Credit: Empower DC

Before Detrice Belt became the chair of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, she was a resident at Barry Farm, a Ward 8 public housing community just west of Anacostia. Belt called Barry Farm home for most of her life—first, as a teen with her family, and later as a single mom with her daughter and their two dogs. Belt’s Barry Farm townhouse was across the street from her mother’s home, which made it easy for them to share meals, childcare duties, and holidays with family. 

All that ended in 2019, when Barry Farm residents were forced to relocate due to redevelopment plans for the historic public housing community. For Belt, that meant relocating to a new apartment where she had to give up her dogs and the place she long called home. 

Belt connected with Empower DC, a grassroots organization that advances racial, economic, and environmental justice by investing in the leadership and organized political power of the city’s residents with low to moderate incomes. Though Empower DC is citywide, it has a long history of supporting Barry Farm and Ivy City residents—two of D.C.’s many historically Black communities.

Barry Farm, designated as a D.C. historic landmark in 2020, was once home to Black luminaries like abolitionist Emily Edmonson and Charles R. Douglass, son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as Etta Mae Horn, a national leader on welfare rights. 

Belt credits Empower DC with doing exactly what the organization’s name implies: empowering her and her neighbors to start the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (BFTAA) to address residents’ needs. 

The BFTAA and Empower DC were able to successfully appeal the redevelopment plan and secure a historic landmark designation for five buildings on the property. The new plan has yet to be revealed, but Empower DC’s Executive Director Parisa Norouzi said the organization will be there to support BFTAA through the process. 

“Empower DC has taught me to ask questions, like, ‘How can we do it in a better way for the residents?’” Belt said. “We’re the ones who live here. We’re the ones who are affected by this.” 

Founded in 2003, by Norouzi and Linda Leaks, much of Empower DC’s work is centered around the fight for community-led equitable development and helping neighborhoods navigate gentrification and avoid displacement. Its housing work is especially focused on securing, improving, and preserving public housing for D.C.’s lowest income residents—those making 30% or below the median family income. To succeed, Empower DC is working to ensure the ongoing rewrite of D.C.’s comprehensive land use plan is equitable and includes mandates for affordable housing.

In 2017, the organization formed the DC Grassroots Planning Coalition. Made up of residents, advisory neighborhood commissions, civic associations, and other organizations committed to equitable development in communities of color, the fundamental purpose of the Coalition is to challenge development patterns that have led to displacement and gentrification. 

Since its creation, Norouzi says the Grassroots Planning Coalition has mobilized and educated over 1,200 residents around land use and the comprehensive plan.

Capital One has partnered with Empower DC’s Grassroots Planning Coalition as part of the Capital One Impact Initiative, an initial five-year, $200 million commitment that seeks to create equal opportunity for all to prosper by supporting growth in underserved communities, advancing socioeconomic mobility, and closing opportunity gaps. 

Through that support, Capital One will help the Grassroots Planning Coalition shape public housing redevelopment efforts across the city and help Empower DC achieve its goals including developing an educational curriculum and creating a network of experts that low income residents can use as a resource to navigate challenges surrounding redevelopment. 

“Lack of access to socioeconomic mobility is one of the most pervasive and long-standing issues in our society,” said Desiree Francis, head of Community Finance at Capital One. “That is why we are committed to marshaling our resources and partnering with nonprofits like Empower DC that are engaging and empowering local communities with the tools to create lasting and equitable change.”