This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By Kayla Benjamin

Dewand Hemsley, a senior at Anacostia High School, didn’t know he was going to be helping write a book during the six-week environmental justice internship he signed up for last summer. Neither did any of the other 11 high school participants.

The front cover of the nearly 70-page paperback “Through My Anacostia Eyes: Environmental Problems and Possibilities,” published in 2023. Credit: Conservation Nation

“Miss Caroline told us we had to write, and we said we didn’t want to write — then we kept complaining and complaining, complaining, complaining,” Dewand, now a published poet, said with a laugh. “Look at us now, we’re like famous.” 

Dewand spoke with The Informer following a book launch held at the University of the District of Columbia on Nov. 8, where he and his co-authors read aloud from their poetry to an auditorium seating dozens of cheering supporters and local media. He held up his copy of “Through My Anacostia Eyes: Environmental Problems and Possibilities,” which features four of his own poems. 

“It was emotional when I started reading it,” said Dewand in an interview after the book launch. “And then when I wrote it — it just feels joyful.”

Literacy and Exploring Nature

Caroline Brewer, who edited the book and worked with the students to write their poems using a curriculum she designed called Nature-Wise, said that she sees poetry as a uniquely “playful” form of writing. She has spent two decades supporting children’s literacy, working with thousands of students of all ages to build confidence in reading and writing through creative projects. 

“We wanted them to write about the environment through the lens of their own personal experiences as residents of Anacostia, as students of Anacostia High School, as young people, as young African Americans,” Brewer said. “This is, I believe, the fifth book I’ve done with students, and I think this is the most powerful, because they really put their hearts and souls into it.”

The internship itself is a paid opportunity for students led by Xavier Brown with the University of the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of the Interior and environmental nonprofit Conservation Nation, along with other partners. Participants went on field trips each week: their schedule included touring the Environmental Protection Agency, working in (and eating from) urban gardens around the city, identifying bird calls in the park and boating along the Anacostia River. 

“I want to be a geological mining engineer… when I become a geological engineer, I’m going to learn about and be focused on not hurting the environment,” junior Marcus Williams said. “I learned about environmental racism, which is a major thing in Southeast because of us not having a lot of resources and green areas inside of Southeast.”

Once they got the opportunity to learn more about what was happening, they were fearless in expressing their opinions, expressing their ideas and being creative about writing about what was going on.

Caroline Brewer, editor of “Through My Anacostia Eyes”

Marcus said the internship also offered opportunities to develop skills like public speaking and professionalism. The students gave presentations and heard from environmental experts during the program, along with spending two days each week working on their writing. 

Brewer’s curriculum provided writing prompts to get students started. Some of the poems are autobiographical; others focused on reflections from the internship experiences or required students to do outside research to describe the lives of a plant or animal species of their choice. Overall, Brewer said, the goal was to enable students to develop confidence in their literacy skills while connecting to the natural world and examining environmental issues in their own backyard. 

“It addresses the challenges that our young people have in seeing themselves as capable readers and writers, and as people who can give voice to issues as complex as what’s happened historically to the Anacostia River and what’s happening now [for example],” Brewer explained. “All of these issues were brand new to the students. And yet, once they got the opportunity to learn more about what was happening, they were fearless in expressing their opinions, expressing their ideas and being creative about writing about what was going on.”

Below are excerpts from a few student poems. “Through My Anacostia Eyes” can be purchased at any online bookstore

If I Were the Anacostia River

By Keveon Graves, Jeremiah Wright, Kahri Borum, Marcus Williams, Dewand Hemsley, Dearontre “Dre” Daise, DeMirio Wimbush, Germaine Williams, NeKaeyla Roach and Royana Easterling

If I were the Anacostia River, I know what I would see: 

trash, bass, Carolina wrens and

skinny branches that have fallen from trees

If I were the Anacostia River, I know what I would hear: 

birds chirping, ducks quacking, cars roaring, 

and wind blowing in my ear

If I were the Anacostia River, I know what I would love: 

the green of the trees, clean water, less pollution,

more wildlife and fish that people can eat, 

and the peace symbolized by the dove

My Superpower is Listening

By Marcus Williams 

My superpower is being able to sit down and listen to another person. 

Allowing their voice to be heard means their words flow out their mouths and they never have to worry about the situation again. 

It’s a feeling similar to when you’re lying down on a patch a grass and you can feel the breeze.

What You Don’t Know by Looking at Me

By Nekaeyla Roach

What you don’t know by looking at me is that

I am the diamond that grew through broken concrete.

That means I got tough skin and I’m brilliant too.

I come from a neighborhood where 

we don’t know the difference 

between fireworks and gunshots;

between what’s supposed to be fun 

and what’s trying to kill you.

When I was a child, I would play outside, 

running the streets with my hair all over my head.

On the Fourth of July,

I would always hear fireworks and see them fly.

One time, I stopped running,

turned around and looked back. I see everybody 

dropping to the ground. Somebody yells out,

“Those aren’t fireworks. Those are gunshots.”

“Everybody get down!”

I’m going to wind up with a knot on my head, 

I would think, because of how fast, how hard, I fell.

I am the diamond that wants to attend Spelman University

to become one of the best Black women lawyers as a career.

I want to rise to the top, so I know I can’t stop 

being the diamond that grew through broken concrete 

because fulfilling my dream is near.

If I Were an Eagle

By Dearontre “Dre” Daise

If I were an eagle, I know what I would see:

fish, insects, land, and big and tall trees

If I were an eagle, I know what I would love:

flying high up in the sky,

and the wild spaces of my life,

which give me a perpetual shove.

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