I loved my neighborhood growing up. Walking around, it felt like a block party was happening on every corner. Everyone knew each other and we were always coming together.
The neighborhoods don’t feel like this now. As a native Washingtonian, I’ve seen my city change in more ways than one, but it’s the loss of community that pains me the most.
I think about this loss when I advocate. As a PAVE parent leader, there are many issues I’m ready to fight for to support our kids – especially funding School-Based Mental Health supports and Out-of-School Time (OST) Programs this year. But another policy issue I want to see DC leaders prioritize is safe passage to school – and it’s because my story is one that no parent should experience.
When I became pregnant with my son, I was working at an engineering firm that was paying enough for me to live comfortably. I had a condo in Northeast DC, a reliable car, and was in a great place financially.
Everything seemed fine until it wasn’t.
My pregnancy was rough; I was in the emergency room every other week due to complications. My situation worsened when I was laid off. To save money, I left my condo and moved in with my mom in an apartment in Southeast DC. However, when the money got tight, we left the apartment and ended up in a shelter. My mom, my son (who was just three months old at the time), and I stayed in the shelter for a few months until we were able to move into an apartment with the help of rental assistance in Ward 8.
While I was fortunate to start working again, my son was still young and I needed to find a safe space for him to be while I was at work. I interviewed over 10 early childhood centers and daycares in the area, so when I found the right daycare, I was ecstatic. The facility was clean and the providers were experienced. However, the location of the center was in a rough area of town.
I was not used to seeing as much crime and violence as I did in the neighborhood of my son’s child care facility. Because of the experience, I decided I wouldn’t send my son to school in our ward, despite trusting my community’s schools. I made this decision because I knew the streets cared more about keeping their credibility more than they did keeping my son safe.
By the time my son graduated from child care, I enrolled my son at E.L. Haynes Elementary in Ward 1. While I was happy with my choice of school, our weekday journey was not easy when he first started.
Our mornings started between 4:30 and 5 AM because we had to catch the first bus by 5:30 AM. After the bus ride, we took the metro to Ward 1 and, if our metro was on time, we’d catch another bus to my son’s school by 7 AM for drop off. Once my son was dropped off, I began the last of the trek alone as I traveled for another 45 minutes via metro and bus to my job in Arlington, Virginia.
This commute was long, but that was the least of my worries. I feared for our safety every time we stepped outside. Standing at the bus stop so early in the morning, especially during certain times of the year, it could still be dark outside. You didn’t know who is watching you or what may be going on. I thought about what I was carrying in our bags, especially if they were items of value that someone might want to rob.
These thoughts instilled a fear that I still carry with me today.
By the time my son turned five, I had saved enough to buy a car. Today, our commute is about an hour and a half, which often feels like a luxury compared to the +2 hours we would spend commuting years before. While I am fortunate to have my car now, my experience is one that I never wish for families and children to have, which is why I advocate for safe passage to school.
Many things can be done to promote and improve safe passage to school. We need to increase funding for school-based professional mental health services to meet the needs of those who have been impacted by the violence in their neighborhood. This also includes funding OST Programs to keep kids off the streets while they are not in school.
But there’s another long-term solution that we haven’t invested in, which doesn’t require a dollar: We must empower parents.
We need to show parents and caregivers that we have the power to change our neighborhoods for the better. As parents, we don’t have to only rely on our policymakers to make a difference. Because parents are the experts of their kids, they know their neighborhood, they know the District. If we lead by example, empowering one another to spread love instead of hate, the change can and will come. If we, as parents, empower one another, that empowerment will lead to our kids, who can then empower one another.
Our neighborhoods should look like the ones we know our families deserve; where our children can joyfully play in the streets without any fear of violence. Where neighbors connect through a plethora of community events. And where our students can travel to and from school without an anxious parent clutching their hand praying that this trek is not their last.
Empowering parents is a simple, yet crucial, step to making safe passage to school a reality for all families. Because that empowered energy can flow throughout our District and will make our neighborhoods look like my neighborhood growing up: a community filled with connected, involved, and empowered people.
By Datiece Frazier, 2021-2022 Ward 8 PLE Board member