ENVIRONMENTALISM AND EMPOWERMENT
The mission of Earth Conservation Corps, said executive director Mafara Hobson, is “pretty powerful.”
“We work with at-risk youth and help them reclaim their lives by reclaiming the Anacostia River and their community.”
Since its founding in the early 1990’s, the ECC has strived to engage underserved DC youth in self-empowerment through environmental stewardship.
“We see opportunity between the effort to save the endangered Anacostia River and the need to engage the young men and women who live in the neighborhoods along its banks,” wrote founder and co-chairman Bob Nixon in an open letter on the organization’s website.
Nixon, a film producer, started ECC after coming to DC to shoot a film about environmentalism. He stayed because he saw a desperate need.
“They didn’t just dump trash here,” Nixon told PBS’s Bill Moyers in a 2007 interview, “they dumped people here.”
Despite a rising real estate and commercial business market, the Anacostia neighborhood, and others in Wards 7 and 8, have been plagued by crime and high dropout rates. Unemployment in Ward 8 once measured the highest in the United States. While numbers have greatly improved in the past five years (11.7 and 14.1 percent, as of June 2015, down from 21.3 and 25.2 the same month in 2011), unemployment in Wards 7 & 8 are higher than the District rate of 6.9 percent, and higher still than the U.S. rate at 5.3 percent.
RISING ABOVE, SOARING HIGH
Earth Conservation Corps challenges students to rise above statistics by providing the means and motivation to pursue a brighter future, for the community and for themselves.
“It empowers them to take charge of their own lives, and not just be another unemployment statistic or victim of violence, or someone participating in activities that aren't constructive,” Hobson said. “They can be and do whatever they want to do.”
The members of the Corps, 20 each year, must commit to 1700 hours of environmental work each year.
Earth Conservation Corps programs expand beyond restoring the river itself. ECC has paired with the Environmental Protection Agency on a water monitoring effort, and with the DC Office of Environment and Energy to restore the tree canopy in the Anacostia watershed.
“It helps create an ecosystem in communities where there’s a dearth of conservation,” Hobson said.
Other programs include a wetlands restoration project, and a raptor conservation effort. Nixon and the ECC have been instrumental in reintroducing bald eagles to the District, bringing 16 eagles to the nation’s capital between 1995 and 1998. Today, according to an article from the National Wildlife Foundation, about 6 bald eagles and 16 osprey nest along the Anacostia. A live osprey camera is trained on a nest beneath the Frederick Douglass Bridge.
“That shows the progress on the Anacostia. We want the same for the community members,” said Sarah Nixon, board member and wife of founder Bob Nixon.
MAKING CHANGES, TAKING CHARGE
Sadly, the birds have fared better than some of the young men and women. “There's a wall dedicated to the Corps members who have lost their lives,” said Nixon, “to happenstance of where you live and where your resources are.”
Angered by the manner in which their fallen compatriots were being overlooked by the DC community at large, ECC Corps members, alongside Bob Nixon, created a documentary called “Endangered Species,” about the plight of urban youth.
But other students have been lucky. Rodney Stotts was an early Corps member. Before the ECC, he dealt drugs on the streets of Anacostia.
“You can’t feel good about anything you have,” he told 60 Minutes, “because it was ill-gotten gains.”
Stotts was not available for comment, but both Hobson and Sarah Nixon spoke of him as an exemplary Corps member. Now a master falconer-in-training, Rodney oversees youth programming at Wings Over America, and maintains an active relationship with ECC as a mentor and advisory board member.
“ECC is about taking ownership and responsibility of your community,” said Hobson. “A lot of kids don't feel empowered to take control of their lives. Whatever happens, happens. Through the program, in having a responsibility to the community, they realize ‘if I can make environmental changes in my own community, I can also make significant changes in my own life. If I can make changes in my community, I can also make changes in myself.’”
About the Author: Holly Leber is the editorial director of the Daily Do Good, and a freelance writer and editor.