The Root : Day of Service

Natalie Hopkinson and Steve Coleman
Associate Editor of The Root; Washington Parks and People founder
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 12:00 PM

"In the days leading up to the inauguration of Barack Obama, Washington, D.C. will be transformed into one big, jubilant street festival. We at The Root have nothing against inaugural glitz and glitter... Still, as America prepares to celebrate the party of a lifetime, this year's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 19, 2009 is more than a day off. It is more than a prelude to Obama's inauguration, which happens the next day. We believe the universe arranged for millions of people to flock to Washington just in time to revive the legacy of public service epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr."

Natalie Hopkinson, associate editor of The Root, and Steve Coleman, founder of Washington Parks and People, were online Wednesday, January 14 to discuss plans for a day of service Monday, January 19 in Northeast Washington's Marvin Gaye Park, sponsored by The Root. (For more information or to sign up, e-mail or visit the event page on the Presidential Inauguration Committee's Web site.)

The clean-up day in Marvin Gaye Park is part of the "Make it a Day On... Not a Day Off!" campaign, which encourages people to spend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday volunteering in their communities. In addition to answering questions about The Root's service project, Hopkinson and Coleman will welcome comments about your plans for the MLK Holiday, and about the burgeoning "greening the ghetto" movement, which was recently featured in The New Yorker, and which seeks to create jobs, reduce crime, educate young people and promote public health through the renovation of urban green spaces.

A transcript follows.


Bluffton, Ohio: Do you know anything about Habitat for Humanity's plans for the day of service? is a great place to find out about all kinds of projects in your area.

Steve Coleman: DC Habitat is a partner in our work in Marvin Gaye Park.


Natalie Hopkinson: Hello. I'm Natalie Hopkinson, associate editor at . Thanks so much for your interest in our service project on Monday. With all the excitement this weekend, it should be a way for all of us to give back and give thanks. Looking forward to talking to you about volunteering and the green movement in urban areas.


Steve Coleman: Hi, I'm Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks & People. We've been working the past 19 years to revitalize DC's most blighted and forgotten green spaces as hubs of community building. We started with Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park when it was the most crime-ridden national park in the city, and led the drive that reduced crime there by 98%. Now we're using parks and green spaces to help advance community public health, fitness, education, environmental renewal, and jobs! It's very exciting work. Monday's service project in Marvin Gaye Park will be one of the biggest yet, and part of a worldwide movement of people using green spaces to help meet broad human needs. I welcome your questions.


Washington, D.C.: There was a guy in my wife's office who was angry all the time at "the man" until I convinced him, over a period of a few months, to open his own painting business full-time to capitalize on the gentrification and revitalization of D.C. neighborhoods. Last I heard he was doing really well.

Does the "Greening of the Ghetto" group have special programs or training for entrepreneurs? I would LOVE to pay a local professional to build us a green roof for about $3-5000. For kids who already blew their chance for an education, can't we focus on creating blue collar entrepreneurs? It seems so much smarter than asking them to go work for someone else.

Steve Coleman: The Green for All movement is all about green entrepreneurship. When people think of green jobs, they usually think of trash pick-up and lawn mowing. But the world of green jobs is exploding with opportunities, from green infrastructure to green construction, from green space planning to urban farming. At the new community nursery that are starting in Marvin Gaye Park east of the Anacostia River (first of its kind in the Capital), we'll be providing gateways to 50 different green careers.


D.C.: I would like to serve the elderly, and/or recovering drug addicts. I am having a little trouble finding something. Any thoughts? Thanks much

Steve Coleman: We do a lot of work with seniors, with addicts, and with ex-offenders. Many of DC's parks are magnets for those in need, so if you help the park, you end up finding ways to engage and help all kinds of people.

Steve Coleman: The thing is, you don't have to wait to find something. You can start creating your own opportunities and answers. Many of our city's most creative solutions to tough community problems are centered in parks.


Eckington, D.C.: Steve, could you talk more about the history of Marvin Gaye Park? How did your group find out about it?

