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Women of color have led the environmental justice movement. They are often the ones who notice patterns of disease in their communities, fight to protect their families and neighbors, and bear the burden of health disparities. The new exhibition “To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.” at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum celebrates ordinary women making extraordinary changes. The exhibition opens May 19 and closes Jan. 7, 2024.
Through art, photographs and personal belongings of women on the frontlines, the exhibition highlights the efforts of local activists to ensure that all communities are safe and healthy. Putting their insistence on access to clean air, water and land into historical and national context, the exhibition showcases the powerful legacy of women’s environmental justice work in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“By learning why women have become the leaders in the environmental justice movement, which pathways they have taken to get there and how their efforts benefit not just their local communities but the Earth, we hope our visitors will come away feeling truly inspired,” said Rachel Seidman, exhibition curator.
The exhibition’s four themes of Where We Live, Work, Play and Pray feature objects that will help visitors understand how the activists featured are “ordinary” people who did extraordinary things with the tools and skills at their disposal. The stories told in the exhibition span from the 1880s to present day. It honors the activists’ mantra “we speak for ourselves” by highlighting quotes from original oral histories. It also reveals one common thread: that while all of these individual stories are important, it is the fact that the women joined forces and worked together that made it possible to move forward no matter what the cause.
Visitors also have many chances to interact with the exhibition. At “Piecing Together Our Vision of Environmental Justice,” visitors make their own quilt square and add it to a community quilt on a nearby Velcro wall. At “Table Talk,” visitors sit at a kitchen table where the placemats and a spinner on the plates will help them pick an environmental problem and strategize possible solutions. After discussing their choices, they can draw or write their idea and add it to the nearby refrigerator for others to view. Visitors can take a quiz to find out their “activist animal” and proudly wear a sticker with their result. At “Build A Park,” visitors can think about the green spaces in their lives and then design their own fun and safe outdoor space.
“To Live and Breathe: Women in Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.” will also have a companion website that will allow online visitors to experience highlights from the exhibition and hear the voices of some of the featured women.
The exhibition is part of the museum’s theme for 2023, “Our Environment, Our Future,” in which the museum is examining the topic of environmental justice in the Washington metropolitan area using the lens of race and gender. This theme deepens the museum’s existing work in pioneering community-centered practices and critical environmental justice conversations.
The exhibition was made possible thanks to the support of The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Recreational Equipment Inc.; Smithsonian Women’s Committee; Pepco, an Exelon Company; and Bank of America, Founding Partner of the Smithsonian’s Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past Initiative. This project also received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.
About the Museum
Founded in 1967, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum shares the untold and often overlooked stories of communities furthest from justice in the greater Washington, D.C., region. In celebrating stories of resiliency, joy and strength, the museum inspires those who visit to translate their ideas into action. For more information about the museum, visit anacostia.si.edu or follow the museum on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.
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