Washington, DC

Connected by Design

Brenda Lee Richardson

A resident enjoys a moment of peace along the Anacostia River. Photograph by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Twenty years ago, I started a journey that would end at the banks of the Anacostia River. My voyage began when my friend Kaitlin introduced me to environmental issues. In my quest to paddle the shores of a new world unknown to me, I came upon a wave of environmental justice; it was then I ventured into the world of becoming an eco feminist.

Community leader and eco-feminist Brenda Le Richardson. Image courtesy of Brenda Lee Richardson

My life has always been one of great struggle; I am a single mom, and when I had my son, having a child out of wedlock was very difficult. I started to develop a lot of fears and anxieties, I was afraid of how people saw me and of making ends meet, and I was afraid of failing as a parent. This struggle inspires my work as a public servant today.

Some years later, I went to my first environmental meeting at Antioch Law School, I was struck by the fact I was in a room with a lot of white men, and I was among only one or two other African-Americans in the room. Dispute the jargon, which was difficult to understand, somehow an immediate connection was made not only to my fellow environmentalists but the environment as well. The words of one young man stayed with me – in order to save ourselves, we must save our environment. At first, being at the meetings made me realize I was black, but in time I came to see it wasn’t about black and white, all of us were green.

I had lived in Ward 8 for most of my life, and I don’t remember ever walking along the river, but Kaitlin introduced me to it. On one trip we noticed men were doing subsistence fishing. Kaitlin would implore them not to eat the fish because they were covered in ugly boils. Somehow the fishermen thought if you cut the boils out, our fry them out, they would be just fine to eat. How do you discourage them from consuming this food when it is all they have to eat?

Canoers enjoy a paddle in the Anacostia River near Kingman Island during the 2012 Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival. Photograph by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

My horizons were expanded when I met Robert Boone of the Anacostia Watershed Society; he always seemed to be one with the earth. I was very curious and wanted to learn more about the Anacostia Watershed, so Robert took me on my first canoe trip down the river, I was so frightened of the water but yet found some solace in knowing I would be safe with him. As we were gliding down the river, I was overwhelmed with this incredible sense of security and peace. As I listened to the swish of the paddle hitting the water, I felt this amazing healing sensation. I think because of my daily struggles, I was enthralled by this very new experience; it was like my fear of the water and everything else had vanished. Robert was my guide down the river. On the way back, we quietly listened and observed the beauty of the environment. Through this experience, I began to see things through a very different lens. I learned the Anacostia River, even with all its problems, was a source of healing for a people who are often forsaken and ignored in our nation’s capital. My hope is the river can become a bridge rather than a divider of us and them. Everything in nature is connected by design.

About Brenda Lee Richardson

Brenda Lee Richardson, a resident of Ward 8 in Washington, D.C., and an eco-feminist, has been working on welfare reform, environmental justice, economic development and health issues for the past 25 years. The former Interim Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps, she is the President of Chozen Consulting, LLC, a consulting company that focuses on community engagement, facilitation, training, and government relations. Ms. Richardson was the Deputy Chief of Staff for Councilmember Marion Barry. Ms. Richardson served as the Managing Director of the Metropolitan Dialogue for many years. This is a group of people of faith who met monthly to discuss civic issues in the District of Columbia. From 1995 to 1996, Ms. Richardson was the Director of Resident Services for the D.C. Housing Authority, and prior to that, she was the Executive Director of the Anacostia/Congress Heights Partnership. She has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan and a Master's of Social Work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.