Akiima Price's Story
Clean air in parks matters – even when you’re hungry.
Organizer Akiima Price knows the realities of connecting underserved communities of color to DC’s urban parks.
There’s a story they still tell in the dense urban neighborhoods around Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., about a boy who died in a landfill that used to loom between the aquatic gardens and the shore of the Anacostia River. In 1968, while playing with friends in the landfill, the seven-year-old got caught in the open-air trash fires that used to burn here.
Solutions: Maintaining scientific integrity in federal rulemaking
During the last two years, the EPA has consistently limited and downgraded science in policymaking and enforcement. The agency is taking steps to limit consideration of peer-reviewed science in developing rules, hampering the ability of federal land managers such as the National Park Service to assess the impact of pollution to national parks. Meanwhile, the agency is undercutting scientific integrity by removing scientists from air quality advisory committees and review panels, replacing them with politicians and industry representatives, or disbanding some panels entirely. These science-driven advisory bodies were designed to operate independent of political and corporate influence to ensure that science — not politics or money — governs health and environmental laws.
The Trump administration is also rolling back rules previously supported by science. For example, EPA is undercutting public health protections from mercury and other airborne toxins by dismantling a rule that requires power plants to sharply limit toxic pollution. Industry has complied with the rule since 2016, and it sharply drove down mercury pollution. This pollution causes neurological defects in babies and children at high levels, and at lower levels, it can harm brain, heart, kidney and lung function for people of all ages. These toxins also acidify our waterways and harm wildlife. The agency has also proposed delaying implementation of a rule to reduce woodstove emissions that would result in a nearly 70 percent reduction in fine particle pollution and volatile organic compounds, despite the fact that manufacturers are poised to meet the 2020 deadline.
NPCA is backing federal legislation in support of scientific integrity, opposing rules and directives that limit the role of science in policy making, and using our platforms to demonstrate the way scientists and science are fundamental to national park protection.
From 1942 to 1970, black smoke billowed over homes and schools in the low-income communities of color that surrounded that landfill. The toxic clouds blew in through open windows.
Akiima Price was born near here. “As a child,” she remembers, “we moved from an apartment to a suburban townhouse where people were trying to move up and out of public housing. There was a dirt field behind our house, and we played in that dirt field and a sewer tunnel. We saw foam but didn’t know it was waste. We played and caught butterflies.”
Today the landfill is gone and Akiima is back, working as a contractor with the National Parks Foundation. She helps connect the surrounding communities with the beautifully revitalized aquatic gardens and Anacostia Park, both part of National Capital Parks-East. “Historically, there’s a disconnect between the people and the parks,” she explains. “These communities suffer from pretty jarring statistics around crime and poverty.”
Akiima has developed park-based programs that range from reconnecting ex-prisoners with their families to gospel choir performances to after-school and day camps for children. The camps provide environmental education, field trips and experiential learning. The agenda also includes something to eat. For some children, it may be their only food of the day. “They put nets in ponds and see what’s living there,” Akiima says. “Or they just come and have a meal and just be…”
But while the landfill’s drifting smoke plumes are a thing of the past, the air is still not clean. Six-lane highways choke off the parks and communities Akiima is bringing together. Overhead, jets take off from and descend toward Reagan National Airport. Freight trains rumble between rowhouses. Trucks downshift into industrial sites next to apartments and churches.
According to Akiima, when a child needs food and safety, concerns about air quality are secondary. “The clean air part is on the side,” she says. “The natural experience you have when you come into a green space, that’s the biggest thing. A lot of people lead stressed lives. A lot of it is getting out of your environment, the option of a safe space.”
But add a compromised environment on top of food insecurity and danger, and together they conspire to make children’s lives exponentially harder. Polluted air makes a park unsafe for a child with asthma, which occurs at higher rates among children living in poverty. “There have been times the kids with asthma can’t come to camp in the park because their parents won’t let them outside,” Akiima says. “We just don’t do certain things in the summer months because of the heat and air quality factor. On Code Red days we are not going to have camp.”
So, while it may be especially important for disadvantaged children and their families to get outside and experience nature, it isn’t always healthy for them to do so.
The history of polluting activities around the parks in this part of the city is typical — polluters cluster in communities without a voice. “Some people get hot and mad,” Akiima says. “But most assume that’s just the way it is. They’re so used to being disrespected.”
The solution, she believes, starts with building a diverse network of partners, including the parks, the people, environmental groups and social service organizations. She describes the process: “If we can take a family that’s working with a food program and connect them with a watershed group for a river trip, they come to see the park as their feel-good place. And they care about what happens to it.”
As constituencies for urban parks grow, they then advocate for clean air in those parks. And that empowers vulnerable communities to advocate for clean air for themselves.