Across from bustling downtown Richmond, south of the James River, U.S. Route 1 turns into an austere six-lane stretch of asphalt. Traffic hurries past used car lots, vacant lots, low-slung industrial buildings and wood-frame bungalows, some tidy, some boarded up.
For a few years back in high school, Elaine Williams had called this place home – Southside’s Route 1 corridor. Her family lived on a block where there were only two houses among a jumble of businesses that were just getting by. That was before she went to college to study social work. Afterward, she put her degree to work providing services to the homeless. But she wanted to see change happen on a larger level, from the outside in rather than the inside out.
Then Elaine’s mentor, Lea Whitehurst-Gibson, told her about a University of Virginia think tank called Thriving Cities. They were looking at Southside and asking: What would it look like and take for everyone along Route 1 to thrive?
Good question. Thinking back to her old neighborhood, Elaine knew her one-time neighbors had the potential to build a thriving community. They just didn’t have the resources. But which resources did they need? She concluded, “I knew what my family had needed but not what the community actually needed. I just knew there had been divestment for so long that it didn’t have what it needed to thrive.” She wanted to see justice for a place that had been largely ignored.
If you think of communities as ecosystems, some are fed and healthy and some are struggling. How do you change things to make it all more fair? Which elements are necessary for a community to thrive and how do you feed those things? And who gets to decide?
When Lea invited Elaine to get involved in the Southside project that would become known as RVA Thrives, Elaine got on board. In the process, she helped put into action a new theory about how to find answers to those challenging questions – a new theory for implementing change that was so simple and obvious that it was hard to believe it was new. Yet it relied on an approach that was so rarely used that it has turned out to be surprisingly revolutionary.►