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City grant would support solar workforce training

Richard Walker in cap and face mask
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Richard Walker as seen in 2021, when he last ran for the House of Delegates.

Bridging the Gap aims to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs, regain rights. 

Richmond City Council will consider a measure sponsored by Mayor Levar Stoney to approve a $30,000 grant to nonprofit Bridging the Gap at its March 13 meeting.

The money would cover a solar panel installation training program organized by the nonprofit, which was founded by Richard Walker. Walker told VPM News he wanted to help formerly incarcerated Virginians with felony charges achieve civil rights restoration: regaining the rights to vote, run for office, serve on a jury or become a notary public.

Walker was incarcerated himself and had his rights restored in 2012 by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“That was an encouragement for me to go help others,” Walker said.

When Bridging the Gap began gaining more recognition for its work, Walker started getting phone calls for “all sorts of stuff,” including to help formerly incarcerated people find work or secure a job, despite their records.

So, when plans for the now-scuttled Atlantic Coast Pipeline included a compressor station nearby a historically Black community in Buckingham County — where Walker’s family happened to own land — he decided to get involved.

“I did a solar training in Union Hill for formerly incarcerated individuals, unemployed individuals, underemployed individuals,” Walker said.

Fast-forward to 2022: Bridging the Gap was doing intensive 40-hour solar panel installation training programs every six weeks. Participants spend a week doing classroom work, field work and wrap up with a mini-job fair to make connections with employers. Walker estimates that more than 80 people have graduated from the program.

Walker said they stuck with the program because solar certifications don't come with “extensive, intensive background checks,” and he saw Richmond being left behind as solar companies grow throughout the commonwealth.

“Urban Richmond was not being included,” Walker said.

With a grant from the city, Walker said the work can continue.

And the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building will be involved to ease the process of finding work for program graduates.

“They’ll get the soft skills,” Walker said, “they’ll get assigned a counselor.”

The measure to approve the grant is on City Council’s March 13 consent agenda. It’s likely to be unanimously approved.

If passed, the ordinance wouldn’t complete the grant contract. Instead, it would give Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders the power to do so.

Walker is running for the House of Delegates in the 79th district, which stretches across the western half of Richmond — from Broad Rock and the Port of Richmond in the south, to Washington Park and Highland Park in the north. His opponents are Richmond City Councilmember Ann–Frances Lambert and attorney Rae Cousins.

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