” description, I hewed closely to my disciplinary training as a historian, and soon found myself writing more of a narrative than a collections description. My first draft of the collection description read more like an exhibition label than an object description that might accompany the boat in a collections search. The need for brevity within a collection description was a new concept for me – my dissertation-writing style would need to be scaled back. I wanted to include multiple political perspectives since this object interacts with contemporary political events. However, that muddied the delivery of pertinent historical facts that would place the boat in research context.
After meeting with Ariana and discussing the differences between a collections description and a museum tag, I decided to split the labor in half. First, I rewrote the description, focusing on conveying a clearer curatorial voice and sticking closer to the most important facts:
Some Cuban emigrants construct vessels like the one seen here from miscellaneous materials including discarded wood, sets of tires, and even converted taxis and trucks to travel the 90 miles from Cuba to the U.S. Known as balseros, rafters, or boatpeople, the largest single group of 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel to the U.S. in 1980. Between 1959 (Cuban Revolution) and the Mariel boatlift of 1980, 500,000 Cuban immigrants entered the United States.
Cubans have unique immigration laws, including the Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act granted permanent resident status to any Cuban that had immigrated to the U.S. after January 1, 1959 and had lived in the U.S. for at least two years (reduced to one year in 1976). The 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, popularly known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, allows Cuban migrants that reach U.S. land to stay, whereas those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba.
According to their public website, the Miami-based non-profit organization Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), founded in 1991, has rescued more than 4,200 Cuban refugees attempting to enter U.S.
Next, I turned to writing a museum tag under one hundred words that might accompany the Cuban refugee boat in an exhibit. I’ve imagined the boat as a part of a larger exhibit detailing Cuban immigration experiences to the United States in the twentieth century. As part of a full exhibit, much of the corroborating information not necessarily tied to this specific boat in the collections description above will be include in museum tags that would accompany other artifacts or images.
Between 1959 and 1994, more than 70,000 Cuban citizens fled their country for the United States in balsas (rafts) like the one seen here. Facing the 90 miles of treacherous water that separate Cuba and the Florida coast, balseros (rafters) constructed makeshift boats and homemade rafts out a number of materials, including scrap pieces of wood, discarded tires, and even converted taxis.
Sergio M. González is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2015 Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow.
This forum aims to bring residents together to explore the traditional image of environmentalists, the assumptions made about communities of color in regards to environmental and sustainability issues, and the truth behind such prejudgments. Do minorities feel represented? Is there a lack of trust between traditional environmentalists and communities of color? How do communities define environmentalism and their relationships to urban waterways? What steps have been taken to make the table more inclusive? What are the possible social and political consequences of such inclusion?
Originally published in the summer of 2013, this first issue of the Urban Waterways newsletter introduces the reader to the various communities and waterways which make up our network from the perspectives of those who are playing a role in their revitalization. Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 1
Issue 2 Water and Faith
This issue explores our obligation to the natural world through the lens of our spiritual beliefs. Do we have dominion, or are we meant to be stewards? How can faith communities who have had a role as the leading moral forces in our communities make their environmental messages blend seamlessly into their moral teachings? Are faith communities an under-tapped source of authority in the efforts to “green” our communities? FinalUW Newsletter
Issue 3 Arts Along the Waterfront
In the third issue of the Urban Waterways project newsletter, we explore the impact of the Arts on the spirit of neighborhoods along urban waterways. The Arts have long reflected artists’ visions of the communities in which they play a role. Inversely, these interpretations are informed by the world around them, and the natural world, in its various forms, can often be an important source of inspiration. What are the practical applications of the relationships between Art, artists, and the communities in which they live? Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 3
Issue 4 Community Engagement Along Waterfronts
This issue explores the importance of community engagement in the creation of healthy, self-sustaining and equitable waterfront communities. Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 4
On Saturday, March 28th 2015, 30 panelists representing such organizations as Groundwork Anacostia River, The Anacostia Watershed Society, The District Department of the Environment, The Federal City Council, The University of the District of Columbia, The Louisville Waterfront Development, and LA’s The City Project gathered at Thurgood Marshall Academy for a day- long symposium to address the issues of: Education & Practice, Recreation & Environmentalism, Models in Grassroots Leadership, Collaboration Techniques, Waterfront Development, and Gentrification & New Urbanism.The gathering of environmentalists, community leaders, civic leaders, educators, scholars, and DC metro area residents was the culmination of one of the driving forces of the Urban Waterways Project whose primary goal is the exploration of the various relationships between urban rivers and the people living along their banks.
