A thought experiment: six seniors majoring in anthropology at the University of Glasgow are studying abroad this semester in Richmond. Their class assignment is to embed themselves in the community: find rental housing, visit schools, utilize transit, access health care services, take advantage of our cultural amenities, shop for healthy foods, maybe take a part-time job.
At the end of their stay, the students must answer two questions: What does the way Richmonders live, work, play and educate their children say about the community’s values? Is there a communal ethic at work in metropolitan Richmond?
I’m not sure how the students would answer those questions. They might describe us as aloof, polite, indifferent, compassionate, entrenched, creative, greedy, generous, cynical, hopeful — we can be all of those. What I fear is that they would also characterize our community as unequal and unjust. They would be right about that; great wealth and severe want coexist in close proximity in metropolitan Richmond.
Residents living in neighborhoods separated by only a few miles have vastly different life expectancies; in some cases, the difference is 20 years. Our community is not unique. The Glasgow co-eds could fan out across the country and experience much of the same.
But I don’t live elsewhere. I live here and I love this community; and I wonder what it would take to grow a community ethos of equity and justice. The writer Joan Chittister expresses the standard in this way: “The right criterion to be applied to the whole of the human journey [is that] we each have available the measure of life’s resources we need so that being alive is a blessing not a burden.” Imagine metropolitan Richmond without entrenched poverty; and with safe streets, high performing schools, integrated neighborhoods, affordable housing choices, robust transit and lush green spaces — in every ZIP code.
This is not an impossible dream. It is a vision of equitable community that would require not only bold steps, but also unrelenting hard work and significant resources. Perhaps most importantly, it would demand of us a change in mindset. Because if our mindset is one of scarcity, we will never achieve equity. Equity requires abundant thinking and doing. To establish abundance as the standard by which we craft, adopt, implement and measure our public policies would be seriously counter-cultural.
Watch the television ads of candidates running for the House of Delegates and state Senate or listen to the hyperbolic statements of the day by national politicians on both sides of the aisle. It seems almost everyone is running for election on a platform of scarcity, the fear of loss — the loss of jobs, of rights, of preferred school boundaries, of health care, of identity. If we allow ourselves to be convinced that a commodity is scarce, then our natural reaction is to become protective of it and leery of others seeking to secure some of it for themselves. Although false, the mantra of the zero-sum game is powerful: “I can’t have mine, if you get yours.” Scarcity breeds division.
So it should come as no surprise that candidates who win public office find it challenging to govern — to unite divided constituencies around a shared vision of shared sufficiency. But if policymakers could make this shift, what a smart pivot it would be; because the advancement of equity and justice is the most effective, cost-efficient public policy we could possibly pursue.
Because we live in relationship with others, we have cradle-to-grave responsibilities for one another. If a child is born addicted to crack cocaine, we pour medical resources into healing the child. When older citizens in their later years have insufficient resources, we see that they are sheltered and fed. We may do so in haphazard and inefficient ways, but we do it. And in the intervening years, there exists a myriad of government programs, subsidies and tax breaks — public dollars from which we all benefit at some point and in some way.
Government spending is a given. We can either invest our resources upfront in programs that enable people to recognize their inherent dignity and worth and thus make meaningful contributions; or we can spend even more money attempting to redress the negative consequences of our failure to do so.
Our public resources are not limitless; but neither should we view them as scarce. We can grow the pie. One of the best examples of this is the Henrico County meals tax. Passed by voters in a 2013 referendum, the meals tax annually generates millions of additional dollars that are invested in the operations and capital needs of schools throughout the county.
Another example of abundant thinking is the repurposing of vacant, blighted parcels or surplus government-owned buildings to create affordable housing and other community benefits. With increasing frequency, the region’s private companies, philanthropists and faith communities are determining how best to align and leverage their assets to create more equitable, just and thriving communities.
Challenges abound; but an ethos of abundance can become our reality.