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VCU Students Earn Finalist Honor in NPR Competition

The circle around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, dubbed Marcus-David Peters Circle, became a gathering place for protesters all summer. The New York Times would later recognized it - with graffiti - as the most influential work of protest art. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

When NPR announced the 10 finalists for their annual Student Podcast Competition, Joshua Gordon, a junior studying political science, said he was surprised to learn his team was recognized. 

“I mean it was surprising at first, and then I'm like, well, it did sound really good,” Gordon said. “I just told my mom about it today. And she was excited.”

Gordon, along with Gabriela Santana and Hassan Fields, worked together to produce “When Time Slows Down” - a podcast that chronicled the protests in Richmond following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The trio took on the project as a part of a course at Virginia Commonwealth University called “Podcasting While Black.” VCU professor Chioke I’Anson, known as a “ Voice of NPR” for his underwriting credits, challenged his students to tackle a challenging moment in history, a task made even more challenging since the three produced the podcast virtually. 

“I think one of the big takeaways from doing this class during the pandemic was that we've never met in person, and it was such a great mash up of just partnerships,” Santana said. “We just all became friends.”

The contest was open to students at 2-year or 4-year colleges in all 50 states and Washington D.C. For the competition, students were challenged to create a show between three and 8 minutes that can include original music and follows one of several prompts, including   “Tell us a story about your school or community.”

With the help of I’Anson, these students decided to focus on Richmond’s Confederate monuments and the protests in the city, which  they all experienced in person. 

“So I was there the night that the GRTC bus exploded,” Fields said. “I went out a couple hours after that and I saw the burnt remains. It almost looked like a corpse the way it was up there or like if you were watching Apocalypse Now.”

Santana added, “I do remember feeling just completely awe struck by honestly like this metamorphosis of the culture and the community within Richmond.”

What separates these students' coverage of the events in Richmond from other national media is how they approached discussing the monuments and the art that arose during the protest movement. They’ve attempted to answer the question, “What is the difference between vandalism and art?”

“It almost slapped us in our face, I feel like it just became evident that this was a marriage that would work,” Santana said. “So throughout our brainstorming, getting to this question and in the podcast, we say it very blatantly that we came in wanting to ask, what's the difference between art and vandalism.”

Throughout their conversations they discovered a certain duality: what some considered graffiti others considered a way to express themselves and reject the white supremacist ideology  the Confederate monuments represent. 

And interwoven throughout were their conversations with Richmond artist Hamilton Glass, visual artist and University of Toronto Mississauga professor Tracey Bowen and award winning artist  Dread Scott, who brought a variety of perspectives to the production.

“I've always been interested in podcasting,” Fields said. “I love to tell stories and working with Gabriella and Josh, it was almost like a match made in heaven.”

The podcast ends with the fate of Monument Avenue still undecided. One question the students were unable to answer through their podcast was what to do with Richmond’s monuments. 

“Preservation is something that we couldn't figure out, did it need to stay or not? I think the community is supposed to decide that,” Santana said. “Like Tracy Bowen says, it depends who in the community decides it and that will be interesting to see.”

Since recording their podcast most of Richmond’s Confederate monuments have been taken down and the art that was once there has been erased, which adds to the discussion they started.

“You know, if you're going to erase the graffiti, you got to erase the monuments. You can't do one without the other,” Fields said.

The Robert E. Lee statue is one of the last remaining monuments left on Monument Avenue. Although its removal and the fate of the artwork surrounding it is still undecided, for these students, being able to tell their story and be recognized for their effort is an accomplishment in and of itself.


Lyndon German is VPM News' reporter covering Henrico and Hanover counties. As a Mechanicsville native and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, he hopes to bring a firsthand perspective of the challenges each locality faces.