On Wednesday afternoon, we landed in Montgomery, Alabama and drove from the airport to our hotel downtown. This was the first visit to Alabama for many, but for me, the landscape felt very familiar. As a Mississippi native, this area of Alabama reminded me of home. I can always tell when I’m back in the south. I don’t know if it’s the open landscape, the humidity or the lonely Winn Dixie sitting in an asphalt parking lot, but there is no mistaking the feeling of being that far below the Mason-Dixon line.
We were in Montgomery for our organizational retreat, a multi day collaboration event to connect, review our mission and plan our goals for the next year. After arriving at the hotel, we had dinner and began a review of our Theory of Change. Our Theory of Change outlines our ultimate impact; to reduce the structural barriers to social and economic mobility in order to build a more equitable city. We achieve this through our programming and partnerships to serve ward 8 residents. It was helpful to kick off the next few days with a review of our theory of change and an acknowledgement of our commitment to DC’s most marginalized population. The conversation was a fruitful and powerful way to set the stage for our activity on Thursday.
On Thursday’s morning, we prepared for our visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Both sites are projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides assistance to innocent death row prisoners, confronts abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aids children prosecuted as adults. The museum explores the connection between the legacy of slavery and the over-incarceration of Black Americans. At the start of the exhibit, we entered a dark room with a full size digital screen showing a brisk, blue, ocean. Sounds of crashing waves filled the space. The room was cool and almost peaceful until the introductory text appeared on the screen. We were then reminded of the millions of Black lives lost at sea during forcible transport from the African continent to western lands. That was the start of our journey through the museum. For me, the rest of the experience brought feelings of disgust, confusion, aggravation, but eventually feelings of hope.
When we returned to the hotel to share our reactions and reflections, there was a common realization. In spite of the justice and democracy narrative that often accompanies our nation’s origin story, the reality is we’ve missed the mark. Society hasn’t moved beyond our history of slavery, hate and white supremacy; it has only evolved. Being faced with that reality at the Legacy Museum was, in the words of many of my colleagues, heavy. Were we unaware of how we arrived at this point today? No. But revisiting our history through photographs, videos and first hand accounts was a reminder that there is still work to be done. How will this experience inform our work? How will this knowledge and understanding shape how we advocate for the communities we serve?
The hope I had toward the end of the day was born from the knowledge that I’m a part of an organization committed to justice. At its core, Building Bridges provides a remedy to the injustice that has caused disinvestment in East of the River communities. We know poverty, mental and physical health issues, unemployment, violence and mass incarceration didn’t appear overnight. We know these are symptoms of a system that favors whiteness and imposes barriers on communities of color. Our programs aim to remove these barriers. Whether it’s our job training programs at the Skyland Workforce Center or the financial and technical support provided to small businesses in our community, our goal is to build a more equitable city starting in Ward 8. Before heading back to DC on Friday, we brainstormed on ways to continue moving towards this objective. These ideas will become the core of the 2024 goals for Building Bridges Across the River, but I hope the drive that was activated in the group will continue through the rest of year and nurture our enduring commitment to justice.
Senior Equitable Development Manager, 11th Street Bridge Park