By Thad Williamson

Like many natives of Chapel Hill, N.C., I hold a special place in my heart for the opening night of college basketball season. As the curtain went up on the 2012–13 season, I was excited to bring along my two young neighbors, Dayshaun and Tijaysha (then ages 11 and 12), and daughter, Sahara (then 5), to the Robins Center to see the Richmond Spiders dismantle Liberty University in impressive fashion.

With just a few minutes to go in the game, however, I received a panicked phone call from my wife bearing news that would soon change Dayshaun and Tijaysha’s life. An accidental house fire was consuming their Byrd Park home just a few doors down the street from us. We rushed out of the arena, and I told the siblings the news, reassuring them that their mother and older brother had escaped and were OK.

We drove home in uncharacteristic silence punctuated by understandable outbursts of anxiety from the kids. By the time we arrived, the fire had been extinguished, but the large fire trucks were still there along with many gathered neighbors. The children embraced their mom, and we all burst spontaneously into tears. The family gathered what they could, and then the Red Cross picked them up to go check into a motel near The Diamond.

That house fire sent a fragile family, one that had already borne more than its share of tragedy and trauma, into a crisis, as their mother Lashonda, a Richmond native and high school graduate, fought to keep her family from falling into homelessness. Their former home had been a rental and was too damaged to return to. Lashonda had a long work history but had been recently unemployed and had no cash on hand.

Neighbors, a local church, and the city’s department of social services pitched in to allow the family to stay at the motel for a month until they could locate a more permanent apartment. At this writing, the family is living at its fourth address in a year while awaiting a slot in public housing. Lashonda has found temporary employment in low-wage positions but still needs a full-time job she can get to by bus or on foot.

She is worried about the impact of the moves and neighborhood influences on her children. Byrd Park, where they lived until the fire, is an economically and racially integrated neighborhood where the children and the family had formed ties across race and class lines. The area of Highland Park, where the family has more recently stayed, as well as the public housing communities themselves, are marked by highly concentrated poverty and many potential pitfalls for youth.

A Fragile Foothold

Multiply the story of this household of four by ten thousand, and one has a sense of the scope of poverty in the city of Richmond. Currently nearly 52,000 city residents — 26.4 percent of the population — are classified as poor under federal poverty guidelines ($23,550 for a family of four), guidelines that are widely regarded as an inadequate barometer of economic need. Nearly half of city residents live in households with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line, a more realistic measure of genuine self-sufficiency.

A considerable chunk of the city population officially classified as poor consists of college students living off-campus (primarily VCU students), but even after accounting for these students, well over 40,000 city residents fall below the official poverty line. Like Lashonda and her children, low-income residents in the city often have a fragile foothold on the basics of a secure existence: a stable job reachable by adequate transportation, stable housing in a decent neighborhood, and a marketable set of skills to fall back on. Far too many residents fall below the threshold of stability and into crisis — crises that predictably harm children and their educational and social development.

Many of our residents in poverty are children. Two in five children in the city of Richmond now live in poverty, and many more are at risk of falling into poverty. Some 77 percent of children in Richmond Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunches — a fact that in itself scares off many middle-class families with children from locating to or staying in the city. The stresses of poverty are now understood by scholars to cause cognitive damage — a contributing factor to the low educational attainment of so many high-poverty communities, including Richmond. Economic insecurity and crisis in one generation translates into educational underachievement in the next generation — helping perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

Systemic Change

Concentrated poverty, and glaring disparities of income and opportunity both within the city and between the city and its surrounding suburbs, have been prominent features of Richmond for decades. Scholars like John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and a VCU professor emeritus, point out that, in many respects, poverty in Richmond has been concentrated by design. For instance, four of the city’s six large public housing communities are densely located in the East End; the region is one of the largest in the U.S. not to have a functional regional transit system tying the metropolitan economy together; and once-thriving African-American neighborhoods have never fully recovered from being torn apart by interstate highways running through the city.

The real question is, what can be done about all this? At the national level, poverty has risen to 15 percent in the wake of the 2008–09 economic downturn, yet it was barely mentioned by either candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. The Affordable Care Act is potentially the largest expansion of the safety net in half a century, but the 2012 Supreme Court ruling upholding its constitutionality kicked the question of Medicaid expansion, the act’s mechanism for extending coverage to the working poor, back to the states. Whether Virginia will agree to expansion remains uncertain.

National and state-level solutions to systemic poverty do not seem to be forthcoming. In that difficult context, what can cities themselves do to better connect residents to opportunities, break the cycle, and challenge systemic poverty?

In 2011, the city of Richmond set out to find out with the establishment by Mayor Dwight C. Jones of an anti-poverty commission charged with identifying the causes of systemic poverty in Richmond and making promising policy recommendations to challenge it. Along with UR colleagues John Moeser and Tom Shields in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, I was tabbed to join the commission. Much of my own academic work focuses on questions of urban spatial and economic development, much of my teaching involves community-based learning classes in which students engage in community work in high-poverty neighborhoods, and I was in the beginning stages of coauthoring a book with Amy Howard, executive director of UR’s CCE, on Richmond politics over the last quarter century, so I was eager to get involved.

