Thursday, March 24, 2016

Unpacking the Census“This is a testament to the difference that citizens working together with policy makers can make,” said Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones addressing a forum attended by more than 150 area residents who had come to assess the impact of five years of sustained efforts to reduce poverty and to discuss next steps. Jones was joined by Tyrone Nelson, chair of Henrico County Board of supervisors, and Carrie Conyer, vice chair of the of Chesterfield County School Board, underscoring the reality that poverty is now a regional challenge, not just a city issue. The forum was organized by Hope in the Cities (HIC) and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC) in partnership with the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building. It was hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Tom Silvestri, the president and publisher, welcomed the participants.

Mayor Jones recalled that in 2011, at a forum organized by HIC and VCIC, he had announced the formation of the city’s first Anti-Poverty Commission tasked with developing “realistic strategies for serous change.” The movement to address poverty was given impetus by HIC and VCIC which used 2010 Census data compiled by Dr. John Moeser of the University of Richmond to create a video and then trained 40 facilitators to conduct community conversations across the region.

Mayor Dwight C JonesThe mayor pointed to the creation of the Office of Community Wealth Building, “recognized nationally as a promising model for implementing a holistic approach to poverty reduction, working across all the key sectors – employment, transportation, housing and education.” He said, “We need to understand that [systemic poverty] is no accident – it’s the result of policy decisions made generations ago to cement in place the patterns of segregation that have defined our city for so long…. You can’t undo 400 years of history overnight.” The ambitious goal is to move 10,000 families out of poverty by 2030, 1000 a year, one family at a time. Jones invited his audience to “imagine what this Richmond of 2030 would be like if we achieved these goals….We can heal our city and bring real hope to all our citizens.”

According to John Moeser, 54% of families in Richmond have incomes of less than $45,000 which means their children are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch. But Moeser said that from 2000 to 2014 poverty grew 59 percent in Chesterfield County and 73 percent in Henrico County and there are now more people living in poverty in the suburban counties than in the city. “This is the reason we can’t stop with an anti-poverty campaign within just the city. It won’t work that way….The city has taken action. When will the counties join this effort to address poverty? When will the Office of Community Wealth Building become regional?”

Carrie Conyer, who represents the poorest area of Chesterfield County and has children in the local schools, said, “In Chesterfield we don’t talk a lot about poverty, we’ve avoided the topic.” She noted that the way neighborhoods are planned can hide the problem. “We’ve made it convenient. There is poverty but we don’t see it.” The right kind of development should not push people out, but should make sure there are jobs – not just minimum wage jobs – that enable people to move forward. “My goal is to have elementary schools zoned where people of all income levels can find housing they can afford.” Tyrone Nelson emphasized the need to “combat poverty beginning with our school system” and he highlighted Henrico’s increased budget for education. He also called for expanding bus lines beyond the county lines.

Unpacking the CensusDr. Thad Williamson, who directs the Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB), said, “Ultimately poverty is about money. So employment is at the center of our strategy. We are pursuing systemic change….What does it take to move a whole family out of poverty?” The OCWB relies on substantial partnerships among nonprofits, city agencies, the philanthropic community, universities, and businesses. Last year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation made a grant toward early childhood development. “Citizenry has to be informed and take it seriously,” said Williamson. “Politics of shame will not get it done.  A goal of his office is to “create a culture of collaboration to achieve collective impact.”

The participants broke in animated small group conversations and filled out index cards with ideas and commitments. In closing the session Qasarah Spencer, who runs the Micah Initiative that encourages mentoring, tutoring and volunteering involving 130 faith communities in 23 schools, said, “It is easy to forget that structures are created by people like you and me. So we are really talking about changing people, changing us. So if you are looking for a day when ‘they’ fix what is broken in our community, remember we are the ‘they’ and that day is always today.” 

News story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Story in Richmond Magazine
A collection of the social media posts

John Moeser Presentation
Thad Williamson Presentation