This emphasis on communities… people, proved to be a re-occurring theme throughout the day’s discussion. The very nature of water, a multi-dimensional element which touches past, present, and future, up-river, down-river, tourist and resident, Alexis Goggans of DC’s Office of Planning pointed out, requires us to reconsider how we envision the nature of cities. Such visions can and should be driven by the needs of those living in areas which are the most impacted by issues surrounding the redevelopment of urban waterways and their environs. Communities must appoint themselves as stewards, owning and taking the lead on issues in their own neighborhoods. The cultivation of community ownership best takes place in an atmosphere of trust in which engaged residents, educated in the issues which impact their lives, have a sense of place. Irma Munoz of Mujeres de la Tierra describes this as a sense of integrity and who you are. It is this sense of ownership and stewardship which allows communities to recognize and embrace their possible roles in the changes taking place along their waterfronts.
The power of residents’ ownership of such changes is reflected in the experiences of Louisville’s Waterfront Development Corporationwhich has recognized the importance of the inclusion of everyone from the beginning. “Build interest, engage the media … each step of the way must have things that appeal to the public… this is of interest to you.” The importance of such engagement was echoed by Baltimore Parks & People’s Lisa Schroeder who underscored the growing necessity of collaboration among the communities along urban rivers, as beleaguered cities have fewer resources to address all of the issues involved in creating and maintaining healthy, sustainable neighborhoods. If riverfronts are to be the centers of public and community life, stakeholders must take a multi-disciplinary approach, with the understanding that the traditional attitudes of “healing” communities from without doesn’t necessarily work in all situations.
If collaboration between stakeholders and the inclusion of all stakeholders is the key to success, both panelists and attendees understand the importance of paying attention to who is being served, and who has been denied access to urban waterfronts. The distribution of resources must reflect the communities sharing their lives along urban rivers. Polices are needed to provide a framework for change. Cultures of stewardship need to be created and maintained. The discussions which took part at the Urban Waterways Symposium should serve as the start of ongoing conversations and collaborations. The next practical step: getting people to the riverbanks.
In the third issue of the Urban Waterways project newsletter, we explore the impact of the Arts on the spirit of neighborhoods along urban waterways. The Arts have long reflected artists’ visions of the communities in which they play a role. Inversely, these interpretations are informed by the world around them, and the natural world, in its various forms, can often be an important source of inspiration. What are the practical applications of the relationships between Art, artists, and the communities in which they live?
In this issue, our collaborators in Anacostia, Baltimore, and Louisville discuss how Art can be used as a force of social, economic, and educational change. Local artists, Barbara Johnson, Bruce McNeil, and Terence Nicholson describe the role of the Anacostia River in their art and the role of Art in the communities surrounding the Anacostia. Kristen Faber, a Baltimore artist, explains efforts of The Charm City Circus, part of the social circus movement, to empower, educate, and heal neighborhoods in Baltimore. In Louisville, The Waterfront Development Corporation discusses how art has played a role in establishing the Louisville waterfront as a place accessible to all and is an integral part of a revitalized commercial and residential area which had greatly improved quality of life for many residents, while Theo Edmonds and Josh Miller of IDEAS 40203 show how the arts can be used as a force by which communities can build a workforce from within.
As a whole, the contributors to this issue demonstrate the power of Art to reflect not only an artist’s interpretation of the world but also its power to shape what the world can be.