Earlier this week, the City of Charlottesville made history by electing Independent Councilwoman Nikuyah Walker to serve as their Mayor. She is the first African-American woman to ever hold the position. And while it’s too early to tell if Mayor Walker will be an effective Mayor following what has to be Charlottesville’s most turbulent year in recent memory, what is clear is that their local elected leaders, community activists, and advocacy groups, have demonstrated the ability to have very uncomfortable conversations, often in public, and to act upon the change they desire to see in their city.
I first saw Mayor Walker on city council video earlier this year, and by all means, it was not a friendly exchange. The post-August 12th Charlottesville City Council meetings were extremely contentious – to the point of hostile. It was uncomfortable to watch on video, I couldn’t imagine the atmosphere in the room. But it exposed some realities in Charlottesville that needed to be discussed. And not only has the city’s leadership changed, they have hosted a number of unity and healing events, and honored the late Heather Heyer with the dedication of Heather Heyer Way last month.
While the City of Charlottesville was the epicenter of the White Nationalist rally on August 12th and the eyes of the world shifted to Charlottesville which exposed the racial and systemic challenges of the city, when it comes to Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy, it appears that we are still in a state of wait-and-see regarding Confederate monuments and the systemic challenges facing our community. Leaders and community members alike are having conversations that usually start with, “What should be done?” or “What can be done?” or even, “Where do we start?”
To his credit, Mayor Stoney has had a strong first year. He inherited an uncertain hand and has hit the ground running, showing the enthusiasm he displayed on the campaign trail. He has begun the process of addressing some key challenges: the overall morale and effectiveness of city hall is improving, he has been present at community events and accessible to community members, the Mayor’s office relationship with media is much more transparent than that of his predecessor, he has initiated – and is championing – the Education Compact (public opinion is still out), and his relationship with the members of City Council is civil and professional. These are all good things. But the racial and systemic challenges in Richmond remain omnipresent, and they have proven themselves to be difficult in 2017: public education, public housing, shootings and homicides, poverty, young people living in poverty, food access, access to jobs, and of course, Confederate monuments, just to name a few.
Last June, Mayor Stoney announced the creation of the Monument Avenue Commission to “help the city redefine the false narrative” of the Confederate statues that line the wide boulevard. After August 12th, Mayor Stoney wisely opened the door for the Commission to consider removal and relocation of Confederate Monuments, along with the original task of adding more context to redefine the narrative. Last month, the Richmond City Council voted down a proposal from 9th District Councilman Michael Jones that would request the Virginia General Assembly to grant the city authority to remove the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The vote only produced two votes in favor of the proposal (Jones and 6th District Councilwoman Robertson), while most of the council members cited the unfinished work of the Commission as their reason for not voting for it.
Since August 12th, more than 25 cities have removed or relocated Confederate statues and monuments (Fox News has a running list). And while a change in Richmond is not dependant on Monument Ave, I hope the Commission recommends to relocate Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue. I’d handicap that at 70/30. I don’t think the Commission will initiate the move but stranger things have happened.
But Confederate monuments and statues notwithstanding, Charlottesville is moving forward and attempting to work through some really uncomfortable realities about their community. My sense is that RVA is just holding out hope that nothing bad happens.