What’s realistic to expect of our local government?
Most Richmond residents understand local government is an imperfect operation and likely always will be. They want to see good-faith effort by elected officials to be responsive to residents’ demands and needs, and tangible evidence that progress is being made.
But within that very broad shared understanding, perspectives diverge sharply. One common view, rarely stated explicitly but implicit in many public conversations, is that the city’s most overwhelming challenges – in particular, the racial and economic divides – are too overwhelming to be addressed in a meaningful way.
After all, our challenges regarding poverty, education and racial inequity are deeply entrenched and have proven stubbornly difficult to overcome. In this view, rather than focus on moving mountains, the local government should simply focus on doing a better job on the basics of city government, being responsive to residents and businesses, and delivering basic services.
An alternative view is that Richmond has both the moral responsibility and the practical capacity to do much, much better in tackling our deepest challenges. Everyone wants to see a lower violent crime rate and much better schools, but neither is likely without greater focused attention on fighting poverty and expanding economic opportunity, and without identifying and deploying resources from all sources on a massive scale that befits the size of our challenges.
This alternative view in turn has two variants: those who believe Richmond has at least to a degree been on the right track in naming and beginning to address the vast racial and economic divide, and those who are utterly frustrated by the pace of change and wish to not simply demand but enact more rapid change, as soon as possible.
All three of these views are plausible and need to be heard. Indeed, truly successful political and civic leadership in Richmond needs to be attentive to all three perspectives. We need to improve basic services, we need to build upon positive examples already underway, and we need to demand a more rapid pace of change towards bold equity goals.
But elections come only every four years and this is a city and nation in crisis. This has been a horrible year, but it’s also shown us the need to rethink the fundamentals of our society and our city. The pandemic and the economic collapse have put all Richmonders under severe stress and many in economic crisis. But tens of thousands were already in crisis before the pandemic began.
Now is the time for the community to demand from leaders bold change with a renewed sense of urgency. There’s no reason Richmond must continue to have 40% of our children living in poverty: We know that helping parents attain living wage jobs reduces poverty, that improving early childhood education is critical to breaking the link between poverty and educational outcomes, and that helping graduating teenagers get additional training or get to college will lift their lifetime earnings. We also know that systemic change will require advocacy and pressure for better state and federal policies.
We know we must continue to invest in improving our transportation system. We know that large-scale new investment informed by a community-driven plan will be needed to address our housing issues. And we know without any doubt that large-scale economic development cannot happen without front-end civic involvement.
We would like to see all candidates for office in Richmond -- mayor, City Council and School Board -- commit to cutting childhood poverty by one-half over the next 10 years and we would like to see them begin developing workable plans to achieve that goal. We need to be setting and embracing bold goals around poverty, education, housing and transportation, and now is the right time to do so. We need those goals to not only hold elected leaders accountable, but ourselves accountable as residents.
Richmond politics can make for entrancing theater at times, but we fail as a community when we make our public life revolve around public drama and personalities. Our public life should be about naming shared problems and developing and implementing practical strategies to address them.
To that end, we are founding members of a new, nonpartisan civic organization, Richmond Together, devoted to supporting the bold change our city needs and deserves. We have asked 12 tough questions about policy and governance of each candidate for mayor and City Council in this year’s elections, and another 12 questions of each candidate for School Board.
We will not be making any endorsements as a group. What we will be doing is sharing candidates’ answers with the public on our website, www.RichmondTogether.org, so voters can be informed about not only what the candidates want to do but how they propose to do it. Equally if not more important, we will continue to call attention to these concerns and find ways to hold leadership and ourselves accountable for delivering on promised change after the election and over the next four years.
Achieving any level of tangible change in Richmond requires hard work and immense dedication. Even if we develop a stronger community consensus in support of bold change, the practical obstacles remain formidable. But we cannot be deterred by those obstacles – not when we think about the 15,000 children in Richmond growing up in poverty and the thousands of families living every day at the edge of crisis.
Instead, we must look difficult realities squarely in the eye and find what it takes to build a better Richmond together.
Taikein Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, an educational advocacy organization. Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a former director of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building. They are two of 10 founding members of Richmond Together.
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