Steve Coleman: We were asked by the city's Parks and Recreation Department back in 1997 to help this place called Watts Branch Park, which was then the worst park in town. It had been dumped on for decades. But under the dump piles, we found a place that had ocne been a proud hub of its community. And along the stream valley, we found hundreds of seniors who remembered, and hundreds of kids who dared to dream that it could be great again. Today, the park is the scene of the largest community park revitalization in DC history, and its now the first permanent site in the city named after our wonderful native son, Marvin (the park used to be named after a slave-holding family).


Steve Coleman: The work in Marvin Gaye Park on Monday will include everything from restoring the nightclub/community center where Marvin had his first professional gig to cleaning up the entire trail and stream corridor -- from the Maryland line all the way to Minnesota. We'll be opening sight lines, improving gateways, removing dump piles, installing anti-dumping bollards, painting, and getting the park ready for all the big improvements that are coming this year, including a finished new trail, a restored stream, expanded amphitheater, new gateway nodes, a community greening center and "play garden, and other play and fitness features.


Asheville, N.C.: Hi! I'm coming to the Inauguration and will be covering some of the events of interest to people in Asheville, N.C. for our local paper. Our community is environmentally aware and will appreciate your park clean-up project. I've signed up to volunteer at your day of service. It is a great idea! Thanks for planning this.

Natalie Hopkinson: Hello Asheville! I look forward to meeting you. Have you participated in MLK Day service projects before? Do you think there is more participation this year with the push from Obama?


Washington, D.C.: Exactly what kind of work will be going on at Marvin Gaye Park on Monday?

Natalie Hopkinson: Steve can speak more about this. But we are hoping to do some raking of leaves, cleaning up trash and debris. There is also a public rec center that needs some shrubs so we hope the ground is warm enough to plant some shrubs that were donated by a local sorority.

Natalie Hopkinson: ..


Silver Spring, Md.: Have you thought about putting in a black heritage trail around Marvin Gaye Park, sort of like they have downtown?

Steve Coleman: Absolutely. That's what it really is. Walk the Marvin Gaye Trail, and you are walking in the footsteps of Marvin; of Dr. King, who gave a speech where the youth environmental education center is; of Nannie Helen Burroughs, who started the first Baptist school for girls in the country next to the park; of Dr. Charles Drew; of thousands of years of Native American history; and of tens of thousands of everyday ehroes who have made their imprint on our city and country.

Steve Coleman: Part of the point is to advance the idea that our green spaces like this one can be outdoor classrooms, performance spaces, town halls, and markets. That we can learn so much about each other, our cultural and natural heritage, and our future by coming together in our parks. DC is the greenest city in North America in percentage of public green acreage, but we don't invest enough in making that green come alive to serve our people.


Steve Coleman: Please tell us about green spaces that you would like to see revitalized, or about success stories you have witnessed.


Washington, D.C.: How close did Marvin Gaye live to the park? Will there be opportunities to find out more about his life there?

Steve Coleman: He lived right next to it at #12 60th Street Northeast, and in fact began his life of music making up his own songs as he and his friends gathered by the stream. The Riverside Center is becoming a kind of unofficial museum of Marvin, with some of his memorabilia being contributed here, and some of those original DC residents who performed with Marvin back in the day, coming back here to perform.


Washington, D.C.: According to the Inovations in Civic Participation, 3.8 million at-risk youth are in the country. They want to be productive members of society but lack the knowledge and life skill training to land jobs. Washington Parks and People is trying to fill the need with a new "Green Jobs" training program. Ward 7 and 8 in D.C. exhibit some of the largest statistics for crime and under educated youth. There also seems to be a persective that it is not "cool" to do community service. We are trying to break that trend. What additional solutions can you offer? It seems that we have no problem in getting volunteers from around the country. We need more of a education/work incentive to present especially from the corporate sector. Brian - WPP Green Jobs Coordinator

Natalie Hopkinson: Brian, thanks so much for sharing that information. I agree this can be a powerful tool. When we were organizing this event when Steve was taking us around the park, it occurred to me that WPP represents such a holistic view of empowering a community through nature, the environment, healthy activities and food. It is wonderful work you are doing. I can't wait until folks can see it.


