Speak Truth: Gentrification

By Kaneia Crumlin
Dec 10, 2020

On an unusually warm December evening—a week before students trade in their virtual learning routine for a coveted winter break– 60 DC-area high school students gathered for a Speak Truth session around a topic that has only grown in significance with the impact of COVID. It is a topic with which 100 percent of the students present reportedly had some touch point: gentrification.

They began by establishing a definition for gentrification—the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier, usually white, people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, but typically displacing current inhabitants in the process. Micah, a junior at School Without Walls, and one of two student facilitators for the evening’s conversation kicked off the discussion with the question: How has gentrification impacted you?

The answers were as varied as the students’ zip codes, but a consistent theme emerged: gentrification is taking a toll on the quality of life for both humans and wildlife, particularly in the DC area.

“DC neighborhoods are changing but it’s not an inclusive change.” Elizabeth Seton High School 11th grader Amaka observed. 

Eleventh grader D’Jhanir from School Without Walls echoed this sentiment, “My mom and I live in SE and we keep watching the price of our house go up.”

“I live in a more suburban setting and I see the damaging effects gentrification is having on the wildlife in my neighborhood…deer dying in the street at an alarming rate…because their habitats are being destroyed,” said Jah’Kei, an 11th grader at Elizabeth Seton High School. 

Rooting the Discussion in Sources

A 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition NCRC notes that  “Gentrification is a powerful force for economic change in our cities, but it is often accompanied by extreme and unnecessary cultural displacement.” Speak Truth student-facilitators helped to drive this point home by showing a trailer for “Residue,” Mierawi Gerima’s feature directorial debut, set in Washington, DC, Gerima’s hometown. The film is arguably biographical as it follows a young filmmaker’s return to his hometown of Washington, DC in hopes of writing a film about these familiar surroundings. Tragically, the protagonist finds his city reeling from the reality of gentrification as seen in the bad things that happened to people and places that he loved.

In the post-trailer discussion, 11th grader, Ada, from the National Cathedral School pointed to city zoning practices as just one of the logs that keep the flame of gentrification strong. 

A brief discussion on city zoning raised the issue of redlining, among other things, which led to a discussion around the intersection between race and gentrification. In preparation for the evening’s discussion, students were asked to read an article on this angle of the issue titled, “How ‘Gentrification’ in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation.” The article explains, analysis of gentrification between 1995-2009 from Chicago and Seattle… [explores] how racial demographics from certain communities impacted the amount of and rates at which gentrification took hold.”

The article discussion didn’t get far before students unanimously agreed: gentrification and race are inextricable and anyone suggesting otherwise need only watch the heart-wrenching stories of upheaval and hopelessness in Gerima’s trailer, or examine the trends in housing, household incomes, and levels of education obtained in low-income neighborhoods within the DMV over the past 20 years, or listen to the personal testimonies of those participating in the Speak Truth session that evening.

Given the disproportionate impact of gentrification on minorities, both student facilitators asked, “Can minorities be gentrifiers?” 

“Anyone who seeks to change a neighborhood rather than take refuge in it is a gentrifier,” explained Ada. 

Nya, an 11th grader at Elizabeth Seton High School, disagreed. She found it hard to imagine many people of color could be gentrifiers because “a lot of minority-owned businesses in DC are shut down due to gentrification giving many families no source of income” with which they might invest in developing neighborhoods. 

Learning from the Past to Change the Future 

Students made connections between gentrification and what they are learning in their classes right now. 

Ada noted, “My US History class has been talking about urban development…as the upper class developed it was about ‘civilizing the lower class’… I think this is a mindset we see in modern gentrification.”

Micah noted that those in power in the creation of history books present an exclusive white-washed history, marginalizing minorities. That mirrors the efforts of city planners and investors to do the same in certain cities and neighborhoods: “We have to take African-American history as an elective as opposed to learning about African-American history in US History.”

So how did the students envision a path forward? 

Toward the end of the discussion, Ayotunde, the other student facilitator and a freshman at Phelps high school, offered a perspective that ignited some disagreement, “Gentrification is good and bad…if it never started we wouldn’t advance as a society; DC is a city and we’re trying to make more space for more people…just like NYC.”

“But there should be a way to advance without pushing out the community before them,” Amaka pushed back “…wiping people out isn’t improving, its removal …there should be a way to do both.”

Elizabeth Seton High School 11th grader, Kya made a related point. “There should be a happy middle of innovation [in these neighborhoods] but still appreciating the roots of everything. Create the jobs and help the people who are already there while still being able to push forward.” She noted that while it wasn’t clear what such a both/and scenario might look like, that’s largely because, “nobody is really trying. They’re just pushing for their own interests. That’s the problem, they’re not even trying to be considerate.”

Demari, Elizabeth Seton High School 11th grader pointed out, “It comes down to the people with the money deciding to actually do something about it.”

”Perhaps more legal protections for tenants and more accessible legal aid such as attorneys” would help, Ada suggested.

Bernard, a 12th grader at Phelps ACE High School, suggested a grassroots approach in the chat, “Our local government and its residents should…hold these companies, who are coming in and buying up entire blocks, accountable for taking aggressive actions to ensure residents in their targeted community are given fair and equal opportunities to earn money for their families and remain in their homes.”

“Morally, you should always look out for the poor,” said Maya. 

Kya noted, “it’s hard to make room for morality in capitalism, but it’s really important to keep supporting small businesses. People don’t realize that’s a really important way that you can combat gentrification in your own small way.”

“In a perfect solution” Demari concluded “everyone takes a hit trying to solve it.”

If you’re interested in having your students discuss gentrification, consider sharing these resources with them: 

What Do ‘Newcomers’ Mean For A Neighborhood? The History Of Gentrification In The U.S. WBUR

Gentrification in the United States Oxford Research Encyclopedias

The Neighborhood Is Mostly Black. The Home Buyers Are Mostly White. The New York Times

How ‘Gentrification’ in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation Scholars Strategy Network

2019 study by National Community Reinvestment Coalition NCRC

Is it time for American cities to stop growing? Vox

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