Dennis Chestnut: National River Hero

Our River: The Anacostia

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River Hero Dennis Chestnut.

One of the lessons I learned from a career in environmental management is that no matter how important an area is considered, how complex its problems, how many people are involved, or how much “expertise” is sought, it is always just a few people that make the difference.  Right here on and along Our River is one who has – Dennis Chestnut.  He has recently been awarded one of four National River Hero awards for 2019 from River Network.

Dennis was born in Georgetown, raised in Ward 7 and lives in the house he grew up in.  He and his wife, Zandra, have six grown children, a number of whom work in related areas.  Zandra herself has made quite a commitment to the community as the only person on the Boards of both the Kenilworth Aquatic Garden and the Friends of the National Arboretum.

The National River Hero award is only the latest of the many Dennis has received for his leadership roles in the restoration of the Anacostia and its DC tributaries.  He has spent 40 years helping young people marry their development and career options to community environmental improvement and civic duty.  His own ties to the River started young, when he and his friends discovered the parks and green spaces in their neighborhood, and learned to swim in the Anacostia at a time that pools in DC were segregated.  He learned to love nature in all its aspects.

His career has encompassed master carpentry, facilities management and vocational education. He currently serves as Carpentry Internship Instructor for the Academy of Construction and Design at IDEA Public Charter School.  This gives him the opportunity to train youth in how to apply practical skills to understand and improve natural and neighborhood environments.   As well as being an educator, he founded and was Executive Director from 2009 to 2018 of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, part of a national network that focuses on citizen action to clean up and preserve natural areas.  And he was a co-founder of the Center for Green Urbanism, an art gallery and cultural space that are part of a green business incubator in Hillbrook.

Dennis has also served with distinction on a number of boards, including the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Clean Anacostia River, the Council of Government’s Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee, and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.  In addition to his recent National River Hero award, he has received numerous others from local and regional organizations and is a Senior Fellow of the Chesapeake Region Environmental Leadership Fellowship Program.

A Commitment to Ward 7

Because of its mix of natural areas and relatively low family income levels, Ward 7 is considered both the “greenest” ward and the part of the City with the most challenging environmental conditions.  This has lead Dennis to commit to restoring not only the Anacostia River, but streams and parks that serve the neighborhoods as well.  He has served, for example, as Chair of Friends of Watts Branch, and worked for Parks and People on the establishment of Marvin Gaye Park along the course of Watts.  A bit of history:  the name for the Park derives from the young Gaye’s use of the streamside as a retreat from a chaotic home life in order to compose and practice his songs.

Through all these efforts, Dennis has been instrumental in engaging and energizing youth and others to understand how the River and its natural areas affect the community and how its health and recovery will benefit all.  Workforce development in areas of neighborhood and environmental improvement is the key to encouraging people to stay and commit to the community.  And that will help keep the communities of Ward 7 diverse and affordable.

At one time, according to Dennis, parts of Ward 7 like Hillbrook had a large population of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Italy, etc. who felt discriminated against in other DC neighborhoods.  Today there are some remnants of those times, but many have moved to the suburbs, as have a number of African-Americans.  Their places were taken by lower income families that migrated from the South and were subsequently displaced from Foggy Bottom, Southwest and other areas of DC going more upscale.   But the housing stock and the affordability of Ward 7 is still a draw, as are its extensive parklands and access to a restored Anacostia River.

Dennis says that there is still a lot to do on the Anacostia and its feeder streams, and that we must all work together to keep the political wheels turning.  He also sees the need to encourage “smart growth” in the neighborhoods – grocery stores and businesses instead of liquor stores and carry-outs and other ways for the commercial areas to evolve.  In Ward 8 he sees a lot of change coming, while in Ward 7 he would like to see a slower pace that assures that the new fits into the fabric of the existing community.   He is committed to restoring the River, and “connecting citizens, schools, businesses and other community organizations to the many outdoor resources and the natural environment through tangible on-the-ground projects that change places and change lives.”

River Network, sponsor of the National River Hero award, is a non-profit connected to over six thousand other non-profits, agencies, businesses and communities committed to cleaner and healthier rivers through the efforts of local caretakers.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is on the Board of the Friends of the National Arboretum,  a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.