Saturday, December 17, 2016

Making a Difference One Step at a Time

What do we do now?

While that question could easily apply to every aspect of life, love and cookie baking, for Thursday night's event at the Main Library - "RVA Together: What Do We Do Now?" - it applied to what the city needs to do now that we've elected a mayor who can hopefully bridge our race, class and appalling administration issues.

Despite the polar vortex, I insisted on walking and Mac (who'd warned me she'd look like Cousin It because of all her layers) and I had no problem scoring seats in the second row as moderator (and Randolph Macon prof) Richard Meagher warned us that the library had a fire drill scheduled, but that we should sit tight if it went off.

Of course, that goes against everything we were taught in elementary school, but it mattered not because they somehow managed to get the library to cancel the drill.

Including moderator Richard, the panel was half black and half white (nice to see for a change and completely appropriate given the evening's purpose) and included activist Sean Smith and human rights activist Lorraine Wright, along with three members of Stoney's transition team, namely everyone's City Council hero Jon Baliles, school board chair Jeff Bourne, and UR prof Thad Williamson.

If only the audience had been that diverse, but, alas, it skewed far too white.

Each panelist got 5 minutes to share their thoughts and Smith got the evening off to a firebrand start with his call to mobilize, a strident appeal without apology. I understood exactly where he was coming from, but I couldn't speak for everyone.

Standing so he could move about, Baliles exhorted us to get involved by stepping out of our comfort zone and volunteering in a public housing neighborhood. "Make a difference one step at a time."

Bourne (who won the best socks award, hands down) told people to get involved to address the systemic problems with our mediocre school system because until children are shown the caring and consistency they're not getting at home, nothing will change.

Williamson explained that poverty and education are basically the same issue and praised the current mayor's Community Wealth Building initiative as a way to address inherent inequalities, albeit slowly.

Like Baliles, Wright stood to deliver her heated message about how we must be truthful about our own role in what's happening with our city, even going so far as to call out school superintendent Bourne for mishandling of an autistic student's expulsion ("Silence is permission"). She was very clear that we need to start holding our elected officials accountable, particularly the mess that is the General Assembly.

All in all, it was a diverse panel of very change-minded people coming at our next course of action with different agendas.

Where things really got interesting was when audience members got up to speak or ask questions and while they were directed to ask about action items for the new administration, many just wanted to express opinions.

One white woman couldn't understand why everyone didn't just focus on how much better Richmond is now than it used to be, a point that drew ire from panelists who pointed out that people who are scraping by to pay rent and put food on the table don't have the time or energy to partake of our city's vibrant food scene, impressive art presence or ridiculously over-hyped brewery growth.

Wright brilliantly brought up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, explaining politely to the woman that many people weren't even aware of that stuff, much less able to participate in it, while Smith made clear that her viewpoint comes from a position of privilege.

Of course, there were crazies, too, like the older black woman who rambled about spanking kids to teach them, the folly of letting TV raise them and questioning why Richmond had legalized pot ("No, ma'am, it didn't," she was told). The panel heard her out, but no commentary was offered because none was required.

A black man brought up how different the school experience was for a student of color than one who was white, a point born out by countless studies and the school-to-prison pipeline.

A young black woman who'd run for City Council in my neighborhood asked each panelist if they thought we are in our own Civil Rights period and, if so, whose civil rights they were concerned about. Most panelists claimed to not understand the question.

Most stirring was a black woman from Highland Park who'd noticed that kids in her neighborhood faced a gap between free lunches at school and a free lunch summer program, so she and some neighbors banded together to offer it, along with a summer day program giving them something to do.

Rather than asking about an action item, she neatly summed up the best answer of all: when you see a need, figure out how you can address it.

By the time we got to the last guy in line, his question had been answered, but he made a good period to the evening by summing up what he'd heard while waiting for his turn.

Everyone on the panel suggested getting involved in a poor neighborhood, doing whatever is needed. Contact schools, community centers and after-school programs, but make a difference in the life of a child if you want to see a better Richmond.

I've long believed that every societal problem can be traced back to poor parenting and until we start teaching teenagers how to parent, we can hardly expect them to instinctively know how to shape a human life because it's not only challenging, it's a 24/7 job and too few parents give it that devotion.

Caring and consistency really do determine how a little person views the world and his or her place in it.

My fervent wish is that our new mayor places laser-like attention on ensuring that every child of every color and economic class is treated like the worthwhile future Richmond resident he/she is from birth. Without a shift in that priority, we are doomed to repeat the cycle and no amount of First Friday artwalks and breweries will matter.

What do we do now? Holding the privileged white people accountable would be a fine start, don't you think?

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