Janice Underwood, Old Dominion University’s diversity director, was tapped Monday to play a similar role on a large scale as Virginia’s first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the hire at a news conference, seven months after the blackface scandal that rocked his administration and led to promises by Northam to focus the rest of his time in office on racial equity.
Amid the fallout, Northam vowed to bring on staff members who would advise him personally on matters of race and diversity. In hiring Underwood, Northam’s administration hopes the job will become a permanent Cabinet-level position, sanctioned by the General Assembly, focused on inequity in state government.
Underwood has been ODU’s director of diversity initiatives for the past year, working to “create inclusive work and learning environments” at the university, and leading workshops on racial and cultural diversity, according to her bio. Before working in higher education, Underwood was a teacher for students with special needs.
“I am committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive, and that starts with my administration and our state government,” Northam said. “[Underwood’s] background as an educator, leader and collaborator, as well as her experience promoting inclusive policies and directing a variety of diversity initiatives, make her the perfect person to fill this role.”
In remarks Monday, Underwood said one of the things that attracted her to the job was Northam’s “unprecedented commitment to rebuilding the trust we have in him.”
In February, Northam fielded widespread calls for his resignation after a racist photo showing a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe was found on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Northam has for months denied he is one of the two people in the photo, though he initially said he was. Investigations into the matter by Northam’s political arm and Eastern Virginia Medical School were inconclusive.
“He hasn’t always gotten it right, but what I respect most is that he’s willing to learn and do the work,” Underwood said, heaping praise on Northam for actions on racial equity his administration has taken since.
“I’m committed to working alongside him to go even further.”
Asked about her priorities coming into the job, Underwood said she is looking forward to engaging lawmakers and the public in conversations about equity in the coming months.
Northam’s administration kicked off the search for a diversity officer in May. Underwood was picked from a pool of 80 applicants and 30 finalists.
Underwood will be responsible for developing a plan to promote inclusive practices and address systemic inequities in state government, while “fostering an inclusive environment throughout state government where employees feel a sense of belonging,” according to the job posting. She will be tasked with creating an office under her leadership to complete the work.
Underwood will also work with the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services to promote inclusive recruitment and retention across state government.
At least one member of the Virginia General Assembly is promising to try to strike from state law a requirement that people applying for a marriage license identify their race.
If the proposal by state Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, becomes law, it will not be the first time in recent history that state lawmakers have gotten rid of the requirement. They did so in 2003 in a bill sponsored by one of Levine’s predecessors in the same House district, Marian Van Landingham, D-Alexandria.
But in 2005, lawmakers reinstated the race question in a bill sought by former state Sen. Harry B. Blevins, R-Chesapeake, the chief patron. Blevins died last year.
His colleague and a co-patron of the bill, state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, on Monday said: “I don’t know that there was a specific reason for reintroducing that other than just information gathering like when we do the census. There’s all kinds of information that’s gathered.
“I guess if the majority of people think we shouldn’t ask that, I guess we can reverse again,” he said.
It became an issue last week when one of Levine’s constituents, Victor M. Glasberg, a civil rights lawyer in Alexandria, filed a suit on behalf of three couples challenging the constitutionality of the state law that requires they identify their race to be able to obtain a marriage license.
The suit says that Virginia is one of only eight states that requires people seeking a marriage license to include their race on the form, “using unscientific, highly controversial, misleading, useless and tainted categories reflecting Virginia’s historical repression of non-white persons.”
The suit was brought against the Virginia State Registrar, charged with maintaining a system for collecting and preserving vital records, and the clerks of the Arlington County and Rockbridge County circuit courts, where the plaintiffs applied to be married but could not get a license after refusing to state their races.
Paul F. Ferguson, the Arlington circuit court clerk, said the clerks’ responsibility is to collect and process the data and pass it on to the state registrar.
“Had the person that came to the office asked to speak to the civil section supervisor or myself, we would have been glad to let them fill out the form without checking ‘other,’ if they didn’t want to list anything under that race category, but they didn’t ask,” Ferguson said.
“Should they want to come in the future to do that, we’d be glad to accommodate them,” he said. “What we can’t tell them is whether or not their marriage would be accepted by the Department of Vital Records. That’s not something that’s under our purview.
“I hope that they return and I’m glad to try to accommodate them,” he said.
Patricia S. Moore, the circuit court clerk for Washington County and president of the Virginia Clerks’ Association, wrote in an email Monday that “our convention is this weekend beginning Friday the 13th. The subject will be included in discussion, as I plan to bring it up in my own remarks to the group.