Los Angeles, Calif.: We're looking forward to helping to physically improve D.C. during our inauguration visit and the Marvin Gaye Park project sounds great. What type of work/improvements will be conducted? Will there be indoor work available for those from milder climates?

Steve Coleman: Yes, there will be a wide range of work of all kinds, indoor and outdoor. But most of the work will be outside, so come prepared for a sunny, cold day. It's going to be a blast!

Steve Coleman: There is a description of the work above, if you scroll up.


Washington, D.C.: Steve: How did you get involved in this kind of work and what are your hopes for the New Year ?

Steve Coleman: I've always been inspired by parks and the magic that happens when people come together in them. I had lived next to Central park when it was at rock bottom, and watched the magnificent renaissance of millions of people coming back together in the park. But my real inspiration came 19 years ago, on Martin Luther King's birthday, when a boy on my block was gunned down at Noon and died in the arms of my housemate. The police asked us to stay inside, not talk to strangers, and, whatever we did, "stay out of Malcolm X Park" -- which was perceived as the center of crime.

Steve Coleman: My new year's wish is that we take a page from the magic of Barack's election to resolve that we have the power to stop the killing among our young people. We can use parks as village greens to create a different kind of life for all our children. If Wangari Mathai can do it across central Africa, we can do it across DC.


Asheville, N.C.: Although I am involved in a number of volunteer activities, this will be my first MLK service event. I know Obama's call to service raised my awareness of these projects. I hope that there are many more people like me who will learn about projects like yours because of this unprecedented publicity. (Responding to Natalie Hopkinson)

Natalie Hopkinson: Let's hope so! I have to admit that before this year, I thought of MLK Day mostly as a "day off" until my friend Autumn Saxton-Ross, who is a lead volunteer on this project, came up with the idea of having sponsor this event. I can't think of a better way to honor the past and future that this day is squeezed between.

My kids are also very excited about coming and and getting the word out about the park. Children should be associating this day with giving back.


Bluffton, Ohio: I live in a rural Ohio town with a population of about 4,000. We don't have much when it comes to "green" technology; our high school football stadium doesn't even have a recycling program. What can I do to help make Bluffton more environmentally friendly?

Steve Coleman: Start by finding ways to encourage people to spend more time outside. Come up with simple ways to get people connecting with nature: sunset nature hikes, moonlight concerts, classroom expeditions, etc. The possibilities are limitless. Then focus on the kids. Ask them what they dream of for the land around them. Ask the seniors to remember the heritage of Bluffton's lands. Find the African American and other cultural stories of the land, going back to Native American civilization. Use these stories to promote programming and pride in the community. Then think of how you can use all of this to counter the town's most serious challenges. Green space (as reen space, not as a vacant lot to be built on) can be an engine for generating tourism, jobs, investment, health, and civic engagement.


Washington, D.C.: I am not going to be able to make the event, but your organization sounds wonderful. What other kinds of opportunities will there be to participate in the parks group?

Steve Coleman: We need help 365 days a year. There are still far too many communities that have nto benefited from the simple, powerful kinds of change that park revitalization can bring. We need volunteer leaders, performers, artists, youth mentors, and so much more. You can sind up on our web site at

We'll also be sponsoring a grassroots inaugural ball this Saturday the 17th to support youth and low-income energy efficiency efforts to combat the climate crisis. Check it out at


Cleveland, Ohio: A big problem in Cleveland is so many abandoned houses, attracting trash and vagrants. Could you see the movement going into hardcore urban areas and reforesting them?

Natalie Hopkinson: This is an interesting question! I was just telling one of The Root's writers, Sam Fulwood who is most recently from Cleveland, about this exhibit "Shrinking Cities" that I saw at a museum in Detroit a couple of years ago. Some urban planners do advocate doing more of that, shrinking the footprint of struggling post-industrial cities. So instead of reaching the Boomer-era population levels, the idea is to replace the crumbling buildings with green space. It was a really provocative show.


