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Building Racial and Economic Equity in Richmond’s East End

The Market at 25th, VCU Health Hub and Kitchens at Reynolds, under construction in Spring 2019.
The Census tract that includes 25th and Nine Mile road is 88 percent Black, the median household income is about $34,000 and about half of residents are cost-burdened. After decades of disinvestment, this intersection will soon be home to new apartments, a grocery store called The Market at 25th, VCU's Health Hub and the Kitchens at Reynolds, the Community College's culinary school that will offer a shuttle to the downtown campus. (Photo: Catherine Komp) Catherine Komp/WCVE

As the City of Richmond continues to confront social and economic disparities, an increasing number of people are talking about equity. But what does equity mean and how does it translate into action or policies? WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for  Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Melody Barnes and Paula Pando are participating in a discussion on  equity in Richmond's East End Thursday March 28, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Robinson Theater. Learn about the work of  Policy Link, the  Richmond Food Justice Alliance and the  Richmond Food Justice Corridor


When UVA’s Melody Barnes has a conversation about equity, she starts by contrasting it with equality.

Melody Barnes:  Both important, but they're different.

Equality means everyone should have access, says Barnes. For equity, she uses a definition created by the research and advocacy organization Policy Link.

Barnes:  And the way they have defined it is the just and fair inclusion in society such that all can participate and prosper and reach their full potential. And I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking about it.

Barnes is co-director of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia and was the Director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama. In her work across the country, she’s seeing more people ask how past policies have led to today’s inequities.

Barnes:  History isn't dead and dusty. It stretches across generations and across centuries and has led to outcomes that we see in healthcare and education, in criminal justice, in food insecurity, in a whole range of places and not only does it exist in those silos, but it's inter woven and one affects the other.

Melody Barnes is co-director of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia and was the Director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)

In parts of Richmond’s East End, there is concentrated poverty. Four of the city’s public housing communities are here. In some census tracts, the poverty rate is between 30 and 70 percent.  

Barnes:  And I would say that in many ways that was poverty that was designed decades ago, when private homes were demolished, when neighborhoods and communities were destroyed,  when public housing was created and people were pushed into public housing and surrounded by highways, and resources weren't adequately provided or access to resources and opportunity didn't exist for those living in those communities.  But we also see those kinds of challenges in the North side. We see them in the South side. They crisscross our city.

Paula Pando:  Equity to me means understanding that not everyone begins on day one in exactly the same way.  

Dr. Paula Pando is the new President of Reynolds Community College. She’s the first female and Latina to lead the school. One of Pando’s goals is “equity for all.” She sees many students with the same passion to get a degree, but depending on your zip code, some have more challenges, from affording tuition and getting to campus, to navigating the overly complex bureaucracy of higher ed.  

Pando:  You address those barriers so that if a student is here, if a student has the desire and the ability to learn, that those outside of the classroom pieces those barriers are addressed so that all students have the opportunity to be successful.

The school is working to address equity by opening the Kitchens at Reynolds this Fall. It’s a new culinary school in Church Hill, but Pando also calls it “the front door” to the rest of the college, providing a shuttle to the downtown campus.

Pando:  That one mile could be a deal-breaker of someone being able to get to class or not. That a shuttle will be there connecting this site to our downtown campus which connects students to all of our programs.

The Kitchens at Reynolds is expected to open for the 2019-2020 academic year. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)

The culinary school is on 25th and Nine Mile Road. In this Census tract, the population is 88 percent Black.  The median household income is about $34,000. And half of residents are “cost-burdened,” paying more than one-third of their income on housing. Rates of obesity, asthma and physical inactivity are higher than the city’s average.

The Church Hill neighborhood also faces gentrification and soaring housing costs. Between 2000 and 2015, the neighborhood saw a decrease in about 1,000 Black households, while the White population grew by nearly 160 percent. The median sales price of homes has gone up from $165,000 in 2012 to $215,000 in 2016. The neighborhood has seen an increase in pricey restaurants and cafes.

For those who graduate from the new culinary school, Pando wants to see them do more than become a sous chef or manager at one of these acclaimed restaurants.

Pando:  My dream expands to the people who attend our college and finish a program, a degree or credential -- will be able to afford to eat at the restaurants in this wonderful region. And that's that's a it's an important difference.