“I have no idea why that particular statistic is still required on the marriage application, there’s no prohibition on whom may marry. It’s not relevant.”
In an email to Virginia clerks and deputy clerks over the weekend, Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy wrote, “In the 21st century we should seek to rid ourselves of this particular racial division.”
He suggested that the association consider a resolution asking the Virginia Department of Health and/or the 2020 General Assembly “to repeal such a discriminatory question of human beings in love seeking a marriage license. To pose this question is impolite in the best light, or just more ‘Jim Crow’ in the worst.”
Kennedy has also asked a legislator to sponsor a bill striking the requirement.
“I have spent a significant part of my clerk of court career in the modernization of recordkeeping, but this issue hit close to home and is one that screams out for modernity and equality,” he wrote.
Ferguson and Levine both said they were unaware the General Assembly struck the question and then reversed itself soon afterward. Levine said his proposal is aimed only at collecting racial information from marriage applicants for no apparent legitimate purpose.
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Should a public figure who has advocated for the $1.5 billion Richmond Coliseum redevelopment proposal be a sitting member of the citizen commission tasked with vetting the plans?
A majority of members of the Richmond City Council are willing to consider the possibility.
Councilman Michael Jones on Monday nominated Virginia Union University President Hakim J. Lucas to sit on the commission the council is appointing to pore over the massive development proposal unveiled last month. Jones said he was concerned about the diversity of the commission, citing phone calls he received from African American ministers about the makeup of the panel.
“There’s a group of local community leaders who share the concern about representation from Virginia Union University, because honestly Virginia Union is overlooked in so much of what goes on in Richmond,” Jones said. Also nominating Lucas was Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
Supporting Lucas’ consideration among other nominees to the commission were five council members: Councilman Andreas Addison, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, Robertson, Council President Cynthia Newbille and Jones.
Lucas’ nomination drew a rebuke from Councilwoman Kim Gray, who proposed the citizen commission last year. She questioned her colleagues’ motivations in putting forward Lucas, saying three of the seven nominees to fill out the nine-member commission are black.
Instead, Gray said she believed Jones and Robertson had an ulterior motive in nominating the president of the historically black college.
“This is an attempt to diminish the credibility of this commission,” Gray said.
She questioned Lucas’ impartiality, pointing to an opinion column endorsing the project published under his name in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December.
“For our community, there are real risks in doing nothing,” the opinion column stated. “The status quo is not good: a broken-down Coliseum, an unattractive downtown area, and vacant land that contributes no tax revenue to the city. And if Richmond does not get this done, it’s hard to see how there will be a next project.”
It has since been disclosed that NH District Corp., the group that proposed the plans, developed the column bearing Lucas’ name, as well as that of Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University. The op-ed said the authors could be reached at an NH District email address.
Jones said he believed Lucas could assess the project objectively despite his public support of it.
“If individuals have an issue with what he did, I still believe he is professional enough to do the job,” Jones said.
A Virginia Union University spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email sent Monday evening seeking comment on Lucas’ nomination.
The council discussion came as Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao’s public praise of the project drew scrutiny and raised ethics questions. An NH District consultant, Jeff Kelley, ghostwrote a column bearing Rao’s name that The Times-Dispatch published in January, according to emails the newspaper obtained between Rao’s office and Kelley.
A spokeswoman for VCU has defended the decision to affix Rao’s name to the op-ed, citing a brief interview between Kelley and Rao upon which she said the op-ed was based. (Kelley worked for The Times-Dispatch from 2003 to 2007.)
NH District Corp.’s plans call for a 17,500-seat arena, the largest in the state; a high-rise hotel with at least 525 rooms; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the area.
Its complex financing structure relies on the creation of a “tax increment financing” district. All new real estate tax revenue from the district, either from new construction or rising property assessments, would cover debt payments to holders on a $350 million bond offering for the arena. Without the project, those dollars would otherwise flow to the city’s general fund, which pays for core services such as schools and roads.
Over 30 years, the city would owe about $570 million for the arena that would replace the Coliseum. The city’s financial adviser, Davenport & Co., has said the project could net enough new tax revenue to pay back the money in as few as 21 years. That would bring the cost down to about $476 million.
If appointed by the council, Lucas would replace one person nominated as part of a seven-person slate put forward by the commission’s chairman, Pierce Homer, and vice chairman, John Gerner, earlier this month.
