Making It Happen for the Children

Our River: The Anacostia
Photograph By
Zandra Chestnut

Zandra’s “Anacostia Reflections.”

Zandra and Dennis Chestnut know children. Zandra was the oldest of nine, Dennis the youngest of eight, and they have six of their own plus 15 grandchildren. This couple from the Seventh Ward in Anacostia have devoted their lives to the children living in their community, sometimes working together, sometimes apart, but always with the cooperation and help of many others. The Anacostia River and parks along it have played a key role in much of what they have done.

Dennis was born and raised in Anacostia, and he and Zandra live in the house he grew up in. He is best known as the executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, a group he started in 2007 to provide environmental education and green jobs for youth in the neighborhood. Before that he helped run the Mayor’s Green Summer Job Corps, the “Nature Is Music in Me” program with the National Park Service, and other similar efforts for young people, going back to his start as a master carpenter and facility manager.  

Groundwork Anacostia River DC is one of 24 such urban trusts nationwide. Dennis has built his into one of the strongest by tying much of its work to the river and adjacent parks. It provides a variety of programs for youth, from weekend cleanups to green workforce development at four area high schools. Every summer a few of the students are selected to take part in an excursion to do Youth Conservation Corps work projects in national parks. This past summer the group went to Yellowstone, where they took part in the Park Service Centennial Celebration.

The Groundwork programs range widely, but all have a focus on green jobs, reducing pollution, and smart growth. From urban archeology to trash traps to trail building, Dennis has developed programs to interest and engage just about any young person. Operating out of offices at 3939 Benning Road NE, Groundwork has built partnerships and programs throughout the neighborhoods along the streams and the river.

Meanwhile, after growing up a Navy brat, everywhere from Norfolk to Newfoundland, Zandra was finishing a long career in federal service on Capitol Hill. After helping Dennis start Groundwork Anacostia, with his help she opened the Center for Green Urbanism, a business incubator and art gallery also on Benning Road. She seeks to tie together improved education, the arts, and the natural environment. In recent years she has been pursuing her arts programs through the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, where she is on the Board of the Friends of the Garden. She is also a Citizen Forester with Casey Trees, but her real love is photography. Zandra is a member of Exposure Group – the African-American Photographers Association.

All of this activity is enough to exhaust the reader. But it goes on. Zandra was recently elected to the board of the Friends of the National Arboretum, where her ideas and energy will be available to the Washington Youth Garden and other programs. As the first person to serve on both boards, she is already thinking about ways to build bridges between the Arboretum and the Aquatic Gardens, with the focus on youth and improving the natural environment. In a way she will symbolize the pedestrian and bicycle bridge between the two facilities that is currently under design to cross the river.

Meanwhile Dennis is pursuing his own initiatives. He is beginning to work closely with the Anacostia Park and Community Collaboration, a project of the new Anacostia Waterfront Trust. The focus is to engage locals in developing programs for youth and others in the parks on the east side of the river. Groundwork and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are two among 13 local nonprofits involved, but Dennis considers them the two most focused on the environmental issues that he sees at the core of community hopes for improvement.

I asked the Chestnuts to identify the hardest part of their efforts on behalf of young people in Anacostia. To Dennis it is having reliable access to funds when you need them. There are many places to apply for funds, but nearly all have their own schedules and priorities. Only a few, like Casey Trees, have both the underlying endowment and the openness to consider innovations and priorities.

For Zandra the most difficult challenge has been to convince people both inside and outside Anacostia that there is artistic talent in the neighborhoods and communities east of the river. This is a matter of both education of the public and validation of the artists. It is a long and slow process, and many of the most talented young people have limited means and limited time to establish themselves. 

Coming away, I don’t know what impresses me more about the Chestnuts, their accomplishments or their insights about the challenges of young people in Anacostia. It is rare to have both, and in such quantity.

Dennis and Zandra Chestnut.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, DC vice-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.

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