Open Letter

An Open Letter from Black Women Thriving East of the River

Dear Friends,

To the world, Washington, D.C., is America’s capital – our seat of power and global influence. But we know Washington, D.C., is the proverbial tale of two cities, divided by an expanse of water called the Anacostia River. Our story centers on this divide, a narrative about life east of the Anacostia River, away from the symbols of power and glamour. On these pages, we chronicle our visions and aspirations for a brighter future and the route we have chosen to get there.

In Washington, its citizens pay taxes but do not have a U.S. Senator or U.S. House of Representatives member who can vote. Yet, it is home to more than half a million people.

West of the River sits America’s three branches of government – the White House, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

West of the River are marble monuments representing this country’s rich history. The Lincoln Memorial sits west of the Reflecting Pool. Just a little farther east is the Washington Monument. Near the start of “the Mall” is the Jefferson Memorial where tourists celebrate the annual blooming of cherry blossoms and mount paddle boats for gentle spins in the Tidal Basin waters next to the memorial.

West of the River, the Smithsonian Institution’s impressive array of museums line the Mall from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the National Air and Space Museum.

West of the River, senators, congressional representatives, judges, chief executive officers, and most of the District’s residents live in Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Less than three miles away from the White House, the Anacostia River severs the city, separating it into two societies. One enjoys the privileges of the powerful, the other endures the daily struggles of urban life.

East of the River is a predominantly Black community, our community, marked by decades of neglect and blessed with resilience. We live in Wards 7 & 8, with a small section of those wards included West of the River after recent redistricting.

The geography forms the basis of our narrative. On these pages, you will meet us, hear our stories, and learn about our dreams. For those of you who do not know us already, we want to introduce you to our community and our centers of power so you will feel like our neighbor, and not a stranger.

Walk our streets and you will discover the home in which former slave, abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass lived on W Street SE in modern-day Ward 8.

Down the block and around the corner, you will see “The Big Chair,” a historical landmark symbolizing economic opportunity. At 19.5 feet high, it looms over the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and V Street SE, across the street from the Kings Cafe.

Among the wood-frame and brick homes that dot the streets of Ward 7, you will find the sites of Civil War forts transformed into parkland, including Fort Mahan Park, Fort Davis Park, Fort Chaplin Park and Fort Dupont Park, the largest city-owned park in the District.

You will gaze upon vibrant, colorful, and dynamic murals along our streets. You will pass the doorways of our community’s important non-profit organizations.

East of the River, our southern border presses against Maryland. A little further north, toward the center of our community on Alabama Avenue SE is the historic St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, site of a new state-of-the-art health facility scheduled to open in 2024.

But the consequences of disinvestment have meant high rates of poverty, chronic disease, unemployment, and mortality for those of us living east of the Anacostia River. It has also meant a lack of resources for basic needs such as public safety, affordable housing, quality education, and fresh food.

But things are changing.

On a cool autumn morning on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, a multiracial group of women walked through the front glass doors of Building Bridges Across the River, a community center formerly known as THEARC, here on Mississippi Avenue SE, to talk about our lives, our challenges, our hopes, and our dreams.

We put these words on a poster on the wall: “We as women, we carry the seeds.”

That day, after months of early development at the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation, we launched an innovative new process called the “Strategic Design Initiative,” uniting women living and working East of the River with allies committed to transforming the lives of our families.

We number 28 – women with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences in healthcare, community service, education, workforce development, and a host of other specialties. We are physicians, non-profit leaders, community activists, and so much more. We are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and neighbors. We run non-profit organizations, such as Momma’s Safe Haven and Academy of Hope.

We help to clothe, educate, heal, nurture, energize, activate, and agitate for justice for those in our communities East of the River.

We met to develop solutions on two fronts: improving health and economic outcomes for Black women living East of the River.

In August 2021, we chose a name for our effort: Black Women Thriving East of the River.

