One of the most exciting experiences of recent months has been observing our team of community facilitators at work. Operating in pairs, they have delivered more than 40 presentations of Unpacking the 2010 Census: the new realities of race, class and jurisdiction. Most days one or two of them stop by the office to collect materials or to prepare for a presentation. They are drawn from different walks of life: social service agencies, small business, education, faith communities, and advocacy groups.
Poverty is increasing throughout metropolitan Richmond. The disparities in public education, access to transportation, healthcare, and affordable housing are the result of our history and they are rooted in the structures of our economic and political systems. Heroic efforts are made by countless organizations and volunteers to address the consequences of these unequal systems, but we need a deliberate, sustained effort to alter the basic structures that would enable residents to move out of poverty.
The goal of Hope in the Cities and our partner, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, is to raise awareness among a large number of area citizens and to encourage courageous, innovative and significant policy changes. We are not advocating specific solutions, but we do believe that poverty is everyone’s problem and that everyone is needed to create solutions.
This groundbreaking documentation of poverty is making waves in the region and it is even gaining attention around the country where countless communities face similar challenges. It combines compelling data on the current realities in the Richmond region along with a short history lesson on exclusionary policies that have resulted in concentrations of poverty. It also explores some of the key areas where new policies are urgently needed. Attendees are often startled by the facts (“I thought I knew but I really didn’t” is a typical comment) and energized for action.
The Chesterfield Observer newspaper made the project front-page news after a committee charged with making recommendations for managing future growth and needs saw the data indicating a 71 percent increase in poverty in the county over the past decade. Previously, poverty had not even been on the short-list of the committee’s priorities.
So far, more than 600 people have seen the presentation and taken part in the accompanying dialogue. Dr Bonnie Dowdy, our evaluator, has toiled long hours entering and interpreting data from pre- and post-surveys. This week, many of the participants gather to report back and plan next steps. What started as a one-year project is now emerging as a multi-year initiative. The big question is whether the information disseminated will generate an unstoppable grassroots movement for change.
The challenges facing the region are significant but by no means insurmountable if we have the will to tackle them. In a time of budget shortfalls, it is evident that city/county consolidation of government and services (police, fire, trash, etc) would generate large savings. Forty years after the region’s refusal to consolidate the region’s school districts, condemning the center city to carry the burden of a hugely disproportional percentage of at-risk students, surely it’s time for a radical rethink of all our schools by asking ourselves: “If every child were my child, what would I do differently?”
Some other localities have found that mixed-income housing successfully reduces concentrated poverty – in fact some studies show that inclusive housing policies are the single biggest factor in increasing overall family health and do not harm property values. Will the region embrace this approach?
If the Greater Richmond Transit Co. can’t come up with a genuinely accessible and affordable public transportation system because of jurisdictional shortsightedness, surely the business community with its considerable resources could design and run a flexible system that gets people to where the jobs are.
This is Richmond’s moment to do something bold, something unexpected, something that will move the whole community forward by grappling with issues that for too long we have believed are beyond our capacity to address.