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MLK's legacy guides Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building

Reggie Gordon in suit and tie and Thad Williamson mid-sentence
City of Richmond / VPM News
From left: Reggie Gordon and Thad Williamson each previously led the city's Office of Community Wealth Building.

Two former directors of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building discussed local efforts to reduce poverty in the city — and how Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy guides their work.

Richmond’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Reggie Gordon and Thad Williamson, a University of Richmond professor and community activist, discussed the department’s work Sunday at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. They also tied their work to the legacy and ideals of Martin Luther King Jr.

The discussion, “Thriving Communities: Partnering for Economic Justice,” was part of a weeklong VCU event series celebrating King’s legacy. Elsie Harper-Anderson, a professor and director of the Ph.D. program at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, moderated the event. She has also served on the OCWB advisory board.

Harper-Anderson asked Gordon and Williamson to respond to an MLK quote dating to a speech in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize:

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits."

“This quote represents our goal. This is the definition of a thriving community,” Gordon said. “People will say, ‘How can I focus on learning in school when I’m hungry?’ So, you can have all the programs in the world, but if there’s no stability — there's food insecurity in that household — that will be the challenge.”

Gordon said that’s much of the office’s work — meeting basic needs so people can have a foundation to build from. Williamson said the quote is also a caution against defining people by their deficits.

“What we found and have learned through the community process is there are brilliant people living in every neighborhood. The courage and commitment and creativity of people living in Gilpin and Creighton — these should be recognized and celebrated and lifted up. And that’s part of why we call it community wealth building, and not simply anti-poverty,” Williamson said.

Gordon also said the work of the wealth building office and former Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ goal to cut poverty in the city by 10% are audacious, calling back to King’s statement. He said their goal — a city with “no good neighborhoods and no bad neighborhoods” — can be difficult to imagine.

According to Williamson, more than one-quarter of Richmonders were living below the poverty line when the OCWB was conceived in 2013. Now, U.S. Census data says 19.8% of the city is in that category — a decrease, but still above the state average of 10.2%.

The OCWB provides a range of services, including individualized support plans for heads of households, and a guaranteed income pilot program. The office also works with ambassadors — people living in neighborhoods most affected by poverty who provide direct feedback on the office’s programs.

Harper-Anderson asked about the need to provide holistic services, “Because you can’t separate housing from the need for a job, from some of the health care needs.”

Gordon responded that alignment on support efforts is key not just for the office, but for Richmond’s many independent nonprofits and outreach organizations. He said he hopes people who want to help will consider existing nonprofits to get involved with before starting a new one.

“And those groups need to come together to figure out what are the gaps or what are the impediments as to why we don’t have predictable success,” he said.

Gordon recalled an interaction with a Gilpin Court resident: “‘We know how your system works. You all exist on three-year grants from foundations, and once that grant goes away, then the program disappears and we’re left here to manage in your wake.’”

Williamson said that the office’s big goals are generally popular, and the department has the potential to bring some of that alignment. And the more people who encourage city leaders to support that work, the better.

“I think local government is one of the best routes by which an ordinary person can meaningfully influence the world around them,” Williamson said.

Still, he said the goals discussed on Sunday seemed within reach during King’s time — but King had also identified one important roadblock.

“He thought that white America was not ready to take the next step. Which is a tough diagnosis to hear,” Williamson said, “but darn if it doesn’t ring true decades later.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.