Last night I helped host the event, RVA Together: What Do We Do Now? As we noted at the event, the "results" will be posted by my co-hosts on RVADirt.com and the RVATogether Facebook page, and an audio recording will eventually be available as a podcast and broadcast on WRIR’s Open Source RVA.
The event, I think, was successful, but not for the exact reasons I originally thought.
The idea was to generate a list of action items. We wanted to take the energy generated from this fall’s political campaign -- both the positive energy from Levar Stoney’s mayoral win and the negative energy (at least here in mostly-Democratic Richmond) from Trump's surprise victory -- and turn it towards civic involvement. And we did some of that. But an odd thing happened on the way to our to-do list. Race and class kept creeping into our conversation.
Actually, maybe that's not so odd; it may have even been by design. We wanted to make sure that the panel we put together wasn’t just a representation of the city's establishment, or even the incoming powers that be.
We invited three members of Levar Stoney’s transition team – transition Director Thad Williamson, outgoing City Councilman Jon Baliles, and School Board chair Jeff Bourne. We thought they could help tell us what the incoming administration might need in terms of civic involvement, and they largely did that.
But we also invited two citizen activists: Lorraine Wright, head of the social justice nonprofit I Vote For Me, and former School Board candidate Sean Smith. Both happen to be black. Both had some things to say that, in the end, the (predominantly white) audience maybe was not expecting to hear.
Sean, in his opening statement and in his comments throughout, offered a challenge to RVA boosters: who, he asked, is benefiting from the Richmond Renaissance, and who is left out? Are we actively engaged with the city’s poor and minority neighborhoods? Are we willing to take on the hard work of helping the city's worst-off residents?
Lorraine offered a more personal challenge, calling out another panelist. She told the story of a student being wrongly arrested in school earlier that week, and suggested that Jeff Bourne's passivity on the School Board was allowing it to happen. "Silence is permission," she scolded him.
These activists continued to challenge attendees and panelists alike. One undoubtedly well-meaning questioner wondered why we couldn’t focus on the positive aspects of the city, especially to bring in outside resources like revenue-generating businesses. Sean, politely but persistently, continued to encourage her to think out the kind of privileged position that she occupied. Not every resident of RVA could see these positive changes, he warned her, so she really needed to listen to those people’s experiences before dismissing them.
"Privilege" has become a dirty word in some circles, especially in Trump’s America. But Richmond's establishment -- and not just the west-end whites that have traditionally run this city, but the city’s white upper/middle class more broadly -- needs to confront this very idea if RVA is going to make good on its promises to all its citizens.
Before the election, I wrote that there were two competing problems facing the city, and which mayoral candidate you voted would indicate which problem you thought was most important. A vote for (white, west-end) Jack Berry was a vote for better public administration. The city government was a mess, and Berry, the consummate administrator, had the best skill set for turning that around.
The other problem? Inequality. There was a lot of discussion during the election of "Two Richmonds:" white vs. black, rich vs. poor, west end vs. east end. One RVA was thriving, with a new craft brewery and restaurant around every corner. The other was suffering from violent crime, crumbling schools, and a lack of economic opportunity. A vote for Stoney -- young, black and well-connected -- was a vote for the candidate who had the best chance of bringing the two Richmonds together.
Stoney won, of course -- but only with little more than a third of the vote. So not everyone may be convinced that inequality is our biggest problem. Last night's event could be seen as one step in the process of persuading them.
So we did hear some helpful suggestions on what to do with your time on a practical level, on everything from mentoring to working in community groups. (I let one lovely woman from a Highland Park group ramble on a bit, but it was hard to cut her off when she was running through a host of practical things her group does to improve her neighborhood.) Of course, there were also people with axes to grind. There was even a reminder to spank your kids. (Actually, don't.)
But what was most productive about last night was the broader conversation. We -- and by "we" I mean the liberal white Richmonders who made up the majority of the audience -- were confronted by some smart and dedicated activists who reminded us that not everyone in the city is RVA-Happy. It’s an important message, and one I am hopeful that the incoming Stoney administration will take to heart.
This wasn't the conversation I expected last night. But I think it's the one we need.