Bonner Scholar Lauren Taflinger, ’15, majored in political science and leadership studies. She made the following remarks on April 8, 2015, during the annual Bonner Scholars Presentations of Learning, sharing what she had learned during her four years of service at the Richmond-based nonprofit Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT).
When I applied to the University of Richmond, I asked Gil Villanueva in the Office of Admissions what one piece of advice he would offer an incoming Spider. What hadn’t students taken advantage of that they should have? He replied without hesitation: “Take advantage of the city.”
It didn’t take much convincing. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, has historic truths in its veins; provocative stories echo through the halls of museums and on battlefields where the North and South fought, brother against brother. As a lover of American history and political science, I was hooked.
I wanted to get downtown, to etch away at the social and political implications of slavery, gaze at the tombstones of soldiers and learn their stories. Who were they? What motivated them? What could they have done differently? What prejudices, social constructs, and truths beat through the heart of the South? I wanted to get to know this place that I would call home for the next four years.
This is what I considered history—bodies at rest under dampened soil, hollowed out buildings that once held significance now open to the public for a small fee, literary pieces written by influential minds—the good and the bad alike, all protected behind glass so that one could read the words but not touch them, for fear that oils might dissolve ink or damage paper.
But what I’ve learned is that this isn’t history at all. This is the bones of history, but not the body—the living, breathing entity that encompasses society.
Visiting all the places I considered “historic” and valuable didn’t take long. In fact, I crossed many of them off the list my first year here—the first month, if I’m being honest. Could the lessons and tales of the South really have been encompassed in these few places I perused?
Luckily, my exploration of Richmond was expanded with my acceptance into the Bonner Scholars Program. I knew that the many Bonner enrichment activities, class adventures, and service would get me off campus. I would be doing my service at Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, or CHAT, a nonprofit located in Church Hill, a historic, yet impoverished, Richmond neighborhood. Two days a week I would stop by to work one-on-one with a student on homework and literacy skills.
CHAT prides itself on its one-to-one ratio of tutors to students and the lasting relationships fostered through this service commitment. Throughout my four years at UR, I worked with two CHAT students for a period of about two years each.
The first girl, Angela (pseudonym), was a third grader who was spunky, downright sassy, and at least at her grade level of learning, if not above. She loved coloring and math and had five siblings at home. But I also learned that her teacher told her not to be friends with white people and her classmates taunted her, calling her stupid. Fights were a frequent occurrence. She didn’t know her father, and she didn’t feel safe walking the two blocks to home at night.
Being my first exposure to Church Hill and the students of CHAT, these things shocked me—especially the racist comments of her teacher. However, Angela and I grew close throughout the tutoring. Then one day she stopped showing up. I was told she was evicted from her house and had to relocate to a different part of the city—a possibility I never recognized as a reality for her.
During the interim before I was matched with my current student, D'Asia (pseudonym), I no longer had a student to tutor, so I worked with another kid who was tutored regularly by another University of Richmond student. His name was Dustin (pseudonym). Dustin was also very intelligent and equally as quiet, minus the fits of crying or rage that erupted every so often.
I was nervous about filling the shoes of another tutor who had developed such a close relationship with Dustin. The first time I tutored him we were sitting outside reading “The Giver” when shouts erupted from the home next door. Abusive language reverberated from the walls. I felt awkward. Do I say something? Move inside? Dustin decided to speak up. I learned that his mother was abusing drugs and his father had been in jail Dustin’s entire life and probably would remain there. He told me that his tutor served as a father figure for him and that he wanted to be there for his kids.
I had frequent experiences like this at CHAT: stories of kids with no support at home, or inadequate educations, or those who didn’t know how to express their frustration with words. I asked myself, why is this happening? Racial slurs in the classroom, children stuck in a cycle of poverty.
The UR classroom afforded me clarification that no number of museums could teach me. I learned about the historic racial divide in Richmond and the education gap—both perpetuated aspects of history I had thought vanished with time. Slavery had gripped the South, especially Richmond, and left it with a white populace who had to reconcile with a race they had chosen to degrade and, at times, despise.
This reconciliation process wasn’t easy in the heart of the South. Massive resistance and white flight prompted an atmosphere that stifled political, economic, and social advancement, although the law deemed both whites and blacks equal. As blacks in Richmond were isolated in the city with lower economic and political status, there was also the degradation of education systems due to lack of funding, real-estate bias, and lack of transportation to both schools and jobs.
Building the interstate created a literal divide between white and black communities. The divide still exists today and perpetuates a vicious cycle of inequality, poverty, and crime.
History does not just fade with the colors of a flag encased in a museum or erode like the Civil War battlegrounds. It is entrenched in something much more than artifacts. It ebbs and flows through societal laws, both formal and informal; in the decisions to construct social divides; in the choices politicians, educators, judiciaries, and we make every day.
It rears its head in the fact that some school districts must choose between hiring quality teachers, providing emotional support, or giving kids the materials they need in the classroom. But children can’t succeed with just one of these components—they need all three.
History speaks through the racist words found in a third-grade classroom, the students who tell each other they aren’t good enough, even in the shouts that echo in a household while kids try to learn.
My time at CHAT has illustrated that we aren’t doomed to repeat history because we continue to make the same mistakes, but rather because we aren’t seeking to make changes, to connect the past to the present, to recognize that history is not just words in a textbook and that these mistakes are not finite—they did not freeze in snippets of time left for the blame of our ancestors, but are rather percolated in the now.
I hope that as I move into what we seniors so ominously deem “the real world,” with the goal of working in public policy one day, that I’m not afraid to address this reality. I hope that as a society we aren’t afraid to have open conversations about issues that aren’t so easily addressed or that might make us uncomfortable. Because we should not be asking, who were they? What motivated them? What could they have done differently? But rather, we should be asking, who are we? What motivates us? What can we do differently?