There is other activity near the culinary school designed to address some of the East End inequities in education, employment, food access and health. The Market at 25th is scheduled to open next month. The long-awaited grocery store is community focused, training and hiring local residents, and partnering with Black-owned businesses. VCU is opening a “Health Hub” in the same development, and will offer screenings, counselings, and a space for fitness and community events. A few steps away is the Front Porch Cafe, which trains and hires local youth. The coffee shop shares a building with Bon Secours Sarah Garland Jones Center for Healthy Living.

While these institutional investments get a lot of attention, there’s also a lot being done by local residents to address equity.

Art Burton:  We want to have a different conversation. We don't want to talk about what we lack, we want to talk about what we have.

Art Burton is Executive Director of Kinfolk Community. He partners with Omari al-Qadaffi on a large East End collaboration called the Richmond Food Justice Corridor. They’re working to break down myths, and change the language that focuses on a neighborhood’s deficits or labeling it a “food desert.”

Omari al-Qadaffi:  Looking at the community and the members of the community, the actual residents of the community, looking at them as having value and having something to contribute to society. They're just untapped resources and they're often overlooked.

Between 2000 and 2015, the neighborhood saw a decrease in about 1,000 Black households, while the White population grew by nearly 160%. The median sales price of homes has gone up from $165,000 in 2012 to $215,000 in 2016. (Analysis and GIF by Jonathan Knopf, HD Advisors)

One of their projects this Spring is building an urban farm at MLK Middle School, which has high rates of absenteeism and referrals to law enforcement.

Burton:  A big part of our goal is to provide alternatives to youth incarceration programs to those youth and build out a case management system to where we can follow those kids from the 8th grade through high school.

al-Qadaffi:  The ability to grow your own food, that's an empowering thing. To know that you can with your own hand sustain your own life and in any given situation, that's an empowering thing just for an individual to even feel that. And they may they may not even make the real connection that that's what's going on. But when you know that you can you can feed yourself and you can give yourself life, that's powerful.

And the farm could be used to divert students from suspension and as part of Ram Bhagats work’s in restorative justice in the public school system.

al-Qadaffi:  We are going to make that garden like the shining star of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For any public school garden, right there in the heart of Richmond, in a so-called food desert and a low-income neighborhood right next to the housing projects -- that's going to be the shining star public school garden in the state of Virginia.

Omari al-Qadaffi leads the Richmond Food Justice Alliance and works on the intersection of housing, health, transportation and food access and equity. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)

al-Qadaffi created the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, where he works on the intersection of housing, health, food access and transportation. Transportation is a big one for him. He challenged GRTC after it proposed expanding service in a mostly white area by cutting service in Fulton, an area that was destroyed in the ‘70s and ‘80s by urban renewal.

al-Qadaffi:  So for something like that to be happening in 2019 where public resources are being removed from the same area, I thought it was pretty pretty disgusting.

al-Qadaffi also filed a federal civil rights complaint, concerned that larger changes to the transit system are providing less access to Richmonders of color. Following concerns from Al-Qadaffi and community members, GRTC recently announced it would restore some of the cuts to Greater Fulton.

Equity is becoming a larger part of the conversation -- but al-Qadaffi says it risks becoming another buzz word, used by academics and non-profits without a good understanding of how to put it into action.  

al-Qadaffi:  Like if you're having large conferences and stuff about equity and everything and everyone's patting themselves on the back at these various conferences and everyone into the room is pretty affluent, and no one from the communities that are served or even at these conferences, you know, that's not equity.

Construction of the long-delayed Church Hill North development. The first phase will create about 100 income-based units, including some for residents of Creighton Court. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)

Conversations on equity won’t be easy, says Melody Barnes. It requires a mindshift, she says, and the openness to go deeper on issues of class and economic security and issues of race and ethnicity.

Barnes:  All too often people want to push those issues under the covers. They want to stuff them in a closet and pretend that they are in the past. But we cannot afford to be so fragile as a people and as a nation that we back away from those conversations and that we allow ourselves to be bullied into not having them. Because in doing so, we hide from the truth and data and facts and evidence. And if we are to be the America that we say that we want to be, that we claim to be in so many ways that are symbolic,  than we have to do the difficult work of addressing these issues head on.

Barnes will moderate a discussion titled Equity Through Action March 28 at the Robinson Theater. Panelists include Dr. Paula Pando, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation President Mark Constantine, and East End Community Leader Todd Waldo.  For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

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