Lora Nunn Works to Improve the Anacostia Watershed

“That’s what Lora does — she shows up.”

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Lora Nunn. Photo: Liz O'Gorek

If there’s a clean river project going on near her home in Kingman Park, Lora Nunn probably knows something about it. On any given weekend, she can be found wading thigh-deep in the Anacostia River, meticulously measuring mussels.

Nunn, a clean river activist and mother in her mid-40s, regularly volunteers with the Anacostia Watershed Society’s project to reintroduce mussels, which naturally filter water and eat harmful bacteria, to the river.

Nunn documents totals and measurements as part of Anacostia Watershed Society’s Freshwater Mussel Restoration Workday on August 11, 2020. Photo: Jeffrey Campell

“The river affects everyone’s life, whether they realize it or not,” Nunn said. “There had become a certain complacency with the idea that, ‘Oh, the Anacostia is just a dirty river,’ without really acknowledging that there was something that we could do about it. And I think that now, helping people see that there is something they can do, and how much it does impact their quality of life­—it really struck a chord with me.”

Nunn serves as the vice president for Friends of Kingman and Heritage Islands, a nonprofit she helped found in 2018 to protect the man-made islands next to RFK stadium, home to a popular city-owned park and a thriving Anacostia River ecosystem.

Every other month, she meets with other Anacostia River activists as part of the Anacostia Watershed Community Advisory Committee. She also attends meetings as a liaison for the city’s Anacostia River Sediment Project, collecting community feedback on how the Department of Environment and Energy should address pollutants that lurk in the riverbed’s soil.

“One of the great things about the Anacostia River community is that all the organizations that work on the river really work together,” she said. “And because Kingman and Heritage Islands are kind of the midway point in the river along the DC section of the Anacostia, a lot of groups use the islands as a meeting place.”

Anacostia River and watershed activists are close-knit community, often congregating at a bar or someone’s home after official Community Advisory Committee meetings, to continue the discussion.

Lora painted the fence around Kingman island in rainbow colors. Hiking club ran into her while she was doing the deed. Photo: Elizabeth Nelson

Nunn credits a few Anacostia River boat tours led by Anacostia Riverkeeper Trey Sherard as one of the early experiences that drew her into the world of volunteer river cleanup. The two activists met through the work before realizing they were neighbors.

“She was at a bunch of meetings around Kingman Island; she started coming to other meetings about the Anacostia River,” Sherard said. “She’d be at these meetings with both kids, and then she was just suddenly at all of the meetings I was going to.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Anacostia Riverkeeper Trey Sherard has spent many afternoons hanging out in Nunn’s front yard. Nunn said he’s “practically [an] uncle” to her eight-year-old daughter, Faris, and five-year-old son, King.

Nunn, who also has a 20-year-old stepson, cites “raising good kids,” as her personal biggest achievement and says her children inspire her to push for a cleaner watershed. As a DC native, she has fond childhood memories of spending time riverside — but not on the Anacostia.

“In the ‘80s, we weren’t spending any time in Anacostia, it was really all the Potomac River,” Nunn said. “But when I had kids of my own, I was like, ‘Oh, I should really do some of the things that I did with my mom and really get them comfortable with nature and the importance of having a clean river.’”

“As long as I have known her, Lora has been an activist,” Nunn’s husband, Jim Faris, said. “She comes from an activist family in a lot of ways, from her mother signing up people to vote and taking her to marches in Washington.”

After going to college at Oberlin University and law school at the University of Michigan, Nunn spent twelve years with the anti-smoking campaign Truth. That experience, she said, helped her develop skills she now relies on to help Friends of Kingman and Heritage Islands grow.

“One important piece of my anti-tobacco work was working with grassroots groups and really focusing in on having people that know the communities reach out to those communities,” Nunn said, going on to note that her nonprofit experiences have “really focused on creative solutions and figuring out how to draw people in in unexpected ways.”

Creative outreach has been particularly essential in her efforts to improve racial representation among people working in environmental activism. The task can be challenging, Nunn said, both because much of the work is unpaid and because historically Black neighborhoods like Kingman Park are quickly gentrifying.

Jorge Bogantes Montero, who spearheads the Anacostia Watershed Society’s mussels project, said he sees getting a more diverse base of people involved as a high priority, especially as a Latino environmentalist.

“[Nunn] is a great role model,” Bogantes Montero said. “That’s part of our role, to try to engage more people, because here at AWS, we’re like 20 staff — we’re not going to save the river. We need the help of the people, and our watershed is very diverse.”

Bogantes Montero described Nunn as a “go-getter” volunteer who “does whatever is needed without complaining.” She is also recognized in the community as an expert on Kingman and Heritage Islands; before the pandemic, the U.S. Forestry Service invited her to speak about her experience as part of a three-work course for international park workers.

“I walked with them through the islands and talked about our efforts to protect the park as urban development things happen around us,” she said. “That was a really awesome opportunity to meet these park professionals from around the world.”

When she discusses her work, Nunn consistently focuses on forging connections with other people and organizations within the Anacostia watershed community and beyond it. She returns, over and over, to praising the work of other activists with whom she collaborates, such as Friends of Oxon Run’s Brenda Richardson and Ward 8 Woods Conservancy’s Nathan Harrington.

“She is always thinking about others, and how she can do something for somebody else or be there for somebody else, and the importance of her showing up,” Faris said. “That’s what Lora does — she shows up.”