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Elevation Q&A: Walter Smith, DC Appleseed executive director, on HIV, clean water, and home rule

Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed

Name a problem in the District — one for which a lawyer’s prowess would be particularly helpful — and DC Appleseed is probably on it.

The local nonprofit has been deploying pro-bono lawyers to chip away at the city’s peskiest problems for nearly 20 years.

The organization “tries to be responsive to what’s going on in the city,” to find the issues most worth its attention, says executive director Walter Smith. Of late, those issues have included reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the city and suggesting the best approach for cleaning up the Anacostia River. DC Appleseed also pushes for public policies that support District budget autonomy and jobs for residents — and Smith said the team exists to build on and synthesize the work of other groups.

The nonprofit has leveraged hundreds of lawyers’ hours toward issues much larger than its seven-person staff. With an ever-evolving slate of D.C. problems, we talked to Smith about the issues that matter most now.
How did DC Appleseed get started and what were the big issues its founders were working to address at the time? 
It was started in 1994 by a group of Harvard Law graduates who wanted to… address important public policy questions facing the city and the region and to do so by drawing on pro bono law firm support.

At the beginning, I think that the organization was focused primarily on financial issues. Back in the mid- to late-90s, the city was in pretty dire financial straits, on the verge of bankruptcy. So some of the early issues had to do with budgeting, federal support for the city and unfunded pension liabilities.

Over time, though, the agenda and the scope of the issues have broadened quite a lot.
What's the project you're most known for in D.C.?
One of our best-known projects is that we have taken on is the issue of improving the District of Columbia’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. We issued a major report on that several years ago that helped transform the city’s response to the epidemic [by urging the District to adopt measures like condom distribution and needle exchanges].
Budget autonomy for the District is a key issue you're working on now. Why has this come to the forefront and what progress has been made? 
The city for a long time has been trying to bring full democracy to the residents of the District. I would say, other than trying to achieve statehood, the three areas that have received the most attention are trying to get voting rights in the Congress, trying to get legislative autonomy and trying to allow the city to decide for itself how it will spend its own money.

All three of those efforts have for many years, maybe decades, been part of efforts on Capitol Hill.

DC Appleseed played a pretty important role in developing a new strategy to advance those goals. Instead of trying to get legislation passed in Congress, we explored the possibility of instead passing those things locally… then leaving it to the Congress to have to overturn those things in order to keep them from becoming law.

Our first effort to get budget autonomy enacted into law through that strategy [was successful]. In November, the Council passed legislation authorizing a citizens’ referendum that was on the ballot in April and passed by huge majority. Then Congress had 35 legislative days to overturn such a referendum in both houses, followed by a presidential signature.

A week or two ago, the 35 days expired, so as of this moment the budget autonomy referendum has succeeded. It’s binding in the District and on Congress. Soon the Council will be planning how to implement it.
What can and does your team bring to the Anacostia cleanup effort that's perhaps unique? 
I’m glad you mentioned that one. We had a huge amount of pro bono expertise available to us from several law firms that are experts in environmental law.

We issued a major report three years ago saying, "Here’s the state of play; this is why it’s important; This is what remains to be done," and made pretty specific recommendations on how we thought the local and federal government could — and business ventures should — be cooperating.

When we released it, key players were all there to support what we had to say, which meant we knew our recommendations had a good chance of being implemented — and some already have been, with stormwater control and the toxics cleanup. That is one of the key things that has be addressed to clean up the river is to clean up the toxic sediment. Our work has been instrumental in starting to move that forward. 
Your organization touches on such a diversity of issues; how would you describe the common thread among them? Or how do you pick which ones to focus on?
Our process for picking issues is fairly ad hoc. The big important issue is where we think we can add value to what’s already being done. All of our issues are ones where other organizations have already been involved before we came on the scene. Our role is to synthesize and… summarize the big picture, to try to come up with a comprehensive view about what ought to be done now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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