KOH2RVA: Day 324

PovertyToday’s guest blogger is Dwight C. Jones, Mayor of Richmond. He’s got some things to say about poverty in our city and what we can do about it.

I have to believe that part of his concern for the poor comes from his years of ministry (most recently as pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond), from years of preaching the gospel, in which Jesus says things like, “I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.” This much is certain: when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Richmond, Virginia, nobody will be in need.

Until then, we’ve got work to do.

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In March 2011, I decided to make good on a promise I made to myself when I decided to run for mayor. Approximately a quarter of our city’s residents live in poverty. Nearly half are poor or near poor. In a city that is growing like ours, that is thriving in so many ways, this is unacceptable. We have unlimited opportunities if you are a student, have a great idea for a new business, or even want to run for office, for example. But opportunities are just out of reach for too many of our neighbors.

This is why I decided that, for the first time, we were not going to take the approach that we needed a program here or there to take a stab at the problem of concentrated poverty, but that we needed a comprehensive approach. Poverty stems not just from one or two social obstructions, but from decades of policies and institutions that have made it hard for those working to get into the middle class to realize their dreams. Many of these problems were decided and put into place or forced upon us long before we got here. Richmond has a past with much to be proud of, but also much to learn from. I refuse to believe that our history, though painful at times, can keep us from becoming the city that I know we can be.

MAYOR RICHMONDWhile the problems that create concentrated poverty touch many pillars of our city, the good news is, so do the solutions. When I announced the Anti-Poverty Commission’s formation, it was the beginning of a conversation that I hoped would touch every corner of our city. We had representatives on the commission from every sector. There were business leaders, civic and community leaders, elected officials from the city and surrounding counties, folks who lived in and worked in communities of concentrated poverty, representatives from my administration, and professors from our higher education institutions. They looked at the root causes of this problem from every angle. Whether it was transportation, education, housing, health or job creation, there was something that needed fixing, but also, something we could do about it.

This past January, I was presented the report and wasted no time in dispatching representatives from my senior staff to work with Councilwoman Ellen Robertson and Thad Williamson, a professor at the University of Richmond, to get to work on an implementation strategy for the report’s recommendations. While we cannot wave a magic wand and all of a sudden make these pockets of poverty go away, there are many things that we can do together both in the short term and in the long term to bring down our poverty rate and empower Richmonders to realize their dreams.

As we are moving into another phase of this effort, I am naming our anti-poverty work after one of my personal heroes, Maggie L. Walker. The Maggie L. Walker Initiative will honor the social and entrepreneurial legacy that she left behind.

Our work will be spurred by task forces on education, housing, economic development and transportation that will submit detailed implementation plans so that we are ready for the next round of the budget cycle. I have also named individuals to a Citizens Advisory Board, which will consist of civic and business leaders — but half its membership will be residents living in or working in neighborhoods of poverty. It is critically important that those who would be most affected have a strong voice in the process. I have asked Williamson and Robertson to continue to co-chair this effort.

I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that we cannot become the best Richmond unless all Richmonders are along for the ride. I was recently asked by a local blog, “What does community mean to you?” I answered, “To me, community means that we care about one another. We care about education even if we don’t have kids in the school system. We want small businesses to succeed even if we’re not the ones making a profit. We want a clean and sustainable James River even if we’re not the ones out on the rapids. In good times, we celebrate together as a community and in tough times, we fight back together as a community.”

I don’t believe that things will remain the same years from now, simply because that’s the way things have always been. I don’t believe that the block you grow up on will determine your journey in life. And, I don’t believe there is anything we cannot achieve if we go at it together.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Click HERE to read it online and access related links.

KOH2RVA: Day 146

book buddies

Yesterday was a cold and windy day in Richmond, Virginia, but I had promised to drive a church bus to the East End and that’s what I did. There was a lot of play in the steering wheel, and when a gust of wind caught the side of the bus on an interstate bridge I had a hard time holding it in the road. But I did, and eventually made it to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School where Melissa Brooks and I picked up a load of sixth graders and brought them back to First Baptist Church. The idea was that these sixth graders from a poor neighborhood would come and read books with preschoolers from a rich neighborhood.

And that’s what happened.

I can’t tell you how much I love this picture, not only because of the way the sunlight is coming through the window and falling on the floor, but because of the way this sixth-grade boy is reading to this preschool girl, and the way the book is helping them forget—for the moment at least—that they come from different worlds. They are in the world of the story, together, and it is a world of perfect equality.

