Empower DC Spearheads Community Economic Development

Posted on October 5, 2018 | Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC

A rendering of the community-driven development plan for the historic Alexander Crummell School in Ivy City, organized by Empower DC.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our Reframing <Washington> Empowerment Fund grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. Learn more about these powerful organizations by visiting their websites.

Empower DC enhances, improves, and promotes the self-advocacy of low and moderate-income DC residents and builds their collective power in order to bring about sustained improvements in quality of life. Through popular education-style trainings, leadership development, community outreach, and member-led campaigns aimed to address pressing social issues impacting the constituency, Empower DC hopes DC becomes a city that invests its resources into uplifting the existing community, rather than enriching developers and displacing low income communities to make way for higher income people.

Empower DC is a citywide community organization with a 15-year track record of organizing impacted residents and promoting racial, economic and environmental justice. Two of the communities with which Empower DC is closely aligned – Ivy City and Barry Farm – have each experienced land use struggles throughout their 100-plus year histories. Each community was founded by Black residents shortly after Emancipation, and in the ensuing years targeted with “slum clearance,” eminent domain, environmental injustice and the threat of displacement.

As a city, we continue to perpetuate land use decisions that disproportionately harm and displace low income communities of color. Empower DC’s work advances a solution to gentrification that can heal past harms, and advance the economic uplift of low income communities. That solution is called Community Economic Development (CED). CED refers to a development approach that starts with the people in a community, and supports their ability to develop institutions that fill the needs that exist in their communities – in a way that contributes to the residents’ ability to own, control, manage, replicate and sustain this positive change.

Crummell for Community – Not Condos
In 2016 when the city released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for development of the historic Alexander Crummell School in Ivy City, Empower DC organized a team of youth to engage the community, create a development team and submit a proposal which represented the community’s vision for the long-vacant yet cherished site. The proposal dedicates half of the site – 1 acre – to desperately needed green space and outdoor play space, to be controlled by a Community Land Trust along with the historic School, which would operate as a nonprofit Community Center providing needed programing for youth, adults and seniors. The remainder of the site would provide affordable rental housing, community health care and day care centers, an indoor recreation building, and a Habitat ReStore which offers low cost household goods.

Justice for Barry Farm
Barry Farm, a public housing community in DC’s Ward 8, was selected for redevelopment under the city’s New Communities Initiative over a decade ago. The plans called for the 434-unit, 25-acre site near the Anacostia Metro Station to be vacated and demolished, prior to being rebuilt at higher density. For the past six years Empower DC has organized Barry Farm residents to ensure that their rights are protected, and their vision advanced through this process. This work has included establishing a tenants’ association, and supporting its leadership with participation in hearings at the Zoning Commission, a process which is foreign to most everyday residents, but familiar to developers and land use attorneys. When the Commission’s decision disregarded residents’ concerns, we aligned with an attorney and appealed the decision to the courts – which earlier this year ruled in favor of the tenants. As we continue the efforts to shape the outcome of Barry Farm’s redevelopment – ensuring that it uplifts rather than simply replace existing residents – we are guided by a set of Community Development–focused principles drafted by residents that encourage resident control and ownership through cooperative housing structures, permanently affordable housing, decision making authority for the Tenants Association, and opportunities for resident-owned small business incubation.

Given the racial disparities that persist in our city, and the already prolific development of high-cost housing and related amenities – we should take the opportunity to support the residents of Ivy City and Barry Farm, helping them achieve resident-led development of these public sites. Resident-led Community Economic Development is our opportunity to get land use right.

Parisa Norouzi has over 20 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations and organizing communities. After an early career as an organizer in the environmental movement, Parisa co-founded the city-wide community organizing group Empower DC in 2003, an organization which works to build the confident self-advocacy and organized political power of low-moderate income DC residents with a focus on fighting the displacement of residents amid DC’s gentrification boom. At Empower DC she has led the organization’s Child Care for All Campaign, the People’s Property Campaign, as well as organizing in the Ivy City community to secure community-led redevelopment of the Alexander Crummell School, among other initiatives.

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