In Washington, D.C., the phrase “East of the River” is a common reference to Anacostia, a historic neighborhood that has been associated with low-income housing, poverty, and the highest homicide rates in the city. But in recent years the community has seen a resurgence of businesses, restaurants, and—thanks to the efforts of alumna Sariane Leigh, MA ’09—health and wellness initiatives.
“Anacostia gets a bad rap,” said Leigh, who moved to Anacostia when she enrolled in Columbian College’s Women’s Studies Master’s Program. “Yes, the area lacks services, but residents truly care and look out for each other.”
In pursuing her master’s degree, Leigh focused on the impact of social issues on women and the modern family. She wrote her thesis on how women in Sierra Leone use spirituality as a tool for recovery from war-related trauma—a theory she put to practical use when she lost her mother to diabetes in 2003 and began practicing yoga to combat her grief.
Upon graduating from GW, Leigh was motivated to pursue a path of action that matched her personal passions and professional goals. She focused her attention on the Anacostia community, where she recognized there was a great deal of discussion about the neighborhood’s community health issues, but a lack of services to solve those problems.
“After reading the dismal statistics about pollution in the Anacostia River, women and HIV, the obesity rates, and the income disparities, I couldn't find any resources for the everyday resident on how to prevent these problems,” said Leigh. “I was inspired to put health on the table.”
In 2009, she began teaching free yoga classes at Anacostia community centers, such as Covenant House, Barry Farms Recreation, and Health Exercise Attitude Training (H.E.A.T.) Haven. She later earned her certification as a Pilates instructor and expanded her course offerings to the Hillcrest Recreation and Spirit Anacostia. Her blog, Anacostia Yogi, provides information about wellness programs, yoga classes in Anacostia, and opportunities for the public to volunteer and support yoga and health programs.
“The community wants more than the standard colorful health pamphlets and one day workshops,” said Leigh. “Regular yoga classes, healthy cooking classes, and honest conversations about health have helped ignite change from the inside out.”
Beyond teaching, Leigh plans to expand her philosophy and success with Anacostia Yogi. She is currently developing a social entrepreneurial venture that will bring innovative health programming to communities similar to Anacostia—including the Bronx, Oakland, and the Southside of Chicago—where low-income women face the same health challenges.
“Using a culturally customized health approach works,” said Leigh. “We see measurable change in our community and I want to expand that. Blogging and teaching yoga is an easy, affordable and accessible way to share information about preventive health services. All it takes is one nail to start building a house!”