John Moeser

April 11, 2017
Census data puts a lens on a lifetime of studying and teaching about race, power, and politics

It started with a simple request: What data has been collected about poverty in Richmond?

It was 2005, and John Moeser, fresh in his role as a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, wasn’t entirely equipped to answer. It wasn't the subject matter — he had spent decades researching and studying and teaching about race, power, and politics. Rather, he knew that a few numbers scribbled down on a piece of paper or listed in an email didn't have the depth and nuance to explain the state of poverty in the city.

So he got to work.

Moeser started with census data, slicing and dicing, and searching for trends that revealed who lives in poverty and what neighborhoods had a high concentration. Later, students from the University’s Spatial Analysis Lab helped bring visual life to the numbers and figures.

That’s when Moeser took his presentation on the road to local nonprofits, faith groups, and volunteer organizations. With his down-to-earth presence and soft Texas drawl, Moeser unpacks the data, inserting anecdotes and stories of people he’s met. He weaves a compelling narrative, one that motivates people to action.

“The more I did this presentation, the emphasis began to shift from poverty data to how did it happen? And what are we going to do about it?” he says. “Every year, I updated the information from the census bureau, and then adding the history behind the concentrations of poverty, and then interventions, what has got to happen.”

“Knowledge can make a difference. You need to first know if you’re completely oblivious to something, if it’s out of your realm of thinking. You can’t fix something you’re not aware of.”

A groundswell of energy

As Moeser continued his Unpacking the Census presentations, one discussion would lead to another and another, the demand always increasing. “I was wearing myself out,” he says.

At one session, Moeser connected with Jonathan Zur, ’03, now president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. Along with the national organization Hope in the Cities, they produced a DVD of the presentation and dispatched biracial teams of residents to facilitate conversations in their communities. The first year, more than 20 pairs of facilitators showed up for training.

Still, understanding the data and the history of poverty is only a first step. Moeser says it’s also important to channel a motivated crowd into organized, sustainable change for the city.

“People who were hearing about this became really passionate about the need to do something,” Moeser says. “It had to do with what constitutes a good city. If you’ve got half the city that is living in misery, it affects every aspect of life and it affects all of the others who are not living in poverty.”

The groundswell of energy eventually persuaded then-Mayor Dwight Jones to launch an Anti-Poverty Commission and later fund the Maggie L. Walker Office of Community Wealth Building. Thad Williamson, a leadership professor at Richmond, spent two years in city hall building the office from the ground up. And Moeser continues to push for the city and counties to work together to develop comprehensive transportation systems, housing and early childhood development programs, and the creation of anchor businesses in or near high-poverty neighborhoods that can train and employ residents.

At the same time, Moeser’s work with the Spatial Analysis Lab has evolved due to changes in city demographics. For instance, they’ve added data about new and shifting pockets of immigrants in Richmond and the surrounding counties — data that’s often inaccurate due to underrepresentation of undocumented residents.

“The western wing of Henrico County is a veritable United Nations,” Moeser says. “People from all over the world are moving here.”

Moeser has also given license to his research assistants to try new data visualization techniques to better communicate both numbers and narratives. Taylor Holden, ’15, a research fellow in the lab, explains how they incorporated a method called one dot — where every person is represented with a single dot, rather than a variety of sizes to communicate variations in scale — in response to the challenge of visualizing population concentrations of different races across the city and counties.

“[Our work] has become a lot of, how do we represent this complex data in a way that is self-explanatory to people?” Holden says.

A life’s work

Moeser talks about knowledge sharing as critical to inspiring change. His own moment of awareness came as a child growing up in Lubbock, Texas, when the town was still segregated.

“It began to work on me, and had a lot to do with what I ended up studying, which was political science,” he says. That’s where he was introduced to public policy and power, as well as the intersection of race and poverty.

Since then, his work has taken a number of paths, including founding the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, which today houses one of the nation’s best programs. He’s written several books on racial politics, city-suburban relationships, and poverty, and has served on a number of city commissions and task groups related to urban planning, redistricting, anti-poverty, and economic development. He founded a multi-racial youth leadership program, and served on several nonprofit boards.

In his 12 years at the University of Richmond, Moeser’s fingerprints can be seen on the work of numerous students, faculty, and staff who are improving the cities they call home.

Holden, for example, is exploring how to bring data visualization and usage to help more nonprofits share their message. Other former research assistants are in graduate programs for urban design and planning, and his current team of researchers are interested in following in their footsteps.

“He has been incredible with the students he works with,” Holden says. “He connects us to people and makes sure we thrive and have opportunities. He wants us to take all that passion he sees and bring it into the world.”

As that next generation begins their life’s work, Moeser is preparing to step away from his. He’ll retire from the University in June.

If you ask him what's next, though, it’s clear his idea of retirement doesn’t involve endless days of leisure. He’ll talk about spending time with his wife and traveling to see their grandchildren. But he’ll quickly pivot to talk about coming to campus for meetings or to use the library, or how he’ll still work with the Spatial Analysis Lab.

“I’ll never really retire — it’s not in my DNA,” he says. “I’ve got to be engaged. I want to be, for one thing, but I also need to be.”

Still, he’ll take a few steps back knowing that he’s handing the reins over to thousands of former students who will carry the work forward.

“My vocation, my calling, will always be teaching,” he says. “I have former students who hold elected office, who hold high-level positions in government, who work with NGOs around the world, who started their own businesses, who raised a family and became active in their communities — who became good citizens.”

“To provide them some spark and see them take off — one could not want anything more than that.”