BILL MOYERS: As we listened to Ed Wilson, my colleagues and I found ourselves talking about Diamond Teague. Diamond Teague came into our lives three and a half years ago in a report about some kids who live in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol but might as well be on the far side of the moon for all official Washington cares. They live in an impoverished neighborhood, riddled with violence and toxic waste. A river flows through it, dirty and dangerous from pollution. Diamond Teague and his pals found meaning in their lives as they set out to clean up the river and redeem their community. This report on the Earth Conservation Corps was produced by William Brangham and reported by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Darius Phillips would be the first to tell you that he was the kind of man you should be afraid of. People on the streets here in Washington DC used to call him "the Big Hurt."
DARIUS PHILLIPS: And you could say something about, say something to me, you didn't even have to say anything, you could look at me a different way, and I'm down your neck, just like that.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Phillips sold crack. He stole cars. He robbed taxi drivers. He's 22 years old.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: My whole philosophy at that particular time was never leave the house with less than $5,000 on you. You know, that's like, that was my quota for the day. I gotta put ten in the bank every day, and I always gotta walk around with five in my pocket, every day.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Lashauntya Moore is a 24-year-old welfare mother. Her brother's in prison for double homicide. She started having babies when she was in high school.
LASHAUNTYA MOORE: I had that fantasy that the guy, he loved me and we were gonna get married and we were gonna have a big house and take care of our baby. We were gonna have a good life and we were gonna be happy. So, that was my plan. And I told that to my father. And he was like, "You're living in a dream world."
ZWERDLING: There's not much reason to expect that these young people would ever make it out of this world. But now they're trying to transform their lives and they're doing it partly by transforming the area where they live.
DAVID SMITH: We're gonna focus on this area — cleanup on the exterior of the gate.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: A few months ago, they joined a non-profit program called the Earth Conservation Corps. The basic idea sounds simple: you recruit a few dozen young men and women from the community, even if they have criminal records or if they're dropouts, and you hire them to clean up and restore their neighborhood. But nothing is simple in this part of the nation's capital. Because we're not talking about this Washington, on the banks of the shining Potomac River, we're talking about this Washington, on the banks of the other river. They call the river and the neighborhood Anacostia. Most call this whole area "southeast." It's only a few blocks from the U.S. capitol, but it's one of the worst neighborhoods in America.
BOB NIXON: When we came here, you couldn't see the river standing here. There were trash heaps 100 feet high.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Bob Nixon used to be a Hollywood producer. He came to Washington in the early 1990s, to shoot a film about the environment. Nixon stayed and he set up the Earth Conservation Corps, because he felt he had to do something about this environment.
BOB NIXON: They didn't just dump trash here, they dumped people here. There are, you know, 90 percent of the public housing communities in Washington are, you know, within a mile and a half of this dump right here.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Every city has a place like southeast. This is where they put the projects, this is where they put the factories and the freeways. This is where everybody puts their pollution. But the killings along these streets give Washington its horrendous distinction: it has the highest murder rate of any major city in the country.
KEITH: Every day, every day, you know, "such and such died." You know, "such and such died."
LONG: Two friends of mine were killed. And my uncle was shot up at the same time. He was shot in the stomach with an A-K.
KEITH: My senior year of high school I had to go to 11 funerals. My senior year of high school.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: These young people say, when they first heard about the Earth Conservation Corps the last thing the cared about was cleaning up the environment. They were looking for a way to survive. The Corps pays roughly minimum wage. Plus they get health insurance and a $5000 scholarship if they go back to school.
But something clicks when they get out on the Anacostia, they go about a mile upstream, and they see their community in a new way.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: I live five, ten minutes away from here. And this is, this is not all I know, but this is where, this is a part of me. This is my heritage. And to be a part of something so beautiful, it's overwhelming when you look at it around here, and you can say that I'm a part of something so beautiful.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Phillips and the other corps members take videos wherever they go, so they can document their heritage and show how they're trying to save it.
JEROME GLOVER: I'm at the mouth of beaver dam right now, ready to take three more water samples.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The problem is, this river has become one of most polluted in America. You can't tell by looking at it, but health officials estimate that more than a billion gallons of raw sewage end up in the Anacostia, every year.
Today, the Corps is going out on one of its regular patrols. They've heard that raw sewage might be pouring into a tributary, illegally, and they're investigating. When they find suspect dumping, they report it.
JEROME GLOVER: My name is Jerome Glover of the Earth Conservation Corps. This is the first day of our testing of the water quality…
DARIUS PHILLIPS: What do you think this is?
JEROME GLOVER: I have no idea what it is. It hasn't rained in like, four or five days. In 24 hours, we'll know.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And the next morning, the results confirm what they suspected.
JEROME GLOVER: These big glops right here, it shows that the Anacostia is contaminated with fecal coliforms.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Fecal what?
