Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017
As future social workers, incoming students of the VCU School of Social Work will soon be working directly with communities affected by Richmond’s history of segregation, discrimination and racism that continues to reverberate today.
To better understand this context, dozens of the students spent Monday taking part in Richmond [Re]Visited 3.0: Housing & Racial (In)Justice, a day of experiential learning through community tours, activism and collaborative conversation sponsored by the VCU School of Social Work Student-Faculty-Alumni Black Lives Matter Collective.
“We are really focusing on anchoring this year's event on policies like redlining that have historically prescribed who can and can't live in different parts of the city, and whose housing/neighborhoods were seen as having value,” said collective member Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work. “These policies continue to ripple today. And even though we have legally ended redlining, there are still forms of housing discrimination and injustice that disproportionately impact people of color, especially black folks, in Richmond.
“We want to uncover these [policies] and begin to identify ways that we can dismantle them using the knowledge and skills that social workers are equipped with.”
Nichele Carver, housing program manager with the Homeless and Special Needs Housing Unit at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, gave the event’s keynote address, explaining how discriminatory practices like redlining — or, the practice of denying minorities loans for homes in certain neighborhoods — still exist, just less explicitly.
“Every time people talk about this stuff, people talk about it like it's something of the past. It's not,” she said. “It's still going on.”
Carver cited research by Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia that found that between 2010 and 2013, 13.7 percent of white borrowers had loan applications denied, compared with 34.6 percent of black borrowers being denied.
“You can't tell me a third of blacks should not have a home loan,” she said. “So what is it? It's by design. It's still happening today.”
Carver also described how blacks are disproportionately represented in the homeless population of Richmond and across Virginia. Richmond’s population is 49 percent black and 44 percent white. The city’s homeless population, however, is 64 percent black and only 34 percent white. Statewide, Virginia’s population is 69 percent white and 19 percent black. But Virginia’s homeless population is 41 percent white and 53 percent black.
“One out of five people are black in Virginia. But one in two homeless people are black,” Carver said. “Why would that be? I don't understand. It means that all the safety nets are failing this group. And failing them big, not a little bit.”
Carver told the audience how her family was evicted from their home in Washington when she was 7 and became temporarily homeless. Now, at the Department of Housing and Community Development, she and the agency are guided by the belief that no one should be homeless for more than 30 days, meaning that as soon as they become homeless, their job is to help find them housing and build support structures to keep them housed.
While Virginia has cut homelessness by 32 percent over the last seven years, she said, barriers exist that ensure homelessness continues to persist, particularly for people of color.
“We're trying to work with shelters because what we're finding out is people can't even get into shelters. They've got sobriety rules. You can't have had a drink in the last six months. Or, if you have a criminal background, you can't get into a shelter,” she said. “So think about all the areas in which African-Americans are overrepresented. That means, sometimes they can't even get into a shelter.”
Locked out of the system
Following Carver’s talk, the students piled into two buses to visit sites relevant to Richmond’s history with racial discrimination and housing.
In Jackson Ward, the students visited the home of Maggie Walker, the first black woman in the United States to found a bank, and an iconic Richmond businesswoman and community leader.
At Walker’s home, the students heard from Kelvin Hanson, president of the Hanson Co., an urban revitalization real estate firm that specializes in developing urban areas, such as Jackson Ward, historically the epicenter for black-owned businesses in Richmond.
Hanson talked about a number of his projects in the neighborhood, notably the new development of the Eggleston Hotel, located across the street from the Hippodrome Theater and one of three hotels for blacks during segregation. The newly redeveloped site features 32 apartments geared toward people with incomes between $30,000 and $35,000, and a restaurant that will open later this year.
“This was the only original African American hotel that was still standing. It was a great opportunity for us and we were ready to help the family restore it,” Hanson said. “Unfortunately, the hotel collapsed before we could get the project underway. So then it became: How could we commemorate what was at that site, still preserve that history and create an environment that would be pedestrian friendly and possibly a heritage tourism attraction along Second Street?
“So we decided that we wanted to create some housing ... and create a restaurant on the ground floor,” he said. “The patron that's going in the restaurant on the ground floor is the grandson of the gentleman who started the Eggleston Hotel. So that's how we're kind of able to preserve the legacy on that particular site, and create housing as well.”
Duron Chavis, community engagement coordinator for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and a community advocate and activist, also addressed the students, describing the history of Jackson Ward, and how the neighborhood was affected by redlining, segregation, white flight and the construction of Interstate 95, which bisected the community.
“Housing discrimination, redlining, they create a system in which black people are already locked out of,” he said.
Chavis urged the students to make sure they listen to community members’ ideas and solutions when trying to address the challenges they’ll face as social workers.
“There's too many times that we come in and we say, 'We have all the answers' and when we approach communities thinking that we have all the answers, we actually do damage to the neighborhood and the members of the neighborhood by not affirming that they have solutions already embedded inside their lived experience,” he said.
Also addressing the crowd was community strategist Lillie A. Estes, who spoke about Richmond's history, public housing, gentrification and activism.
A changing neighborhood
The students also visited the Six Points Innovation Center, a hub for community revitalization, youth activity and non-profit collaboration in the Highland Park neighborhood.
Jackie Washington, site coordinator for 6PIC, described how the nonprofit Storefront for Community Design — a 6PIC nonprofit partner focused on improving Richmond by facilitating access to planning and design resources — has been working to support the predominantly black Highland Park.
“It's changing a lot,” she said. “There is some gentrification happening on the outskirts. It's starting to happen a little bit more in the center. There's tons of restaurants, tons of new happenings. So what we're trying to do here is make sure that development happens, but that it's not happening in a way that's pushing residents out.”
Omari al-Qadaffi, a community activist and organizer, showed the students maps illustrating how low-income, historically black neighborhoods in Richmond frequently lack access to amenities like grocery stores and banks. And he described how he fought against proposals to cut transit stops at many of those same neighborhoods.
Also at the Six Points Innovation Center, the students heard from the Advocates for Richmond Youth, a group of young people who have experienced homelessness or housing instability and who conduct research and advocate to prevent youth homelessness, and Free Egunfemi of Untold RVA, which aims to tell the missing pieces of Richmond’s historical narrative.
Like an iceberg
The goal of Richmond [Re]Visited was to provide students with a better understanding of the ways in which racial injustice plays out in Richmond and ways they can work for justice, Wagaman said.
The idea, she said, was to uncover the subtle, covert forms of racism and white supremacy — things such as discriminatory lending and housing discrimination — that form the underlying structure of more overt racism, as seen in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“When we start to think about the more covert forms of racism and white supremacy, you can start to see the connections,” she said. “Just like an iceberg, all of this that's under the surface upholds the capacity for folks to be more engaged in overt forms of white supremacy. Those things rarely operate in isolation. If there wasn't all this upholding it and keeping white supremacy in place, we wouldn't see more overt forms of racism and white supremacy.”
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