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.
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.
While 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.