In DC, "crossing the river" means crossing the Anacostia River, which has been a significant divide between black and white communities in DC. The river isn't an absolute boundary, but when I was growing up in the area, I associated Anacostia and areas east of the river with danger - crime and violence and drugs and poverty. East of the Anacostia River, the demographics are majority black, with significant low-income areas. As a white boy, there weren't many reasons for me to ever go there.
I crossed the river last weekend, like I've been doing for over ten years now, to participate in a Sierra Club program called Inner City Outings, with the mission of providing nature experiences for urban youth. We've been doing monthly outings with this particular low-income housing community in Anacostia for over twenty years - I don't know the history of how we started with this community, but we're taking out kids whose parents came out with us, twenty years ago...
I once asked one of the participant youth what he'd think if I moved into his neighborhood, and he said, "For real? I'd think you was a crackhead". There aren't many good reasons for white people to be in this neighborhood. It's pretty calm now, but this still isn't an area where I'd feel safe walking at night, if I didn't know the community, and even as is, I stay alert. It's hard for me to imagine what it was like during the bad years. When we walk the neighborhood on Saturday mornings, we often find empty liquor bottles and discarded drug baggies and condoms, and sometimes teens and young men hanging out smoking weed. There's less of that now that there used to be, but it's still a good indicator of what kind of fun people where having the night before. We've seen shrines of plastic flowers and plush toys fade and moulder, and "R.I.P" tags on the walls, tributes to friends, relatives and neighbors who died violently.
We planted a community garden with the youth in the neighborhood that day - zinnia and tomatoes, squash and strawberries. It's amazing to watch boys who act "harder" than I've ever had to be plant flowers with such care and attention. Small community grants and donations funded the creation and planting of raised beds. Last year we grew okra, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, rosemary, and watermelons, had a harvest festival in the fall. This is the third year we're planting, and the support from the community has been amazing.
It took years to make this happen - sitting on steps with neighbors and community leaders talking scripture, carrying costs on my credit card waiting for grants to come through, borrowing trucks and tools to bring in mulch and soil, working with shovels and pickaxes and drills and pitchforks, going to community meetings.
And there were wonderful moments throughout - the kids' excitement on finding worms, the care they'd take with the plants, their amazement at being able to taste and eat what had grown. We had grandparents come out and plant with us, got help and advice from community members from age 2 to 65, traded stories about gardens and farms, and faith and spirit.
The community garden initiative grew from the outings program - we take the kids from the neighborhood out each month on a nature-based outing - hiking, swimming, canoeing, camping, and so on. It's easier to focus on the kids, and that's our mission. It's harder to build trust with the adults in the community, but over time I became aware of the importance of building a stronger relationship with the whole community.
As an outsider, it took a long time for me to recognize how important it was to build trust. We sometimes have conflicts between the kids during outings - I got adept at recognizing when a fight was about to break out, and moving in to disrupt it. We work with youth with serious emotional and developmental challenges, who would have received much more attention and support, if they lived in areas with a stronger social infrastructure. We work with youth dealing with the challenges of absent, jailed, or dead parents, sometimes struggling with recent losses and disruptions. We work with youth who don't get the support, affirmation, and engagement they need and deserve at school, who don't feel safe walking in their neighborhood, who don't know if they're going to have enough to eat that night.
This diary was going to be about a particular youth, who I had to drive home early on the last outing, after we'd worked in the garden. I'd called him out for using homophobic insults against another child, and then intervened when he initiated a fight later with the same child. Our main rule on these outings is Respect! - respect each other, the adults, the place we're visiting, the living beings. I spent a long time talking with this child, but he remained adamant that if the other child "got up in his face again", he would hit him. We'd discussed bullying and appropriate behavior at the beginning of the trip, and I'd had extensive conversations with him about this issue on previous trips.
Throughout the discussion and the drive home, he remained defiant, which on a certain level I respected - he's a fighter, and lives in a world where fighting is necessary. I grew up in a much more privileged world, and I recognize that my expectations of acceptable behavior aren't consistent with his world. And I knew that he hated being removed from the event, hated that I was "punishing" him. I explained my expectations of acceptable behavior, my responsibility for the safety of all participants to him over and over again, gave him chances to stay, and paths to resolution. In the end, on the drive back, I told him, "It's your choice whether you come with us again. If you can't take responsibility for your actions, then you can't come. We can't have fighting on the trip, and if you can't commit to that, you can't come".
We'd planted flowers together that morning, and he'd been exuberant. And for all he insisted he didn't care about the trips, I know he loves them. I've seen him delighted to discover a river after hiking through the woods for hours, fascinated by nature, bold and adventurous and curious. When this issue arose, I thought I could talk him through it, show him a good path, but I failed. I don't know how next month will turn out, or if he'll get to come.
But we did plant a garden together that day.