Steve Coleman: On the question about Cleveland, the urban parks movement is taking on some of the most hard-core forgotten lands in the country. There are amazing examples of this all over the country. In Philadelphia, thy transformed 28 vacant lots into an unbelievable network of spaces called the Village of Arts and Humanitis, including a community nursery. In Seattle, what started as guerilla art under the freeways mushroomed into a massive community-led parks initiative. In the South Bronx, they took some of the country's most blighted urban areas and connected them back to their long-fogotten river. Then they stuck a 3-foot styrofoam ball, painted gold, in the river and invited everyone to come oput and watch it float by -- thousands of folks came out to see a river they neverknew existed!


Arlington, Va.: Like others, this will be my first MLK day service project and I'm really excited to stop treating it as a day off (although my job doesn't treat it as a holiday). Hearing about the park cleanup and the desired goals from it have really caught my eye. Do people who want to volunteer for the cleanup have to sign up in advance or can we just show up and a coordinator will find a place for us?

Natalie Hopkinson: I am so happy to hear this, Arlington! You can definitely just show up.

But it will help us to manage the crowds if you sign up at one of the designated places ( or at the Presidential Inauguration Committee website link above.) Just so we know how many people are coming. And please tell your friends!


Washington, D.C.: To exemplify the hope of neighborhoods, Washington Parks and People erected two wish trees so residents could voice their hopes for the New Year. The comments posted on the cards express the hope that under-served communities have and having them displayed on a living entity is a powerful statement. I hope this day of service continues well into the year and is a spark for community involvement. - Brian, WPP

Steve Coleman: That was a beautiful program. At Oxon Run park in Far Southeast DC, our community partnership put on a sunset program on the eve of the Winter Solstice - one of the coldest nights of the year -- to make a plea for an end to the violence. Over 100 people came out to plant the trees and share their prayers and blessings for the new year and the new President. At the end, as darkness fell, a beautiful, bright planet rose above the far horizon and the lights came on on the tree. I don't think Bethlehem could have been any more beautiful.

Steve Coleman: In Oxon Run, we're working with the community and city this year to create a new urban farm, an interstate park trail, expanded green job training, and programs of all kinds. So those trees will be a symbol of all that the park isbringing to the community.


Steve Coleman: Do people think of green spaces that could help transform your communities? What are your dreams for green space?


Steve Coleman: When we clean up parks and open up sight lines, we're also raising people's sights about what's possible in their communities. This is a new kind of engaged, active democracy. Instead of just electing people and then hoping for the best, community park partnerships are a way that we can directly and permanently help with nearly every major challenge that our communities face. And, in contrast with much of public policy that often ends up being focused on band-aid responses to symptoms, these are real, sustainable solutions that work and last. It's a different, deeper kind of engagement with public life. The old African proverb says that it takes a whole village to raise a single child. We say, "It takes a village green."


Natalie Hopkinson: Well thanks so much for your wonderful questions and interest in our event. Please spread the word, and email if you have any questions or would like to sign up.

Thanks again!



Bluffton, Ohio: What exactly do you mean by "green space?"

Steve Coleman: The naturalist John Muir defined parks as everything from a flower box in a city tenement to a grand national park like Yosemite. We are losing the connection with the land that our grandparents lived and breathed every day. In Marvin Gaye Park, many of the senior citizens were actually baptized in the stream, if they didn't grow up on farmland in the Carolinas before coming up here. The African American community has an especially deep cutlural heritage with the land. And every park or green space of any size can be a touchstone for reconnecting our kids with the earth, and with each other.


Steve Coleman: This has been great, everyone. Thanks for all your interest, and we look forward to seeing you at the park on Monday. And for those of you who can't get here, find a green space right near you, where you can reach out to your community to lend a hand. In the spirit of Dr. King and "Yes we can!," let's look not at the world as it is and ask why, but at the world as it could be, and ask, Why not?

The dream is alive, if we keep it in our hearts and live it into action around us every day.

I hope we can do this again sometime!

Steve Coleman: And feel free to look us up at, or contact us at

Steve Coleman: oops-- that's


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