There was an incredible moment at the Virginia Festival of the Book’s “History Embodied: Public Monuments & Power” event at the Jefferson School. About 20 minutes into his interview with former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Charlottesville City Councillor Wes Bellamy, moderator Gregg Kimball, the state’s historian and a co-chair of Richmond’s Monument Avenue Commission, asked Bellamy a pointed question: What goes up in their place when the statues come down? The whole conversation is worth watching, if you missed it.
Bellamy said, “Before we can look at monuments and statues, we have to talk about the people and the voices.”Bellamy went on to explain, again and in a different way, why it’s not about the statues. It’s about what they represent, which is oppression and its effects on Charlottesville’s black community through the years. “There can be no repair or reconciliation without a reallocation and redistribution of resources. There can be no repair,” Bellamy said. These days, every kind of institution wants to get community feedback lest they make a wrong move, newly conscious of the responsibility of equity. But how do you get feedback from a community? How do you even define one?
These days, every kind of institution wants to get community feedback lest they make a wrong move, newly conscious of the responsibility of equity. But how do you get feedback from a community? How do you even define one?
These days, every kind of institution wants to get community feedback before they make a wrong move, newly conscious of the responsibility of equity. But how do you get feedback from a community? How do you even define one?
In Charlottesville’s low-income neighborhoods like Westhaven, residents have been polled excessively. No one wants to be left out, but people also don’t want to be force fed open-ended conversations. It’s exhausting, but it’s even worse than that when the feedback evaporates into the ether, and you never hear another word about it. People don’t want to be listened to, they want to be heard.
I have not yet seen a poll that yields a result like, “There can be no repair or reconciliation without a reallocation and redistribution of resources.” The job of elected leaders is to represent the voices of the people who voted for them in ways that make it possible for the public to understand their positions. It’s good to have feedback from the community to work with, but feedback loops run the danger of turning into circular conversations without power or action. The quickest and most effective way to get feedback is to present clear ideas and initiate action in a transparent and accountable way.
This month, UVa made important steps towards restoring community trust. President Ryan’s community working group, which represented nonprofit and university leaders serving a diverse range of constituents, released its recommendations earlier this month. There were no surprises about what the community wants from the University: better pay for employees, more affordable housing, better healthcare for residents, better education for children. Even President Ryan said he basically knew what the community wanted before the group formed, but the process was important for building consensus and organizing clear action priorities.
Crucially, the report led into a Board of Visitors meeting and the following week, UVa announced that it was finally establishing a living wage for its staff. Less obvious, but no less significant, the University parted ways with the EVP of UVa Medical Center, Rick Shannon, the architect of its partnership with Inova Health System and one of the primary power players in the leadership structure. His departure reflects President Ryan’s consolidation of power and, possibly, the Medical Center’s returned focus to a research and community first approach.
While many questions remain, such as how the university will interact with the priorities of the report less under its control, the process has created a useful framework for the local governments tasked with repairing our communities.
A few weeks back, the city hosted an open interview session with its three finalists for the city manager position to get community feedback for the process. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of that hire.
One of the candidates, Powhatan County Administrator Ted Vorhees, essentially disqualified himself on stage by floundering painfully through a response to Mayor Walker’s question about handling racial reconciliation. The other two, Desoto, Tx. City Manager Tarron Richardson and former Charles County, Md. Administrator Michael Malinoff, presented a clear and distinct choice.
Richardson, who started his career in Richmond, has led a busy suburb of Dallas that is majority African-American. He presented his case as a strong leader with a hands-on style who is comfortable with race issues, including police reform. Malinoff, on the other hand, has plied his trade in places like Annapolis and Newport, R.I., fancy, old and expensive communities with fraught racial histories, like ours. He offered himself up as a seasoned administrator, a good boss, and a facilitator for elected officials.
Very likely, one of those two men will have the job of taking the community’s feedback and turning it into an administrative structure that can execute on the policy priorities of the community. But what are they? If they are to redistribute economic resources more equitably, we have made some progress, but not very much, and the largest steps have come through nonprofit philanthropy. Our school systems are tiptoeing towards new ideas and asking for more money, but student activists are still fed up.
Charlottesville is a place full of privilege and an outsized store of human and financial capital. It is a place desperate to prove to the world and itself that it has a good heart. A new generation of African-American leaders has ripped open an old conversation repressed by civility. But there is still a tentative, half-hearted embrace of this new image of ourselves. Some of us are still muttering under our breath: Other places are worse; people are angrier than they need to be; it’s the City Council’s fault.
It’s time to embrace new voices, new people, and new power relationships. It’s time to try new things and take new risks to solve old problems. It’s time to love and respect our black neighborhoods, hear their leaders, and channel real money into them. The only true failure we face is getting to August again without a clear, bold, big plan for change. If that happens, the statues still have the power.