“Dead rats don’t swim,” teased a third child. “The sharks would eat them!”
Imagination and excitement ran wild as about 40 local elementary school children bundled up in half a dozen canoes for a 90-minute ride along the river. For many children — participants in a Saturday school program at JC Nalle Elementary School in southeast DC — the excursion was their first time canoeing.
“Is that a dead sea lion? said the girl, seeing a drop in the water (it was a log).
The trip was organized by the National Park Trust in partnership with Code 3, a DC-based nonprofit that organizes community events between school children and local law enforcement. The events are aimed specifically at children who attend schools in low-income areas of the district, many of whom have witnessed or experienced violence.
Six DC police officers were split between canoes. With guides from Wilderness Inquiry, officers made most of the paddling while the kids inspected the unknown landscape passes by.
“A sea turtle!” shouted a boy. (Another newspaper.)
If one of the deepest marks of inequality is how some people’s daily opportunities are denied to others, Saturday’s trip was an attempt at a corrective double whammy: deepening the experience of children of their own town and provide an interaction with the police that doesn’t involve trauma.
“If you ask this group of kids, ‘Who here heard a gunshot?’ I’m sure they would all raise their hands,” said Joseph Abdalla, executive director of Code 3 and a former MPD cop for 30 years. “That’s usually the only time they see an officer.”
Code 3, Abdalla explained, hopes events like a canoe trip will bridge that gap between cops and communities — an effort that was not the norm during his early years on the force. “It was the time of the hard head.”
Since the death of George Floyd in May 2020 shone a spotlight on police brutality and historic racism, that relationship has been significantly strained and reassessed.
As debate raged in the canoe over sea lions and sharks, Abdalla paddled forward, sliding the canoe past a marina where yachts were parked.
“Do you have a boat, Joe?” a little boy asked the retired officer.
“Not so big,” laughed Abdalla.
“I want to use the big boat,” the 8-year-old called.
“Don’t you want to be the engine?” Diedre O’Brien chided from a nearby seat.
“No,” said the girl. “I am not a motor.”
O’Brien is Code 3’s Women’s Outreach Manager. She also believes in providing her son, CJ, 9, with opportunities beyond what could be easily found in the family’s Kenilworth neighborhood. a community in Ward 7 that has struggled with poverty and violence. Originally from Prince George’s County, she moved her son and daughter, now 12, to the district four years ago. In the garden, she enjoys photographing passing deer, marmots and foxes.
“The front yard directly faces the projects,” she explained. “The first day we were there after moving in, someone was shot across the street.”
O’Brien said her work with Code 3 changed her own perception of the police as a black woman who had experienced racial profiling in the past. Now, she views law enforcement less as a faceless entity than members of her own community. And events like the canoe trip also opened up new vistas for CJ.
“Opportunity is everything,” O’Brien said. “I want him to be exposed to different things, as much as he can and see different places, even if those are things that aren’t always affordable for someone in our community.”
“A dolphin,” one of the boys shouted. (To register.)
“You can swim with dolphins,” the girl said knowingly.
“People are paying a lot of money for this,” O’Brien said.
“Yeah, Joe got that money!” CJ said, before bursting into laughter.
“Joe, do you hear that? O’Brien called. “Apparently you are rich!”
As the adults laughed, CJ and the other three kids in the canoe momentarily fixed their eyes on the shore, where heavy earth-moving machinery and barges sat in the water.
“You see that over there guys,” the guide, a young woman, called from the stern of the canoe. “These all belong to the Army Corp. of Engineers.”
“Do you know what they are for?” asked the guide.
“It’s for a fight!”
“They’re about to drop a bomb!”
“There’s a crane over there, you see,” the guide continued.
“Ukraine?” said CJ.
The other three children started wondering if a dolphin would bite its hand if left in the water too long. But O’Brien’s son had more to share.
“Russia is in Europe, and Russia and Ukraine are fighting each other,” he said. “Like at Kenilworth.”