Local leaders in diverse fields spoke about building community at a St. Anne’s-Belfield School symposium Saturday.
The inaugural Greenway Symposium was organized by a group of St. Anne’s Upper School students inspired by TED talks that they watched and discussed together. The five speakers were invited for the impact they have made on the Charlottesville area and their ability to engage an audience.
Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, explained how approaching low-income communities with a “savior” mentality isn’t the best way to help them.
Rosensweig said Habitat for Humanity volunteers once devoted much “blood, sweat and tears” to building a community garden in the Southwood Mobile Home Park without asking residents if they wanted it. The garden was largely neglected — Rosensweig later learned that many residents already were growing vegetables next to their trailers.
Rosensweig’s organization took a different approach after that. “Instead of asking [residents] what they needed … we asked them: What do you have?”
Rosensweig learned that Southwood’s greatest assets were its strong sense of community and its commitment to the education of the neighborhood’s children. He helped to organize a back-to-school night that was attended by two-thirds of Southwood residents.
“The seeds of change are already in these neighborhoods,” Rosensweig said.
Toan Nguyen, co-founder of C’ville Coffee, C’ville Central and the Community Investment Collaborative, also shared perspectives on empowering people by making them self-sufficient. “Dignity cannot be given. It can only be earned,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen has devoted much of his time in Charlottesville to creating business opportunities for minorities, women and formerly incarcerated people.
“In Charlottesville, if you don’t have a college degree, your future is not going to be much,” he said. “It was almost a human rights issue to provide some hope for anybody to start a business.”
Since 2011, the Community Investment Collaborative has awarded 30 loans to jumpstart businesses, and offers a 17-week “mini-MBA course” for new entrepreneurs.
“Charlottesville is an amazing place. It has the talent, it has the funding and it has the heart to help,” Nguyen said.
Wendy Amato, director of curriculum and academics at WorldStrides, a large educational travel company, urged students to respect the norms of other cultures when visiting new places. “Things happen differently in different places. It’s not always going to feel like home, and that’s OK,” she said.
“We work hard to bring the world into the classroom with technology, but I think it is more important for us to think of the world as our classroom,” said Amato, a former teacher and principal. “There is no replacement for reality.”
Timothy J. Longo, former Charlottesville chief of police, spoke about building positive relationships with citizens. Longo said he prefers the term “relational policing” to the more commonly used “community policing.”
“Relational policing is not a contract. Contracts are instruments of distrust,” he said. “Relational policing is a covenant. It is an oath to make that community better and safer.”
Longo said recent incidents of police brutality and killings of police officers across the country have not made him pessimistic about the future of his profession.
“There has never been a better time in our history to give yourself completely. There has never been a more important time,” he said. Speaking of law enforcement in general, he said, “We have to win back our trust where we’ve lost it. We have to be more transparent about how we do our work.”
James Coan, director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia, said his research gives further evidence for the power of human relationships that Longo discussed.
Coan’s latest studies have measured the brain activity of paired subjects holding hands in an MRI machine. Sometimes, the subjects are told that one of them has a chance of receiving an electric shock in a few seconds.
Coan found that subjects facing a possible shock who were holding hands with a loved one showed less activity in the hypothalamus, which coordinates the release of stress hormones. Likewise, subjects who knew a loved one had a chance of being shocked showed more signs of stress.
Coan said his research shows that loved ones can truly be an extension of the self.
“When you build relationships with other people, you don’t just create understanding … you build people up,” “Coan said. When we build those relationships, we have more efficacy. We are more powerful in the world.”
Saturday’s symposium was free and open to the public.
“There’s a stereotype of STAB being closed off to the community,” said student organizer Junho Moon. “In the last few years, we’ve done a great job of breaking that.”