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Residents of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the surrounding counties want the University of Virginia to ensure that they have equal access to quality jobs, housing, health care and education, in that order, according to the community working group established by UVa President Jim Ryan.

Ryan established the University-Community Working Group in the fall, shortly after becoming president, to strengthen the relationship between the university and the community. The group’s charge was to identify the community’s top priorities for change and suggest an administrative structure that could make that change happen.

“I lived in Charlottesville for 15 years as a law professor, and so I know this community pretty well. I was not that surprised by the findings, but I think it’s still important to go through the process,” Ryan said.

The working group released their findings on Friday. The group collected more than 3,000 responses during three weeks in January through online and in-person surveys, including at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations and a Charlottesville City Council meeting.

Those who responded to the survey represented the Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area racially but not by income, so the group weighted their results to match the area population, according to the group’s report.

What is different this time around?

University-Community Working Group co-chair Michael Williams presents the group’s findings at a press conference, while report co-author Brennan Gould (left) and University of Virginia President Jim Ryan listen. Credit: Credit: Emily Hays, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Many community demands and university initiatives have preceded the working group’s efforts.

When members of the group were collecting the survey, they found distrust particularly among older African-Americans that this effort would be any different.

Working group co-chairman Juandiego Wade, who also chairs the Charlottesville City School Board, recounted seeing an elderly African-American community leader pass the survey table at an event and asking her why she chose not to fill it out.

“She said, ‘Well, I’ve done it before. I’ve done it, the university is not going to do anything, [and] I’m tired of doing it,’” Wade said at a press conference about the report.

The university has a significant economic impact on the region, but Charlottesville offers less social mobility than most of the nation. Students have been pushing the university to change that disparity by increasing its minimum wage since at least 1971.

The working group recommended partnering with community groups and investing in solutions within the priority areas.

Ridge Schuyler, who was one of the working group members most involved in writing the report, said that investing in the community’s top priority area will allow the others to happen more easily.

“You can get affordable housing and affordable health care and affordable educational access, if you have a decent job that pays a decent wage and if you have a chance to be promoted,” Schuyler said.

Schuyler founded the Charlottesville Works Initiative to connect workers to resources and jobs and is the dean of the Division of Community Self-Sufficiency at Piedmont Virginia Community College. His research has found that 19 percent of the families living in Charlottesville and surrounding counties do not make enough to meet basic needs like food, shelter, and childcare.

The report noted that African-American survey respondents ranked affordable housing as their first priority and jobs as their second.

To develop job, housing, health care and education solutions over time, the group recommended establishing a new university vice president to run an Office of Community Partnerships and Social Impact. A new Equity Institute would ensure OCPSI conforms to ethical best practices in the priority areas.

Ryan said that the community would likely see changes before the end of the semester.

“Some of these priority areas are closer to the control of UVa than others,” Ryan said. “If you think about the wages that we play our employees, that’s within our control. … If you’re thinking about improving educational opportunities in K-12, you absolutely have to work with the local public schools, and you’ve got to think about the right partnerships.”

Credit: Credit: Ézé Amos, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.