We intentionally said we are Thriving East of the River — not just surviving — because our goal is to see all Black women and girls not just living East of the River but thriving. The narrators’ voices in this report represent the brilliant Black women who led the development of Black Women Thriving East of the River, confront the challenges we all face and promote the dreams we all embrace.

We are more than the obstacles we have experienced.

Our effort, Black Women Thriving East of the River, is a mobilization to dismantle inequitable systems by convening community leaders and the most impacted individuals in our neighborhoods. Through Black Women Thriving East of the River, we created a series of specific, actionable interventions to address the root causes of the barriers holding us back.

We created workgroups to better understand the challenges regarding employment and economic mobility, as well as illness and death from cancer. We forged paths to solutions.

Over the next two years, through the COVID-19 pandemic, we met in person and online. In our second meeting, on Friday, January 24, 2020, our workgroups met at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. R.I.S.E. stands for Relate, Innovate, Stimulate, and Elevate. And those powerful words symbolize our work.

The next month, on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, our working groups walked through the doors of the Smithsonian Institution’s only museum in southeast – the Anacostia Community Museum on Fort Place SE – to assemble in a room with the paintings of world-renowned Black artists on the walls. From the beginning, this has been a venture that tapped the skills, resources, and talents of the shining stars East of the River – from our consultants and vendors to catering chefs and meeting facilitators.

Ultimately, we created road maps for change, including analyzing the root causes of problems, journey maps, analysis and prioritization of themes, intervention design, racial equity impact assessments, and stakeholder engagement. At each step, our lived expertise drove decision making and the integrating and prioritizing of our stories as Black women with close ties to communities East of the River.

The Workforce Development Workgroup created a road map aimed at advancing and creating individualized pathways to health-related careers that meet the aspirations of Black women East of the River and support upward mobility, create family economic security, and ensure family sustaining wages. The Patient Navigation Workgroup created a road map aimed at supporting and advocating for Black women living East of the River, across the cancer continuum. The interventions target a broad range of systemic issues and establish ways to humanize the cancer journey and improve outcomes.

As we developed our road maps, we identified “landscape analysis” as an important first step to charting solutions, studying existing systems and best practices through the lens of racial and gender equity.

The results, detailed in this report, include exciting new paths to improving our quality of life. Thank you, our neighbors, and potential visitors, for joining us on this journey – East of the River.

The time for change is now!

Abby Charles

MPH Former Co-chair of the Workforce Development Workgroup and program director at the Institute for Public Health Innovation

It is absolutely unfair and unjust that where a person lives can determine their health outcomes. And in Washington, D.C., for Black women who live in Wards 7 & 8, that’s the inequity and the injustice that we see.

Through Black Women Thriving East of the River, we are working to transform these outcomes by changing systems, policies, and environments to ensure that women can access the care and prevention that they need and have the quality of life that they deserve by accessing jobs and careers that provide for their families and for themselves.

Lecester Johnson

CEO of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Ward 8

Black Women Thriving East of the River is an amazing opportunity to work collaboratively across sectors in partnership with the community to design solutions that best represent the needs of the residents of Wards 7 & 8.

At the end of this project, I hope that we’re able to create something that is real, lasting, and truly impacts the residents of these communities.

Shantie Morgan-Palmer

Founder of Evelyn’s Closet, which collects and provides clothing to under-resourced residents in Washington, D.C. 

I watched my mom overcome breast cancer and watched my grandmother pass from it. I stand as a true testament and an informer. Through Black Women Thriving East of the River, we have been armed with seeds we can give to our family members and friends. What we have been given is priceless.

Manon Matchett

Former Co-lead of Black Women Thriving East of the River, and Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation

Our project is an opportunity to validate the lived experiences of Black women East of the River. This sets precedents that individuals can provide critical intel on potential solutions to critical problems in their own communities.

Our effort demonstrates the power of bringing diverse stakeholders together and centering focus on the realities of day-to-day living. My participation allows me to further invest in creating improved quality of life experiences for me, my family, and fellow neighbors.