As a scholar of leadership and of urban politics, that involvement has taken me on a wild and deeply rewarding ride through the highs and lows of city politics and governance, and provided me with a firsthand education in the realities of city politics. After chairing one of the focus groups for the commission, I took the lead role in 2012 in drafting the commission’s final report. After the report’s release in January 2013, I worked closely with Mayor Jones’ executive staff and Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District to craft an implementation strategy for the report’s main recommendations. In July, I was named by the mayor co-chair of the newly dubbed Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty, along with Councilwoman Robertson.

The Maggie L. Walker Initiative is working to advance the five major policy recommendations identified by the Anti-Poverty Commission Report:

  • Expanding the city’s workforce development efforts to effectively connect low-income residents to job opportunities with local employers.
  • Targeting economic development with the aim of recruiting or nurturing employers offering living-wage jobs appropriate to workers with less than a college degree.
  • Developing a regional transportation system by establishing bus rapid transit service along the region’s job-rich corridor.
  • Bolstering public education through investments in early childhood education, targeting additional resources to middle school-age children, and establishing a universal college scholarship program for graduates of Richmond Public Schools.
  • Beginning the process of redeveloping the city’s public housing communities to create healthier, more connected neighborhoods, while assuring that residents are not involuntarily displaced.

Each of these recommendations will require considerable effort to implement. Most require extensive collaboration by city government with other entities within the city (especially Richmond Public Schools and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority), as well as with neighboring governments, nonprofit organizations, and the business sector. Funding and resources are also a challenge — no one in City Hall has to be reminded that the city has limited resources to deal with seemingly unlimited demands.

Nonetheless, the ambitious, integrated approach to systemic change laid out by the Maggie L. Walker Initiative has already borne fruit. The anti-poverty agenda gives Mayor Jones a coherent framework for bringing together different parts of city government to collaborate in ways Richmond has rarely seen in the past, as well as a clear set of priorities that can be articulated to partners in the business and philanthropic communities. The boldness of the approach has also garnered national media attention, including an overview article by The New York Times in October. “Urban renewal experts across the country are watching closely,” the reporter noted.

New Voices

The deepest obstacles I perceive, however, are not institutional or budgetary, but rather spiritual. For too long, Richmond residents — black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal — have believed that nothing serious can be done about our deepest problems. Much of that cynicism is understandable in light of Richmond’s history. Moreover, everyone seriously invested in this process knows meaningful poverty reduction in the city will not take place overnight and will require not only Mayor Jones but future mayors placing it at the top of the agenda. To succeed, the Maggie L. Walker Initiative must be built to last.

To that end, probably the most innovative feature of the initiative to date is the creation of a citizens advisory board, more than half of which consists of persons living in or near poverty or working in a high-poverty neighborhood. This group, which began meeting in August, has the task of reviewing concrete proposals being developed by seven policy task forces charged with translating the broad anti-poverty recommendations into actionable specifics. It also has the charge of being a watchdog on the progress of the agenda and holding the city accountable for following through.

Meeting and working with the citizens advisory board has been, for me, a powerful tonic against cynicism. These board members — public housing residents, formerly homeless persons, people just scraping by, as well as concerned clergy and businessmen — know the reality of poverty in a personal way. All have countless personal stories about things they have experienced and things relatives and neighbors have gone through. They also know the urgency of change and want to see constructive steps taken that expand opportunities in a spirit not of doing to or doing for, but rather a spirit of doing with. As Councilwoman Robertson accurately puts it, at the end of the day, it is not the policymakers or the academics who must be at the heart of this process — it is people of poverty themselves.

Not a meeting goes by in which citizens advisory board members fail to raise a compelling point or ask a tough question, using what one of our speakers has termed the “really real” test. Low-income residents do not want promises; they want demonstrated results. Some of our low-income members have been the most vociferous in demanding, for instance, that methodologically sound, independent evaluations be undertaken of city programs to be sure that the programs are both effective and on the up-and-up. That demand reflects wisdom borne out of sad experience with too many past efforts that fell short or went awry.

Giving Richmond’s low-income residents a direct seat at the policy table is itself a significant accomplishment — and the best way to ensure that the desperate human needs of city residents continue to command city policymakers’ highest priority in the years to come. The University community has an important role to play in contributing knowledge and expertise and in connecting policymakers to new ideas, and policymakers and public administrators have an important role to play in assembling the resources and exerting the muscle needed to make genuine change happen. But the living heartbeat, as well as the conscience of this initiative, must continue to be the voices and perspectives of those who know firsthand the fears and fragility of economic deprivation.

This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the University of Richmond Magazine.