They are: Richard E. Crom, an IRS analyst; Mark M. Gordon, a former Bon Secours Mercy Health executive; Grindly R. Johnson, Virginia’s deputy secretary of administration; Suzanne S. Long, a partner at Meyer, Baldwin, Long & Moore; Mary Harding “Mimi” Sadler, a historical architect with Sadler & Whitehead Architects; Michael J. Schewel, a former secretary of commerce and trade for the state; and Corey D.B. Walker, a professor at the University of Richmond.
Once a majority of the commission is seated, it will have 90 days to review the project and report its findings to the council. It must hold public meetings and keep minutes of its discussions.
The council is slated to finalize its appointments to the commission at its next meeting on Sept. 23.
Also Monday, the council condemned the use of “conversion therapy” in the city limits and across the state.
The council unanimously endorsed a nonbinding resolution banning the practice, a discredited method of attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of a person. The practice has resulted in harmful mental health outcomes among LGBTQ individuals, and has been a cause of drug addiction, homelessness and suicide among people who have experienced it.
Three state boards that regulate mental health professionals banned the practice earlier this year, but it remains legal in Virginia. Bills seeking to ban conversion therapy have failed in the Virginia General Assembly in recent years.
Mayor Levar Stoney, who proposed the resolution, commended the council’s vote.
“I am proud that members of Richmond’s City Council joined me in opposing the inhumane and regressive practice of conversion therapy and affirming the sexual orientation and identities of all Richmonders,” Stoney said in a statement.
The Richmond School Board still plans to vote on new school boundaries by the end of the calendar year, members said Monday.
During a rezoning-only special meeting, board members answered a series of questions, including ones related to the timeline, posed to them by a board-appointed special committee that is reviewing proposals for new school zones.
Neither the committee nor the board has received the potential costs for implementing the zones, which concerned some parents during a flurry of community meetings last month in which they said the system was rushing the process.
In responding to the questions posed over the past several months by the special committee, board members decided they would still like recommendations from the committee in November, with a board vote the following month.
“We need to get something in place by the end of this year to get the transportation plan in place and for parents to know what’s going on,” said Kenya Gibson, who represents the 3rd District on the board.
Under the timeline presented at the start of the rezoning process earlier this year, the board would vote in December and the new zones would take effect at the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Three new schools — E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road, both on the South Side, along with George Mason Elementary in the East End — are being built with an open date of the start of next school year.
The new schools, board members said Monday, require new zones to take effect when they open.
“We need to rezone for those schools now,” said Linda Owen, who represents the 9th District, where the new middle school and Greene are being built. “We’re opening those schools in a year — a little less — and we need to be ready.”
E.S.H. Greene, for example, is being built for 1,000 students to help alleviate crowding that is most prevalent on the South Side. The average capacity at elementary schools south of the James River is currently above 100%, according to data from the Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS.
“We are bursting at the seams, and we need to address this,” said School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page, who represents the 8th District.
Monday’s meeting was the first time the School Board held a rezoning-only meeting. Board members have discussed the process at all but one of their meetings since April 8, when the board approved a series of goals for rezoning, including alleviating crowding, increasing diversity in schools and “expediting” student placement into the new schools.
The list of goals included potential school consolidations, but that has not been a focus in the five months since the board’s approval.
Much of the conversation Monday night focused on how the rezoning committee should prioritize the rezoning goals established by the School Board, the most contentious of which has been improving diversity, as several options propose combining majority-white and majority-black schools.
Board members all agreed that addressing the South Side crowding is important, but decided that it was too hard to rank the priorities because there are “competing concerns in different parts of the city,” as Superintendent Jason Kamras said when summarizing the board’s discussion.
Kamras’ administration is drafting cost estimates for the proposals being considered by the committee. Those estimates are expected to be completed by the end of September, with discussion by the School Board at its Oct. 7 meeting.
In a brief discussion, the board said it would look at potentially changing the school system’s open enrollment policies. It currently has an open enrollment system, which is used by about 1,000 families . Under it, a family can apply for a spot at a school outside of a student’s assigned zone; if a student is accepted, the family must arrange transportation.
Jonathan Young, the 4th District representative, has proposed open enrollment for the entire school system and the elimination of neighborhood schools. His proposal, made in early August, has not gained steam among the committee or the board as a whole.
“We should be deferring to our families and empowering them to make decisions,” Young said Monday.
Young’s plan also calls for closing five schools — John Marshall High School, Henderson Middle School and Swansboro, Southampton and Bellevue elementary schools.
It was unclear Monday exactly when the board would discuss the open enrollment policies.
The board’s clearest decision reached Monday was that it wanted three to five recommendations from the special committee, which is scheduled to meet again Sept. 19.