Let’s Talk: College Town Amnesia
I trust UVa President Jim Ryan. He is a straightforward speaker who exudes authenticity and confidence. When he says that “building a stronger relationship with the surrounding community is one of my top priorities as president,” I believe him. I also believe him when he says that for universities to be great, they must first be good. I’m not exactly sure why it’s so easy for me to believe him. Is it because he’s putting the university’s money where its mouth is by granting tuition to students from low-income households? Or is it because he is, like me, a white man?
College towns have an amnesia problem. Every few years, a new crop of people arrives to identify and solve problems. Intelligent professionals move from all over the country to pursue their careers, to enjoy a better quality of life, and to make money while they do it. Their arrival is an act of reinvention for them, but the place they land has its own history.
I’ve seen it in the local news cycle. Sometimes, it’s almost funny, like in the case of the Belmont Bridge, which morphed into a high-profile design contest that yielded a no-bridge bridge solution and was finally discarded. This year, without a shout or a whisper, the bridge moved forward as a prosaic, wider version of itself.
Sometimes it’s dead serious, like the achievement gap between African-American and white students in Charlottesville schools. People might argue that we didn’t need the high-profile reminder of the problem that The New York Times and Pro Publica teamed up to deliver last week. But I think we did. Charlottesville on the national stage again, with Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes articulating the human impact of the achievement gap, a great abstraction that lets us all off the hook. The story connected the dots between the elementary school redistricting fight of the early 2000s, the 2004 schools audit initiated by then-Superintendent Scottie Griffin, her acrimonious departure, and where we are today.
It might have included many more data points. It might have included Albemarle County in our local narrative or mentioned the Dialogue On Race, City of Promise, the Human Rights Commission or the many initiatives in Charlottesville City Schools that Superintendent Rosa Atkins referred to in her response. “Why is equity so important?” Dr. Atkins said. “Some of us will speak of righting wrongs. Some of us will speak of the beauty and value of diversity. As a black woman and a human, I am invested in justice and I am inspired by diversity.”
I spoke to one of the members of the ProPublica team who indicated that Charlottesville wasn’t really the point of the story, at least not from their perspective. The point of the story was the pervasiveness of the school data across the country and the acuteness of the problem in university towns, particularly in the South. Faced with a data set that shows race is the most reliable predictor of school achievement, the issue doesn’t seem complicated. It seems brutally simple. Or simply brutal.
I trust Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker. She is a straightforward speaker who exudes authenticity and confidence. She has never wavered in her focus or message. When she said, as she did in July at PVCC, “What is different today in 2018 is that 2017 happened,” I hear her reminding us that she will not tolerate any more college town amnesia. I believe her when she said in that same conversation that she was more hopeful today that at any other point in her life. I have a hard time believing her when she says Charlottesville is a “very ugly-in-the-soul place,” as she did in the NYT story. Maybe that is because I am a white man. Or because I moved here.
People want, in President Ryan and Mayor Walker, someone who will wave a wand and take all of the problems away. They overestimate what President Ryan can do; they blame Mayor Walker for not doing things they would have her do, forgetting often that she represents just one vote in an elected body of five.
Solutions require urgency, continuity, teamwork, planning, community, trust, and leadership. I see in President Ryan and Mayor Walker two leaders who both see their children, and maybe even their own childhoods, as motivations to change the world they live in. President Ryan is offering up a new vision for a flagship University and the resources to deliver on it. Mayor Walker is offering truth and accountability in the hope that our community will hear it and find the resources and vision to make change.
There are lots of other leaders in the conversation now, including Dr. Atkins, School Board Chair Juandiego Wade, and the CHS Black Student Union. UVa.’s Curry School has the Center for Race and Public Education in the South. President Ryan has named a panel of local advisors. Nonprofit leaders are organizing around solutions strategies. And Charlottesville Tomorrow is committed to covering the equity issues in our schools with the hope of creating a shared public conversation about fixing problems together.
If you have information to share about racial inequality in the schools, please connect with our reporting team by responding to this short questionnaire.