When I asked our staff six months ago how we would measure the success of this year-long, every-member mission trip, David Powers said we would measure it with “pictures and stories.” Well, here’s a picture that spells success. And the story behind it is remarkable, too.

So often when I look at pictures of mission trips I see affluent, educated people helping people who are poor and uneducated. And that’s not a bad thing; to whom much is given, much is required. But I love the way Melissa Brooks and Mary Hiteman partnered to turn that around. Melissa lives on Church Hill and has been volunteering at the Anna Julia Cooper School, a school for students of limited resources primarily from Richmond’s East End neighborhood. Mary is the director of our preschool at First Baptist, which draws most of its students from the historic (and affluent) Fan District. “Why not get the two schools together?” they thought, and this was the result: a day of learning, laughing, reading, praying, dancing, storytelling, and baking enough gingerbread for everybody to take some home (it smelled so good on the bus back to the East End!)

Is KOH2RVA a success?

Well, yesterday it was. And I’ve got pictures and stories to prove it.

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Photo by Melissa Brooks

KOH2RVA: Day 58

Will the poor really be with us “always”?

I watched a movie about global poverty yesterday that broke my heart. It was part of our KOH2RVA awareness film series, a movie called “58” which gets its name from Isaiah 58, a chapter that highlights God’s concern for the poor. The movie showed people living on a garbage heap in Kenya, children breaking rocks in India, young girls falling prey to human trafficking in Thailand. As I said, it was heartbreaking, but at the same time hopeful. Near the end of the movie we heard that the number of people living in extreme poverty (that is, on less than $1.25 per day) had fallen from 52 percent of the world’s population just a few years ago, to 26 percent today. That’s half. And the distance from where we are to the end of extreme poverty isn’t as far as you might think. I think the narrator said $78 Billion would do it, and suggested that if all the Christians who give something back to God through the church gave just a little more (one percent?), we could get there.

I was touched by the story of one young woman, a student from England, who used to spend all her money on herself, maxing out her credit cards as she tried to stay fashionable. But then she said something about cutting up her credit cards in front of her church. And then she said something about making a trip to this garbage heap in Kenya, where she had a conversation with a woman that changed her life. Now she is deeply involved in her church’s ministry in Kenya, spending less on herself so she can help others more.

It’s interesting to think that the poor might not be with us always, and that if those of us who have a little money could learn to give some of it away, it could have a global impact. $10 will purchase a mosquito net that will keep a child from getting malaria. $79 will buy a water filter that will keep a family from getting sick. $38 a month will sponsor a child, providing him with the necessities of life and the hope of a future.

And since we are on a mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can’t help but think of the nearly 39 percent of children in Richmond who are living below the poverty line. How many of them go to bed hungry at night? How many of them have stopped dreaming big dreams? And what would it take to make a difference in their lives, to bring heaven to earth right here?

What, finally, shall we say?

homeless-streetsA great poem, shared with me by my friend Roberta Damon:

What, finally, shall we say
In the last moment
When we will be confronted
By the Unimaginable,
The One
Who could not be measured
or contained
In space or time
Who was Love
Unlimited?

What shall we answer
When the question is asked
About our undeeds
Committed
In his name—
In the name of him
For whose sake we promised
To have courage
To abandon everything?

Shall we say
That we didn’t know—
That we couldn’t hear the clatter
Of hearts breaking—
Millions of them—
In lonely rooms, in alleys
     and prisons
And in bars?

Shall we explain
That we thought it mattered
That buildings were constructed
And maintained
In his honor—
That we were occupied
With the arrangements
Of hymns and prayers
And the proper, responsible way
Of doing things?

Shall we tell him
That we had to take care
Of the orderly definition
     of dogmas
So that there was no time
To listen to the
     sobbing
Of the little ones
Huddled in corners
Or the silent despair
Of those already beyond
     sobbing?

Or, shall we say this, too:
That we were afraid—
That we were keeping busy
     with all this
To avoid confrontation
Wih the reality of his
     meaning
Which would lead us to
     repentance—-
That it was fear that
     kept us
Hiding in church pews
And in important boards
     and committees
When he went by?

                     —Ursula Solek

 

Bonus:  Take a look at these pictures and the accompanying story by Ryan Phillips, grandson of Irma Lee Hardie, one of our regular volunteers in Community Missions.