A Place to Go, a Place to Grow

What’s a better use of empty space in a neighborhood—a vacant lot or a playground? For children and community members who live near Buena Vista Terrace in Southeast Washington, D.C., that’s a question with an obvious answer. There’s currently no playground or community center in this neighborhood, and the local community group the Foundation and other neighbors have been fighting to change that. They’ve identified 58 acres for child-centered revitalization, and right now they are targeting an overgrown lot on Buena Vista Terrace that has been vacant since the 1990s. Earlier this fall, children, families, and community members gathered there to make sidewalk chalk art and posters advocating for the creation of a community playground.

This “Brave Spaces for Youth Expression and Community Advocacy” event was hosted by the Foundation, Positive Chalk DC, and the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® program, and CDF was honored to partner with these groups and children for a movement connected to CDF’s mission. The CDF Freedom Schools program works closely with children and families in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods that are home to many children of color and low-income children in our nation’s capital, including the area surrounding Buena Vista Terrace in Ward 8. Advocating for a playground now is a direct extension of what children did over the summer at local CDF Freedom Schools sites.

CDF Freedom Schools encourage children and young adults (known as “scholars”) to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and in their families, schools, communities, country, and world with hope, education, and action. Every summer scholars at CDF Freedom Schools sites across the country participate in a National Day of Social Action. This event has been a regular part of CDF Freedom Schools programming since the program’s beginning, and gives children and youths a chance to participate in collective action and use their voices to express their desire for change and their vision for a more equitable future. This year’s theme was Youth Justice. Scholars nationwide described what Youth Justice would look like for them and their communities, and in D.C., many children said having a new community center and playground would be essential.

The college-aged Servant Leader Interns leading the D.C. CDF Freedom Schools sites held conversations with the scholars about spatial justice and encouraged them to brainstorm designs for safe, active shared spaces. On the National Day of Social Action scholars presented their ideas to their families and community. One group chanted:

We need a place to go! We need a place to grow!

We need a place to play! Somebody save the day!

Several scholars presented posters showing what their ideal future community centers would look like, with features like slides and other playground equipment, a gym, space to play soccer, a pool, a kitchen, spare rooms for people who needed a safe place to stay, and a place to welcome pets. Others gave short presentations on why they believed their neighborhoods need more community centers: “To provide support and create a safe space to help people feel safe.” “It’s good to have a support system so that you will have help to get back on your feet. It’s important to have a safe space because people should feel safe at home or wherever they are, and a community center can be that safe space.” “Community centers are a place for people to come together to allow a space for people to relate and help create.”

Being able to watch and participate in actions like the push to transform the lot at Buena Vista Terrace reinforces the idea that children can partner with adults to fight for the changes they want to see in their world. They are demonstrating the message in another CDF Freedom Schools chant: By understanding, with unity, I can make a difference in my community! Showtyme, an activist and co-founder of the Foundation who has been working to turn that empty space into a park since 2019, told an interviewer this summer: “I’ve been living around here since I was 6—I’m 32 right now. This lot has always been abandoned. Nobody really paid attention because when you’re growing up, you’re like ‘okay, it’s vacant, so what?’ Now that I’m much older, I see things different.” Today Showtyme is fighting for the playground, a community center at another nearby site that can serve as an incubator for neighborhood innovation, and more: “I do that to show people from my community, ‘don’t let where we come from have you thinking like, that’s the only way . . .  Now, all I’m doing is showing everyone else this is what you can do also.” (Read more about their story here.)

We need more adults committed to looking beyond what’s always been there to create the new spaces children and communities need. And we must keep teaching all of our children they are never too young to share their own dreams and visions for a better world and never too young to make a difference.