By Kayla Benjamin
It might seem counterintuitive to learn about toxic pollution and racism in a room decked out in bright colors and stuffed with family-friendly interactive activities. But the Anacostia Community Museum’s new exhibit about women of color in D.C.’s environmental justice movement strikes a crucial balance, approaching its subject matter with both deep seriousness and true optimism.
“I didn’t want people to leave this exhibit feeling simply depressed,” Rachel Seidman, the exhibit’s curator, said. “It’s focused on the activism and on the people who are trying to make a difference.”
The exhibit, titled “To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.,” opened May 19 and will remain on view through Jan. 7. It centers the stories and voices of DMV-based women of color who fought for equitable access to clean air, soil and water, historically and in the present.
The Informer toured the museum with Seidman to get the scoop on a few can’t-miss items, ideas and stories waiting for visitors. Check out three of the highlights.
Stitching Together a Movement: Environmental Justice Quilts
One of the first items visitors encounter upon entering the exhibit is a small quilt covered in handwritten Sharpie. More than 70 squares hold a name of someone who died due to environmental hazards in their Louisiana communities. Advocates unveiled it in 2002 at the second People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in D.C.
“This quilt became, to me, a metaphor for the movement: all this individual pain coming together and being recognized as bigger than just one family or one person’s problem,” Seidman said.
The exhibit currently includes two different activist quilts, with a third slated to arrive soon. Visitors can also make their own quilt square at a station filled with felt sheets, scissors, stickers and markers. A nearby wall of velcro strips displays the creations.
History and Victory in Ivy City: The Story of the Crummell School
The main room of “To Live and Breathe” is organized around one of the environmental justice movement’s central tenets: that “the environment” encompasses not just idyllic natural landscapes but also everywhere that people spend their time. Inspired by a 1991 quote from activist Dana Alston, the exhibit is organized into four sections: where we live, where we work, where we play and where we pray.
The green “where we play” area features the story of Ivy City’s Crummell School, where activists recently won a decadeslong fight to create a community center in a neighborhood with almost no access to recreation spaces. The former Black schoolhouse, long used as a venue for community gatherings and celebrations, became abandoned in 1977 following desegregation. The city later fenced off the neglected building.
Empower DC activists like Parisa Norouzi and Sebrena Rhodes, alongside other Ivy City neighbors and advocates, spent years documenting the school’s legacy and protesting the District’s attempts to sell the site for development.
“As a historian, I really want people to understand how these issues have deep, deep roots in our city and in our country,” Seidman said. “If you don’t understand the role that the school used to play in the community, you don’t understand what a detriment that is to people’s sense of pride, to their sense of being respected in a city.”
In a major win for the neighborhood advocates, the Bowser administration agreed in 2021 to allocate $20 million toward transforming the site into a recreation center.
Opportunities to Engage: Hands-On Interactive Activities
There’s plenty to look at in the exhibit: quotes from influential women in D.C.’s environmental justice movement line the walls, along with photos of their speakers. Videos and a collection of physical objects donated by the activists help tell the stories, too.
But the exhibit also hosts a lot of things to do as well. In addition to creating a felt quilt square, arts and crafts fans can make their own buttons at a station toward the end of the exhibit. At another spot, visitors can take a Buzzfeed-like quiz to find out their “activist animal,” and snag a sticker to match.
Other stops along the way are designed to spark conversation. One asks visitors to choose the most important items a park should have. Another — created to look like a dining room table, complete with a fridge to hang notes on — offers prompts for discussion about environmental justice solutions in D.C.
“This is the action, not just the awareness,” said Andrea Jones, the museum’s associate director of education, to a team of museum staff members sitting around the interactive table. The team, called the Activators, creates and executes creative education and community outreach initiatives year-round.
In the corner representing “where we pray,” a calming space painted in deep purples, sits a wall waiting to fill up with names.
“No exhibit is ever complete — you can’t possibly tell all the stories,” Seidman said. “So help us complete it. If there’s someone that you think should be honored for their environmental justice work or whose life was cut short from environmental toxins, you can write their name and why you think they should be honored and add them to the wall.”