Turning Theory Into Action: Built Environments to Build Community

After a boy was shot and killed in Washington D.C.’s Meridian Hill/Malcom X Park, local residents in the area were told by police to stay secluded in their homes and avoid the park at all costs. Though this incident was one of hundreds of killings that had occurred in the D.C. area, local resident Steve Coleman, head of the neighborhood association near Meridian Hill/ Malcom X Park, did not believe that staying inside was the right solution.

“We need the outside. When we abandon the outside, we abandon each other and we abandon our world,” Coleman said. He and fellow neighbors in the area held a meeting and began their own neighborhood patrol. Instead of keeping to themselves, members of the patrol decided to say hi to everyone they met, and had conversations with children, families and elders whom had warm memories of the park before the tragic incident. They were inspired to clean up and revive Meridian Hill/ Malcom X Park to bring back the positive memories it brought everyone in the community.

“Over the objections of some people…We just started…we didn’t wait for permission because we knew that we couldn’t just be standing by while these kids continued to be killed,” he said. Community volunteers believed reviving the park could actually be a way to combat neighborhood crime and bring a feeling of belonging so that people began to perceive it as a positive space. “We wanted to not just transform the visible park, but what I call the invisible park, the park of art and play and dreams and justice and injustice. All the invisible stories of the place,” Coleman said.

The community’s dedication to revive the local park for the wellbeing of the neighborhood exemplifies the judgement and leadership of everyday health equity leaders. Regardless of how bad a situation may be, health equity leaders understand that inaction is more harmful and instead choose to imagine what the positive social impacts could be, partner up, and take initiative.

Today Coleman is Executive Director and President of Washington Parks & People, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission of activating public lands for community revitalization and growth of community health through partnerships. Parks & People leads many green initiatives including restoration, public health and fitness programming, urban agriculture and even green job training. Through local partnerships with government agencies, Parks & People mobilizes schools, youth groups, churches and other members of the community to connect to nature. “Our Mission is to grow park-based community health through innovation and partnerships. We believe that this connection of the human and natural community is the missing link in so many of our most critical challenges,” Coleman says.

Over the years, Meridian Hill/ Malcom X Park held concerts, classes, tours, and established a community of horticulture to help educate the neighborhood on the land’s potential. “We’ve begun to reconnect people with nature and use nature to reconnect people with each other, meeting some of the critical and unmet needs in our communities,” Coleman said. Across the city, Washington Parks & People has impacted 230 other sites throughout the years and has mobilized over 250,000 volunteers. “All of this work has been driven by broad and deep collaboration and partnership with dozens of government agencies, hundreds of organizations, and many, many thousands of community volunteers of all ages, cultures, and walks of life,” Coleman said.

Neighborhood and Built Environments are a social determinant that examine the health impacts of the environmental conditions in which we live. The conditions can include recreational sites, schools, roads, sidewalks, buildings, bike lanes, community crime and violence, and the quality of housing, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Zip code affects health, and can vary life expectancy by at least 20 years. An area’s geography may not be favorable to pedestrians or may cause safety concerns that hinder outdoor activities that promote healthy behavior. Having positive outside spaces to build community contributes to our wellbeing and safe avenues to gather, play and exercise should be a human right for all.

The Root Cause Coalition Team Members

This month, The Root Cause Coalition volunteered with Washington Parks & People at Marvin Gaye Greening Center to help weed and sow seeds that help maintain their community farm. Coalition staff volunteered with Ashleigh Mitchell, Manager of the Greening Center and graduate of DC Green Corps, a workforce training program of Washington Parks & People focused on leadership and team building critical in the green economy. The program attempts to break a cycle of crime and incarceration through providing valuable job skills and resources for job placement. Parks & People partners with the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, the US Forest Service, and the DC Urban Forestry Administration to educate trainees in urban agriculture, forestry, green infrastructure, storm water mitigation and related fields. Based at the Marvin Gaye Greening Center, the program has graduated 252 adults, many of whom have gone on to build careers in the green space.

“The most important thing that Parks & People does is not the physical transformation…it’s really the spirit and the insight that people gain when they come back outside together…that deeper sense of community and power and possibility,” Coleman said.

To volunteer with Washington Parks & People, visit their website at https://washingtonparks.net/volunteer/.