Social work students explore Richmond’s struggles with race, injustice

Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freed...
Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work took a tour of Richmond last week to better understand the city — as well as social work — through a racial justice lens.

“I consider myself a radical social worker,” said Rebecca Keel, a master’s of social work student, speaking to her fellow students at Richmond’s slave burial ground. “The word ‘radical’ means ‘root cause.’ As social workers, we need to be thinking about the root causes of issues. Structural racism, social oppression and how that manifests in people’s lives – that’s what being a social worker is.”

As social workers, we need to be thinking about the root causes of issues.

As part of the daylong “Richmond [Re]Visited: An Orientation to Racial [In]Justice in RVA,” VCU social work students of all levels — undergraduates, master’s students and doctoral candidates — packed into four buses and traveled to sites in Richmond’s Greater Fulton and Shockoe Bottom neighborhoods, both of which have been marked by racial discrimination.

In Shockoe Bottom, the students visited the slave burial ground and Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, where they learned Richmond was early America’s second-largest slave market and heard the story of Gabriel, an enslaved man who planned a slave revolt in 1800 but was hanged once the plan was discovered.

“Shockoe Bottom is a place that we are coming to understand is as significant to the history of the country as St. John’s Church up the hill [from the slave burial grounds] where Patrick Henry gave the ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech,” said Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

Edwards told the students it is essential they understand the historical context of Richmond’s racial injustice, and she said the Black Lives Matter movement is helping to shine light on that history.

“In relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the things that we often have to deal with is the fact that some people feel that when you say black lives matter, you are saying that other lives don’t matter,” she said. “But what it really is going to the heart of is that we’re talking about the fact that, for the bulk of the history of this country, those lives have mattered the least, so it’s essential to raise them up.”

 Lille A. Estes, a community strategist, talks with VCU School of Social Work students at the slave burial grounds in Shockoe Bottom as part of the Richmond [Re]Visited tour.
Lille A. Estes, a community strategist, talks with VCU School of Social Work students at the slave burial grounds in Shockoe Bottom as part of the Richmond [Re]Visited tour.

In Fulton, the students visited the Neighborhood Resource Center, which serves as a gathering place, a Montessori School and a community garden, and offers after-school programs and programs to help adults with career advice and financial services.

At the NRC, the students heard from Rosa Coleman, president of the Greater Fulton Hill Civic Association, who told them how the historically black Fulton neighborhood where she grew up was bulldozed and its residents dispersed.

Growing up in Fulton, she said, her family lacked electricity or indoor plumbing, but the community was tightly knit and self-sustaining.

“Everybody knew everybody. Everybody took care of everybody. The Bible says it takes a village to raise a child. In Fulton, that’s what we were,” she said. “We didn’t have to leave Fulton. In fact, I never left until I went to the seventh grade and I had to go from Fulton to Church Hill. But until then, I stayed in Fulton. There was no reason for me to leave.”

Yet Coleman and other Fulton residents faced segregation and outright racism from white people in nearby neighborhoods.

“Peace is all we wanted and needed back then,” she said. “We’d come up here, and they’d throw rocks at us because ‘You can’t come past this line. Ya’ll keep your black selves down there. The white folks live up here.’ It’s so different now.”

Richmond [Re]Visited originated after School of Social Work faculty members Daryl Fraser, an assistant professor in teaching; Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., an assistant professor; and Stephanie Grady Odera, an assistant professor in teaching, launched a conversation among their students in the aftermath of the killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

VCU social work students of all levels — undergraduates, master’s students and doctoral candidates — packed into four buses and traveled to sites in Richmond’s Greater Fulton and Shockoe Bottom neighborhoods.
VCU social work students of all levels — undergraduates, master’s students and doctoral candidates — packed into four buses and traveled to sites in Richmond’s Greater Fulton and Shockoe Bottom neighborhoods.

“Dr. Wagaman and I held informal focus groups with several social work students in the spring semester to get their thoughts about how they felt social workers should be involved in addressing issues of racial injustice,” Fraser said. “In March, a larger schoolwide discussion was held and many students expressed a desire to learn more about the Richmond community, its history and ways they can advocate for similar issues on a local level.”

This led to the creation of Richmond [Re]Visited, which drew nearly 100 students from the School of Social Work.

“Students expressed that, whether they remained in Richmond or decided to practice social work elsewhere, the opportunity to learn and explore Richmond could enhance their understanding of structural and systemic racism and oppression,” Fraser said.

Jamala Williams, a master’s of social work student, was among 15 or 20 students who took part in the early discussions sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and who helped organize Richmond [Re]Visited. Student organizer Ashley Waddell and alumna Meghan Resler also helped get the project off the ground.

“We kind of focused on how it should be a Black Lives Matter movement, not an All Lives Matter movement,” Williams said. “And that eventually turned into a conversation about what would happen if something like Ferguson happened in our community. We wanted to talk about what we could do here in Richmond. So we decided to do something about it.”

Williams said she hopes Richmond [Re]Visited gave her classmates a deeper understanding of Richmond, and the work they want to achieve as social workers.

“We’re social workers, so we should be out in the city and doing stuff,” she said. “And I’m hoping that it [will help integrate] social justice more into the School of Social Work.”