JEROME GLOVER: Coliform. It's like human crap, for real. So, yeah. And there it is right there.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Bob Nixon says these Corps members are doing some of the work their government should be doing.
BOB NIXON: This is, in a lot of sense Ground Zero for a lot of issues that are facing our whole country. They're fighting environmental jus — people call it "environmental justice," I think it's "environmental injustice." All sorts of sort of injustices piled one on top of the other that they're trying to untangle.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When you talk to Corps members, they all give different reasons why they're caught up in this work.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: I love the research, because it's fun. It's like being a detective. You get to find out who's actually doing what, and we can write letters and get things to happen.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Another Corps member, Jerome Scott, says he wants to protect wildlife along this river.
JEROME SCOTT: I want to be a zoologist, a marine biologist, anything that has to do with animals. I love it.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Actually, he's already teaching a bit of science. Just about every morning, members of the Earth Conservation Corps and another nonprofit group take students from local schools out on the river. They're teaching the next generation about the environment. David Smith helps run the Corps. He's picked Jerome Scott to be one of the guides.
DAVID SMITH: Right now, he has an extensive knowledge on trees, greater than mine. An extensive knowledge on invasive and exotic species of plants, trees, and animals. He's done — man, I could go on for about 15 more minutes about just some of the accomplishments that he made last year.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Smith says, "picture Jerome Scott through the eyes of these kids from the inner city."
DAVID SMITH: You never see a black guy on a boat teaching environmental sciences. So, by seeing a black guy from D.C. on a boat, teaching you about pollution and environmental, aquatic vegetation, that sort of thing, it makes it more of a reality that you can achieve it yourself.
SCOTT: The kids think that the river's so dirty, you know, that there could be no way fish could be living in it. But we show there is fish living in it. They are some strong fish, you know? And I love the way they — their intensity, their fight, you know, to stay in this river.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So you love the fact that they're survivors?
JEROME: They're survivors. They're surviving fish. Exactly.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The Earth Conservation Corps has survived for more than ten years now. And that's a big accomplishment, especially when you consider the obstacles. More than half the kids who sign up end up dropping out, before they finish their one-year term. In the past, some left for better paying jobs, but other Corps members were on drugs, some got kicked out because they started fights. Corps members today say if they're really going to succeed, they have to re-make themselves. They have to unlearn the behavior that helped them get by on the streets.
DAVID SMITH: We got everybody here?
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Corps members now meet once a week at their headquarters, to learn how to deal with their anger.
DAVID SMITH: Remember in feedback, there are no negatives. "We accomplished this and we can improve this."
DARIUS PHILLIPS: Me? I'm very short tempered. I used to be very, very short tempered. And I will go off just like that.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Phillips says he almost got into a fight with a fellow Corps members just a few weeks ago. She got furious when he wouldn't help her with something, and she said she was going to kill him.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: And I said, "Is that a threat?" And usually if someone say, "Yes," then I'm down your throat in a physical way, and I'm gonna try and kill you. You say you're gonna kill me? Let me get at you first before you get to wherever you got to go.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: What'd you do differently this time?
DARIUS PHILLIPS: This time, I just, I relaxed. They tell you you have a short window where it's your "thinking process time." And you use that time right there to think about what happens if you do do something. That consequences is gonna follow behind that. But this time, I use all of my skills that day. And everybody was proud of me. My supervisor, you know, David, everybody was like, "Man, I don't believe you! You did it! You actually did it!"
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Still, no matter how much the Corps members change themselves, they can't control the outside world. Violence has become so common here in southeast Washington that it threatens everything the Corps stands for.
DIAMOND TEAGUE: Imagine this world without trees. It wouldn't be one.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: A few months ago, one of the Corps members was murdered.
DIAMOND TEAGUE: They're about to do this piece called "A Tree Grows" and I hope you enjoy it.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is Diamond Teague. He was one of the most charismatic young men who has ever joined the Corps. They say Teague worked so hard for the community that they jokingly called him "Choir Boy." He was shot in the head, in front of his house. He was 19 years old.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The day Teague was murdered, Corps members kept their cameras rolling, as always. They wanted to capture everyone's reaction as they heard the news.
DAVID SMITH: Jerome, let me talk to you, man.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Nobody wanted to break it to Jerome Scott. He was Diamond Teague's best friend.
DAVID SMITH: This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, man. Diamond got shot, man. He died, man. He died this morning around 9 o'clock. 9 a.m.
JEROME SCOTT: You playin'.
DAVID SMITH: I'm not playing, man. This is no joke, man. I wish it was a joke. His mother wants you to give her a call.
JEROME SCOTT: You're playin'.
DAVID SMITH: I'm not playin'.
JEROME SCOTT: You're playin'.
DAVID SMITH: I'm not playin' man, all right? Some Bama, man just walked up and shot him in the head on his front porch.
