One of ACM’s first exhibits, The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction (1970), examined environmental injustices in its local community—a rat infestation that covered 67% of the Anacostia area. The neighborhood's rat invasion was fueled by local and federal governmental mismanagement of waste. As a result, rats overran Anacostia’s environment, posing a major health risk for residents. With the input of the museum’s stakeholders and residents of all ages, museum staff created an exhibition, featuring live rats, that harnessed collaborative action to discuss and address environmental inequities.
Visitors at the "The Rat: Man's Invited Affliction" exhibit at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. The exhibit was on display from November 16, 1969 to January 31, 1970. (Smithsonian Institution Archives.)
Gardening at ACM
The Anacostia Community Museum’s gardening program was first launched in the early 1980s by innovative leader Zora Martin-Felton as part of a summer science project. In 2012, with the opening of Reclaiming the Edge: urban waterways & civic engagement, the museum returned to its gardening roots, and to this day it continues to challenge the narrative that D.C. communities are separate from their environment by exploring issues of health, sustainability, and the use of natural resources. Through programming, residents of all ages can engage with the beauty of the natural world, a healthy food system, and their cultural past. Today the gardening program, entitled Growing Community, is a flagship program of the Center for Environmental Justice.
We welcome the community to participate in our monthly workshops, taking place throughout the growing and harvesting seasons. The workshops incorporate a variety of themes such as gardens as places of community and connections to our cultural past; gardens as sites of stewardship and nurture; and gardens as sites of empowerment and access to good nutrition and healthy living.
In the 2000s, ACM’s environmental justice efforts grew into a major community-centered, environmental justice program. In 2010, Dr. Gail Lowe, Late Senior Historian at ACM, launched Urban Waterways, a community-driven research and educational initiative that examines ongoing relationships between urban communities and their waterways. Urban Waterways began with the winding history of the Anacostia River and watershed, one of the nation’s most densely populated. Once described by Late Director of Education Zora Martin-Felton as “a psychological as well as physical barrier" in Washington, D.C., the Anacostia River was poised to become the city's newest civic space.
Urban Waterways joined community conversations of the restoration and redevelopment of the Anacostia River. Through oral histories, it explored deep historical, emotional, and geographical ties between urban communities and their waterways. The culminating exhibition, Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement, looked at densely populated watersheds and rivers as barriers to racial and ethnic integration and examined civic attempts to recover, clean up, and re-imagine, or engineer urban rivers for community access and use.
Twelve years later, Urban Waterways has transformed into the Center for Environmental Justice, with ongoing oral histories, summits, lectures, forums, and youth programming that document community knowledge of environmental issues and discuss best practices for advocating for healthy, sustainable futures.
Launched in 2018 to build capacity for the next generation of environmental leadership, Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL) engages a multigenerational network of women whose environmental efforts at local, national, and international levels are shaped by a justice and humanities-based framework. Acknowledging that exploring environmental issues through a social justice lens allows for a more nuanced and inclusive exploration of environmentalism and civic engagement, WEL’s programming is designed to create spaces in which women meet to consider new visions for leadership and community impact. WEL is a flagship program of the newly launched Smithsonian’s Center for Environmental Justice at the Anacostia Community Museum
The annual Summit gathers the WEL network of current and future leaders to explore the multiple ways in which environmentalism is practiced, pathways to environmental leadership, and best practices for community-centered advocacy and activism. Over the course of three days, summit attendees will engage in panel discussions, workshops, networking events, and field trips which will be enriched by explorations of how various Smithsonian units are thinking about and engaging environmental issues, how they can serve as resources for communities, and how communities can serve as guides and collaborators as the Institution supports the development of holistic approaches to environmental conservation.