The revolution at the heart of the Thriving Cities theory lies in its goal: Strengthen people’s capacity to take the lead in making decisions that affect their own neighborhoods.
The academics who developed the theory wanted to put it into action. Lea Whitehurst-Gibson was the woman to do it. She’d been organizing communities in Richmond for most of the preceding decade. As community engagement coordinator for RVA Thrives, Lea began working with Thriving Cities’ project manager, Nelson Reveley, to apply the theory in real life on the Route 1 corridor.
Since the community members themselves would define both the problems and the solutions, Lea and Nelson started by interviewing 100 Southside neighbors. All they did was listen.
The Route 1 corridor was chosen because it had long been overlooked, and Lea lost track of the number of times she heard Southside neighbors exclaim, “What? You’re coming down here? No one’s ever come down here.”
“It’s not okay that we ignore these communities,” Lea says. “It’s not okay that the first time we look at them is when there’s already development interest. By then it’s too late. As a community improves, people want to come back, but the people who’ve been there all along don’t get to enjoy the benefits of gentrification because they can’t afford to stay.” In Southside, that wasn’t an issue. Yet.
From those 100 interviews, Lea and Nelson came up with a list of 11 concerns they heard over and over. They developed a survey and hired neighbors from the community to begin a more focused listening process.
Elaine was one of those hires: “The challenge is, a lot of groups and companies do surveys. People get asked to take surveys all the time. So they want to know: Are you really going to stay here long term? Having lived here did give me some leeway with people being willing to engage with me, and community members helped me navigate that. And I made it clear that I wasn’t here to use their story. I was here to learn.”
Off the commercial strip in a newer apartment complex, Elaine sat at a kitchen table, sipping tea and listening to a woman a couple decades her senior. Elaine had been looking forward to meeting with “Janice”, who had lived here her whole life.
“I was super excited to get her perspective, to get her insight into the changes she’d seen, her ideas for positive change,” Elaine recalls. Surrounded by family photos in Janice’s cozy kitchen, Elaine asked open-ended questions and listened.
Janice was a single mom looking for work, but she had some health problems that were making work hard to find. Fortunately, her grown daughter who lived with her did have a job. But the minimum wage jobs available along the Route 1 corridor couldn’t keep up with rent increases, and it was difficult for Janice to access health care without employment. There was nothing for the neighborhood’s kids to do after school. There were no grocery stores nearby.
As the listening process progressed, interest began to build among Janice and her neighbors. Elaine and her fellow neighborhood listeners weren’t telling them how this new program would fix all the community’s problems. For the first time, someone was asking the community, “What do you think are the issues? How do you think we should address those issues?” They had a real stake in this. Enthusiasm grew.
Lea and Nelson’s goal for the listening team was 200 surveys. In the end, they wound up with 700, plus 50 in depth interviews. It was time to take action. ►