Washington, DC

Rhonda Hamilton: Community Leader and Public Housing Advocate in Southwest D.C.

Community leader Rhonda Hamilton courtesy of Dr. Tracy Perkins

Rhonda Hamilton is a lifelong community advocate, volunteer, and public health professional who is passionate about improving the health and well-being of her community.

Ms. Hamilton is a native of Washington, DC.  For the last 32 years she has lived in the Southwest section of the city, which is defined on two sides by the Anacostia and the Potomac Rivers, including the Washington Channel. For the past 10 years she has been a commissioner on Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D. Commissioners are unpaid elected officials charged with increasing representation of DC residents for matters of local governance and decision-making.  

Ms. Hamilton credits her mother, Gloria Hamilton, for imbuing her with her sense of responsibility to the community and the physical environment in which they live. Indeed, Gloria Hamilton once held the same elected ANC seat that her daughter now holds. As a child, Ms. Hamilton helped as her mother served the community through neighborhood organizations such as the Southwest Community House Associationa non-profit organization that provided decades of service to disadvantaged residents. In addition, Ms. Hamilton watched as her mother used her own resources, time, and home to provide for the disadvantaged who lived among themShe remembers volunteering with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly’s Youth Activities Task Force, the Brownies, and other organizations to conduct neighborhood cleanups and beautification as a child. 

From this foundation, Ms. Hamilton has served her community throughout her life. Today she advocates in the best interest of community residents as developers, industry, and the city work to remediate properties and waterways contaminated by decades of industrial pollution. She lives in a public housing unit adjacent to Buzzard Point, the southernmost area of the Southwest peninsula. It has been the site of military and commercial activities that have generated high levels of toxicity in its soils and waterways since the early 1800sThese have included the military installations at the Navy Yard (a former shipyard, now home to the Nationals Major League baseball team) and the active U.S. Army post Fort McNair (currently home to the National Defense University), a power plant, and a salvage yard. Residents of surrounding neighborhoods have long claimed that toxins released from these sites endanger their health, leading to increased rates of asthmacancer, and heart disease. Ms. Hamilton’s community has been adversely impacted by exposure to these hazardous environmental chemicals. She has been pushing the city to do more to protect them during the redevelopment of this area. 

Some of the contaminated properties are currently being cleaned up and redeveloped. However, this process has brought a resurgence of old problems as well as some new ones. Residents are most concerned that development activities are increasing their exposure to health-harming pollution as soil-borne toxins become airborne and seep into their homes during remediation and construction activities. They have also been worried by their increased contact with rodents displaced by from the construction sites into their homes. Ms. Hamilton has been central to ensuring that these concerns are presented to city officials and decision makers, and demanding controls be put in place to reduce risk and duration of exposure. 

Ms. Hamilton describes how the waterfront was once a place for neighborhood children to learn to sailswim and fish before the water became too polluted. She hopes that the river clean-up efforts will bring back those days, and that she and her neighbors will still be there to enjoy what it will offer. “That’s my concern with the river,” she says. “I want my residents to feel like it’s our river, that we’re welcome.”  

This is not an idle concern. As with waterfront areas in other metropolitan areas, Southwest DC is developing at breakneck speed. Developers and city officials alike view the area as ripe for capital investment. Southwest DC has already been partially transformed. It now hosts brand new entertainment, dining, and retail stores in the multi-million-dollar Wharf project, as well as several high-rise condominiums along the waterfront. The largest professional soccer stadium in the U.S was opened there in 2018, and the area is fast becoming a hot destination.  However, the area also has a rich history at risk of being erased in the current redevelopment boom. It is also home to one of the highest concentrations of public and subsidized housing in Washington D.CThree large public housing developments have served low-income residents there since the 1960s. Many other residents in the area—who in some cases have lived in homes that have been in their family for generations—live at or below the national poverty levelMs. Hamilton and her neighbors now face the potential of being pushed out of the area they have long called home by the twin threat of rising private housing costs and declining public housing stock . During the urban renewal of the 1960s, over 14,000 African American were displaced from Southwest Washington DC. A number of residents fear that happening again as their neighborhood undergoes major redevelopment. 

Despite all of the hard work, Ms. Hamilton continues to gain strength from and see great hope for her community. In addition to her role on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, she serves in several community organizations geared toward improving the health, wellbeing, and stability of residents throughout Southwest and beyond. These include, among others, the Near Southeast/Southwest Community Benefits Coordinating Council, a non-profit which works to negotiate community benefit agreements between residents and developers in order to maintain social diversity, and to create affordable housing and labor benefits for residents of the area. She is the president of the Resident Councils of the public housing unit Syphax Gardens, which works with the resident councils of James Creek and Greenleaf Midrise public housing units to empower residents and connect them with resources and programs to meet their needs. She contributes to the work of the Ward 6 Health Initiative, a community group that works to improve the health and wellness among Ward 6 residents. She is also a member of the non-profit Empower DC, which fights for the rights of public housing residents by working with communities that are being unfairly treated or facing displacement.

Additionally, Ms. Hamilton partners on community health initiatives with local faculty including Dr. Elgloria Harrison of the University of the District of Columbia, Dr. Janet Phoenix of George Washington University, and Dr. Shizuka Hsieh of Trinity University. Not one to do things by half-measure, Ms. Hamilton has also been instrumental in connecting Southwest residents to activists, social scientists and independent media-makers working to highlight some of their obstacles to health and well-being, including Kari Fulton, Alisha Camacho, George Kerr and the authors.   

“Even though I’m a community leader,” Ms. Hamilton says, “I still see myself as that volunteer picking up trash 30 years ago.” She has seen her neighbors struggle with everything from cancer to homelessness, but“through all those obstacles, they still stand, and they persevere, and they still go for it… I use that strength and apply it to my service, because regardless of what [we face], we still have to keep moving forward… Maybe one day the river will get cleaned up enough so that we could actually enjoy it and go swimming, take a dive, maybe do some scuba diving. Who knows? I feel like [there is] so much potential for different opportunities. But I think that the important thing is that we need to realize that the river should not come as an amenity [just] for those who choose to build properties and live along the river. It should be there for all of us.” 

 

About

Jesse DiValli (Card) is a second-year PhD student at Northeastern University after completing his M.A. in Sociology at Howard University. He is a member of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI), where he pursues his interest in social/environmental interactions, particularly where people or communities are being negatively affected by human-caused environmental conditions. He is particularly interested in conducting social science research that responds to the needs of disadvantaged communities and informs public policy, especially within urban environments.

Tracy Perkins is currently in transition between positions at Howard University and Arizona State University. She was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Howard University from 2015-2020, and in August of 2020 will be starting a new position as an Assistant Professor in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Dr. Perkins specializes in social inequality, social movements and the environment through a focus on environmental justice activism. Her book-in-progress (UC Press), Movement Matters: Protest, Policy and Three Decades of Environmental Justice Activism, examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.