November 10, 2023 |Tony Richardson

The Power of Collaborative Learning: The 2023 Peer Exchange

Parks with Purpose, a program of The Conservation Fund, focuses on some of our most vulnerable urban communities. Launched in 2013, the program centers on the needs and desires of local communities in planning and developing urban greenspaces and neighborhood parks. Through a community-centered approach, the Fund supports residents in transforming and restoring dilapidated, inner-city properties into vibrant new parks. Not only do these new greenspaces provide safe places for kids to play and neighbors to gather, but they also reduce stormwater flooding impacts, train and employ local residents, provide access to fresh, healthy foods, and create natural habitats in these highly urbanized neighborhoods. Most importantly, these parks are planned, developed and constructed by community residents.

Building the capacity of our Parks with Purpose partners is essential in dismantling the existing inequalities and increasing the adoption of green infrastructure in underserved urban communities. One tool we use to accomplish this is our Peer Exchange — a collaborative learning event that allows our network of community-based partners to meet with other like-minded organizations engaged in promising practices around urban conservation and environmental justice. The peer exchange aims to increase the capacity and knowledge of participating partners by sharing best practices, real-world examples and lessons learned. Through dynamic activities, educational offerings and in-depth discussions, attendees teach and learn from each other while connecting professionally and personally.

Photo by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg.

Attendees come from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, ranging from community engagement and environmental justice to urban planning and landscape architecture. While each attendee brings their own unique skills and expertise, all attendees are united in their goal of working with communities to implement urban conservation projects.

Attendees of the 2023 Parks with Purpose Peer Exchange came from Alabama, Georgia, Maryland and North Carolina. Everyone had plenty of opportunities for networking and building relationships. Photos by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg (left) and Ayanah George (right).

For the 2023 Parks with Purpose Peer Exchange, the Fund worked with Friends of Anacostia Park and Anacostia Parks & Community Collaborative (APACC), who served as the local host for this year’s event. Attendees were greeted with views of the Washington, DC skyline at a rooftop welcome reception where they got acquainted and began laying a foundation of trust that grew during the event. An interesting topic of conversation highlighted how many of our partners work with non-traditional groups in their communities, such as churches, affordable housing organizations, social workers, and prisoner re-entry programs. And we were just getting started!

White Hall Mayor Delmartre Bethel. Photo by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg.


"When I would see an open space or vacant lot in my town, my first thought was we need to build a building or commercial space, but this event has opened my eyes to the multiple benefits that urban green spaces and park infrastructure can provide to communities.”

- Delmartre Bethel, Mayor of White Hall, Alabama

Throughout the presentations, educational sessions, field trips, and facilitated networking activities our diverse group of participants were fully engaged and willing to try pretty much anything… including a spirited version of community “speed dating” masterfully led by Akiima Price, co-founder of Friends of Anacostia Park. Attendees were asked to list the “needs” and “assets” of their communities and their parks. They were then matched with a random individual and asked to explore connections between seemingly disparate needs and assets. The goal of the activity was to identify key points of interest and intersection between their partners projects and programs. For example, one attendee might have “reduce flooding” listed as a community need and would be matched with another attendee that has “housing organizations” listed as a community asset. Together, they would think through innovative ways the asset could help address the need.

Finding mutual connections and fun during community speed dating. Photos by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg.

Attendees chose between two afternoon field trips: a boat tour of the Anacostia River or a bus tour of several community spaces in the Anacostia neighborhood. Both field trips provided opportunities to see more of DC, visit project sites and meet with local community-based organizations.

Enjoying a tour of the Anacostia River provided by the Anacostia Watershed Society. Photo by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg.

After the field trips, we re-grouped at Anacostia Park for a sunset dinner. Upon arriving at the park, attendees had an opportunity to experience the multitude of ways that Friends of Anacostia Park activates the park space and authentically engages the community. There were basketball games, roller skating, fishing, arts and crafts, and more. All of this was part of typical weeknight programming in the park. “Seeing all of the energy and people in this beautiful park on a weekday evening encourages my team and me to think about how we might replicate some of this at our park locations back home,” remarked Chris Dreps, Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.

The entire group came together for a sunset dinner at Anacostia Park. Photo by Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg.

Finally, we hosted a panel discussion to explore the incredible potential for parks and green spaces to aid communities in healing after trauma. Panelists Brenda Richardson, Akiima Price, and Ralinda Wimbush shared real-life examples of how they have used green spaces to provide communities with a safe place to reflect and process tragedy and how trauma-informed principles can be adapted and applied to park programming and projects. This is a topic that our partners wanted to learn more about, and many remarked that the panel discussion was the highlight of the entire peer exchange.

Ralinda Wimbush, Akiima Price and Brenda Richardson led a discussion on trauma-informed environmentalism. Photo by Ayanah George.

Going into this event, we knew that this event was critical for sharing best practices and strengthening our growing community of practice. As the program concluded, it was abundantly clear that attendees found immense value in connecting with each other and growing their personal support networks. The event wrapped up with powerful and emotional testimony from the attendees, including this statement that perfectly captures the essence of why we came together.

Annie Moore and Lanecia Williams from The English Avenue Green Team in Atlanta. Photo by Ayanah George.


“I am new to the environmental conservation space, and this is my first time coming to an event like this and meeting so many like-minded individuals. Every weekend, my team and I help maintain the green spaces in our neighborhood, collecting trash, pulling invasives and planting natives. And every weekend, the trash comes back. It is a never-ending cycle that can be disheartening. I have found this event both inspirational and healing. Knowing that other people are going through the same challenges and facing the same obstacles has helped me feel like I am not alone in this important work.”

- Lanecia Williams from The English Avenue Green Team in Atlanta

The Parks with Purpose Peer Exchange is made possible thanks to generous support from The JPB Foundation.


Written by

Tony Richardson

Tony Richardson is Director of Urban Conservation Initiatives at The Conservation Fund. Through equitable park development projects and a community-centered approach, he supports residents in transforming and restoring dilapidated inner-city properties into vibrant new parks. Tony is passionate about connecting communities to nature, particularly communities that are often underrepresented in the outdoors. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, daughter and crazy dog. As an avid cyclist, Tony enjoys exploring the expanding network of bike trails in the area, especially the Anacostia River Trail in Southeast DC.