SCOTT: For no reason?
DAVID SMITH: No reason.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: This isn't the first time Jerome Scott has grieved for a best friend. When he was only ten years old, his buddy got shot to death right in front of him.
DAVID SMITH: You know God is with Diamond. So you'll be seeing him again, man. Give her a call. She needs you.
JEROME SCOTT: Okay.
DAVID SMITH: I wrote down her number. I'm sorry I had to be the one to tell you. You know, I'm sorry, man.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Since this project began, an average of one Corps member has been murdered almost every year. According to the Corps' records, one of their members was beaten to death. One was raped and killed. Another was riding his bike when he got caught in the middle of a shootout. Three were shot execution-style.
BOB NIXON: But he's not in here at all.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When Diamond Teague got killed, Corps members searched through the newspapers for some sort of article about his murder. They found 43 words in the Washington Post.
[POST Text] A teenager was found fatally shot about 2:05 a.m. Thursday in the 2200 block of Prout Place SW, police said. Diamond D. Teague, 19, who lived on the block, was pronounced dead... [End text]
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So Corps members have decided that they're going to tell the world about Diamond Teague.
MOORE: I want the people of this city to know that because a black man gets killed in southeast, he's not just a drug dealer or gangbanger or he had enemies. And not just to discount him as a nobody when he deserves for people to know him and to know his life.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Remember all that video the Corps been shooting? They're turning it into a kind of reality TV show.
DAVID SMITH: This is the ultimate reality show. This ain't The Real World.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Corps members want everyone to know about their lives here in Anacostia, in southeast Washington. They say, here we are working to save an endangered river, we're the ones who are in danger. They call their show: Endangered Species. They plan to run it on public access TV. Family and friends poured out for Diamond Teague's funeral. Members of the Earth Conservation Corps came too — in uniform. The Corps showed some of their video for the first time in public as a kind of eulogy. For Teague's family, the video offered a moment to celebrate. For Darius Phillips, Teague's death was a kind of beginning.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: It's tiresome to come to work, and you pick up the paper. "Young man slain, car accident, got shot, locked up." You get tired of hearing all of this negative stuff. So from this day forth, he's another person I put on my list to rededicate my life, so I can do something positive to get some kind of outcome, to change the world.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: It's three days after Teague's funeral, and Phillips and the rest of the Corps are back at work on the streets of southeast Washington. They've pressured the city to give them this dusty patch of land, squeezed between two factories. They're turning it into a public park.
DARIUS PHILLIPS: Okay, back in this area, over on this side is the park area, and I guess we will have benches and little tables and everything.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When Corps members talk about their work and how it'll affect their future, they sound as if there's no limit to what they can do.
MOORE: I know a lot about this river. I know a lot about pollution. And I know a lot about dumping rules and laws. So, that can lead me to the EPA. I know how to plant trees and do landscaping. That'll lead me to National Park Services. It really is a stepping-stone.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maybe she'll pull it off. Maybe the Corps members' dreams will come true. The program itself is constantly struggling. The Earth Conservation Corps has lost more than half its funding in the past few years. Foundations aren't giving what they used to.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you really seriously picture that anybody's gonna come out here with a picnic in a year and hang out in the middle of this ugly industrial area?
DARIUS PHILLIPS: We see the bigger picture. We're just the beginning of something that's gonna be beautiful. All great things have to start in the roughness. And I'd say in about a year or two, I'll bring my family out here and, and stand out here. Because I'm gonna be proud of something that I had a hand in doing. I helped construct this area. That's always gonna be a part of my life.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The Corps is planning to dedicate this project early next year. The mayor of Washington DC says he'll come. They're going to call it Diamond Teague Memorial Park.
BILL MOYERS: In the three and a half years since our report, violence has claimed the lives of more members of the Earth Conservation Corps. One of them was nineteen-year-old Aaron Teeter — a budding filmmaker when he was gunned down last April. He was a high school dropout with time in juvenile detention for dealing drugs. When he joined the Earth Conservation Corps his life began to turn around. He got interested in journalism, and began producing stories about school conditions, detention centers, and efforts to keep teens out of jail. He was working on a documentary about guns when he was shot dead. Two suspects in the murder are now awaiting trial.
Jerome Scott, the bright kid who wanted to work with animals, won a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — an honor he didn't live to enjoy. He died of leukemia, undiagnosed until the day it killed him. The university established a scholarship in Jerome's name. Its first recipient is another member of the Earth Conservation Corps, Derek Oshin. He's studying electro-engineering and has a 3.2 grade point average.
To date, nearly 400 young people have graduated from the Earth Conservation Corps — and helped over 30,000 people in the neighborhood learn about the here and now of the environment. There's more about the Earth Conservation Corps on pbs.org.
I'm Bill Moyers, hoping you'll join us again next week.