The question gave Thad Williamson pause. "What are you doing to address poverty in Richmond and engage the city?"
He didn’t have a good answer for the astute student who asked during a class discussion nearly a decade ago. Now he does. And he is passionate about the answer.
It includes everything from serving on the mayor’s anti-poverty commission to coaching a “street soccer” team comprised of homeless men. And it means that community engagement is more than a concept on his syllabus or important part of The Richmond Promise. It’s something he does on a daily basis.
“It didn’t seem like the right answer to just tell her that I was working on a book about it to get tenure or teaching courses like Justice and Civil Society,” says Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law (PPEL), who was new to Richmond then.
He knew he needed to roll up his sleeves and get to work. “I realized I needed to practice what I was teaching,” he says.
Now he lives in a racially integrated, mixed-income neighborhood with significant poverty and mentors children who live nearby. He coaches youth basketball in the city. He is on the Richmond Regional Economic Development Strategy Committee. And last month he put his academic knowledge to work to author a report by the anti-poverty commission that identifies ways the city and its leadership can tackle the problem.
In short, he puts theory to practice.
Justice and Civil Society
Putting theory to practice is what he asks students in his Jepson School of Leadership Studies classes to do.
“I wanted to do more of what students in my Justice and Civil Society classes were doing,” he says. The course requires 24-30 hours of service with a nonprofit organization in addition to classwork. Students go on police ride-alongs and get acquainted with the world outside the University. It is a requirement for Jepson School students and Bonner Scholars.
But it’s not a proselytizing course. “There is no specific ideological viewpoint it is geared toward. It’s meant to get students thinking and realize there are a variety of views about justice,” he says.
Kacie Lundy, ’14, took the course last spring and was better able to understand nonprofits and her interest in them. “Dr. Williamson’s enthusiasm is infectious,” she says. “He really communicates his experiences.”
Williamson is engaging the community even more this semester. He is on sabbatical and spending much of his time in a faculty in residence pilot position at UR Downtown writing and working with the mayor’s office to ensure the commission’s recommendations are implemented.
To write the report, he “worked with key recommendations six committees put forth and was able to mold them into a coherent narrative.” The task was perfect for a respected academic whose research focuses heavily on urban politics and sprawl, community economic development and politics in the city.
His current book project is a look at Richmond politics. He is working on it with Amy Howard, executive director of the University’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.
And now, almost a decade later, Williamson knows he finally has a good answer to his student’s question.
As much as possible.