Creighton Court and RVA skyline

A 2013 aerial view of Creighton Court with the Richmond skyline in the background.

Our city has for decades been hampered by the crushing burdens of poverty on far too many residents and on the community as a whole. That burden takes many forms, from the child who arrives at school hungry, tired and stressed, to the young adult struggling to find adequate employment, to the grandmother worried about the safety of her family and community.

There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the powerful factors that perpetuate generational poverty in Richmond. But one would be profoundly mistaken to believe that nothing can be done or that a community-wide vision and plan for systemic change cannot be developed and implemented in Richmond.

Important steps have already been taken. In 2014, Mayor Dwight C. Jones established the Office of Community Wealth Building to lead implementation of initiatives in five priority areas identified by the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission: workforce development, targeted economic development, creating a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, transforming public housing, and developing a regional transportation system. The work of the office involves intensive collaboration across city agencies as well as with other crucial partners such as Richmond Public Schools and Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority.

Much has been accomplished in the past 18 months. Here are just a few highlights:

  • The city’s Center for Workforce Innovation connected more than 175 residents in fiscal 2015 to employment, while building innovative collaborations with partners such as Capital One, Strickland Machine Company and the United Way.
  • The city launched a new program, Building Lives to Independence and Self-Sufficiency (BLISS), to provide intensive family-based wraparound support services to assist working parents in getting ahead by addressing common obstacles such as transportation and child care.
  • This fall the city, in collaboration with Richmond Public Schools and the RPS Education Foundation, launched the innovative program RVA Future to bolster the career and college planning resources available to RPS high school students and ensure that more students are connected to quality post-secondary opportunities. Future Centers staffed by a full-time professional are now operational in all five comprehensive high schools, providing assistance to hundreds of students.
  • With funding from the city and numerous private donors, NextUp RVA has launched high-quality after-school programs in Henderson and Boushall middle schools, providing adolescents both academic support and exposure to a variety of new experiences and activities.
  • The city and Richmond Public Schools, in conjunction with numerous community partners and the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have launched a major early childhood initiative aimed at identifying and meeting high-priority needs in this critical area. Early fruits of this work include the successful RVA Reads book program in the city’s pre-K classrooms.
  • Several major projects advancing the aims of the city’s poverty reduction initiative have moved forward significantly, including the GRTC Pulse Bus Rapid Transit project, the spine of a potential regional transit system, and the first set of projects supported by the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Yet more is in the pipeline, including the transformation of Creighton Court in the East End and implementation of the city’s social enterprise initiative to bolster job creation and entrepreneurial activity in high-poverty neighborhoods.

These initiatives are not short-term projects. They are long-term investments in building a more just and inclusive city. That’s why the City Council’s action last week to enact Mayor Jones’ proposal to establish the Office of Community Wealth Building as a permanent department was a signally important moment for all of Richmond.

This action ensures that the city will continue to have a dedicated unit focused on poverty reduction and building community wealth, even after the mayor’s term ends.

Jones has established a goal of setting the city on pace to reduce child poverty 50 percent and overall poverty 40 percent by 2030. Achieving that level of change is possible with concerted effort and smart investments in critical areas. But if we in the city and community take our eyes off the ball, it won’t happen.

Significantly, starting in 2016 the mayor will be required by law to present a written annual report to City Council on progress made toward poverty reduction, and to make an oral presentation of the report at a City Council meeting. The report will include a detailed system of metrics allowing policymakers and the public to track the progress that has been made over time.

In my role leading the Office of Community Wealth Building, I am reminded every day of the stress, pain and frustration experienced by thousands of city residents wrestling with poverty. Yet I am also amazed by the resilience of so many residents, and by the desire of so many people of good will to contribute to building a different Richmond. Establishing the Office of Community Wealth Building provides the city with a strong institutional mechanism for not only setting but achieving ambitious goals. Now it is up to not only city government but the entire community to ensure that goals set become goals achieved.

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Thad Williamson, on leave from his position as associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, is director of the Office of Community Wealth Building for the City of Richmond. He can be contacted at Thaddeus.Williamson@richmondgov.com.

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