Studying Richmond

Studying Richmond

December 15, 2011
Students get an in-depth look at the history, politics of the city

What’s so interesting about the city of Richmond?

As students who took part in Dr. Thad Williamson and Dr. Amy Howard's first-year seminar History and Politics of Richmond will tell you, quite a lot.

The city’s demographics, economics, geography and politics make it an interesting place to live and study. But the city’s history of slavery, civil war and civil rights make it a particularly good topic for a first-year seminar.

“Our basic aim was that students learn both about the history of Richmond and how that history shapes the current issues facing the city, at a fairly high level of detail,” says Williamson, who co-taught the community-based learning course with Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. “We also had the goal of showing why local politics are important and of providing a model of how to really dig and learn about the history of a locality, be it Richmond or somewhere else. “

Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, and Howard took a hands-on approach to the seminar. They didn’t want students to just read and talk about Richmond—they wanted to get them out of the classroom and into the city.

“We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to connect students directly with both leading scholars of Richmond and prominent civic and political leaders,” says Williamson. Once a month students had the opportunity to meet with leaders so they could “get a glimpse of how power in the city operates in practice.”

Guest speakers for the class included longtime columnist and reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Paul Williams, and Bill Pantele, former City Council member and runner-up in the 2008 mayoral election. Among the most memorable was Mayor Dwight Jones, with whom the students met privately to learn more about his vision for the city.

Williamson and Howard have been collaborating on a book-length study of contemporary Richmond that addresses the influence of leadership on the city’s most pressing problems over the past generation, and they were able to bring that knowledge to the classroom. Williamson also cites serving on the mayor’s advisory committee on redistricting this past spring and summer as instrumental in shaping the seminar. “It allowed me to understand much better the political history of the city and allowed me to see the workings of City Hall and City Council first hand.”

Likewise, Howard brought insights to the class based on her experience as a member of the Richmond Planning Commission.

“The class was a great platform not only for getting to know more about the city, but for getting insight into urban politics elsewhere in the U.S,” says Aaron Timberlake, ’15.

On more basic level, the course helped familiarize those new to Richmond with the city they will call home for the next four years. “As an international student, the seminar provided an opportunity for me to become a part of the community and not just a student residing in the community,” says Kenton Meronard, ’15

Even Richmond natives walked away from the course with an entirely new perspective on the city. “About 25 percent of the students were from the Richmond metro area,” Williamson points out, “but most knew almost nothing about the city when the course started. We are confident they all know quite a bit about Richmond now.”