What Athens taught me about Richmond

In April, I was invited to participate in a Transatlantic Policy Lab hosted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in partnership with the German Marshall Fund. The goal of this lab was to drive equity building best practices and policies in Athens, Greece. I was invited to participate in this project through my experience as a Civic Innovator in Richmond and through my work on civic engagement, open government, and poverty. From June 26th through July 1st, I was part of an international delegation of fifteen innovation thought leaders from across the US and Europe.

We worked together in collaboration with Athens Chief Resiliency Officer, Lenio Myrivili, whose position was created by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. This new position is focused on building Urban Resilience, which is to expand the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive and adapt to chronic economic stresses (unemployment, poverty, food and water shortages) and acute shocks (earthquakes, floods, epidemics, and terrorism). Greece is struggling with the gravity of the impact the high unemployment rate has on the people in Athens. The EU bailout and austerity measures have created a strain on the already frail public trust in government. Our project is grounded in identifying recommendations that do not depend on government spending, but rather focus on identifying outcomes and developing partnerships that achieve desired outcomes.

Vacant building long abandoned, rotting under the hot Mediterranean sun.

Our project highlighted the struggling side of Athens. I walked the streets of the 3rd and 6th districts in the center of the city. I saw heroin addicts unconscious in the streets, surrounded by needles. There were graffiti covered buildings and fences. I saw extreme urban decay from decades of suburban flight driven by economic downturns. We walked through a city with blocks of vacant buildings and lots. I passed Muslim refugees struggling in the heat of the day as they fasted during Ramadan, holding on to the one remaining part of their life back home — their faith — waiting for the sun to set for nourishment. I saw abandoned apartment buildings converted into temporary housing for the migrants as they sought refuge from their war torn homes, living without electricity or running water. I saw signs of anarchist movements and met Golden Dawn members of the communist party of Greece. Needless to say, I saw a side of Athens few people see, but it’s the real side of Athens, which was the purpose of the Transatlantic Policy Lab.

Vacant boarded up buildings being passed by a refuge on her way back to her family. Notice the Anarchy symbols.

What I also saw were these broken neighborhoods filled with passionate people trying to help and make a difference. There were many non-government organizations providing food, water, shelter and care for whoever needed help. I learned that “one will never go hungry in Greece”, but I also learned that there is a limit to their generosity. They will help you find food, water, shelter, and care as long as you also help yourself. I also observed the incredible passion and perseverance of many community leaders that see endless possibility and opportunity to make their city better by helping empower and strengthen those that need it most. This is not to be a government funded solution, but a government led priority to coordinate and organize the various community resources needed to achieve equity in their communities. A government led team-building and coordinating effort that we were brought into help design.

What I learned through this project was that in order to truly overcome challenges and weaknesses we need to accept the reality, the scars, the pain, and the struggle facing many residents in Athens. Transparency. Acknowledgement. Openness. There was nothing hidden. During our closing dinner, I discussed with Athens Mayor Yiorgos Kaminis the project and his approach to drive change across his city. He expressed his appreciation for our energetic support as they seek to tackle the incredible challenge to build equity throughout the entire city. Focusing on the lowest, the worst, and the most struggling areas of his city demonstrated that Mayor Kaminis truly desires to implement the changes necessary to improve life for everyone. As a group of innovative thought leaders from all over the US and Europe, we were able to dive deep into these challenges because we had walked through them, heard them from residents and observed the struggle. In order to pursue actionable changes, we needed to embrace the harsh reality facing many residents and immigrants of Athens and Greece. While we as a group have a lot of work left to do in addressing this challenge, one thing became ever clearer for me, that is how much Richmond can learn from this experience.

As I return home from this incredible project, I recall the many conversations I had with residents of the First District as I pursued getting the signatures to get on the ballot for my City Council campaign. Most of the conversations focused on the need to fix our public schools. Through our discussions, it became apparent that building equity in the quality of all public schools is paramount. This confirmed the results from the 2014 Community Survey, where over 68% of all responses were dissatisfied with the quality of Richmond Public Schools. Improving public schools requires rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. It means tackling the reality of the challenges facing the physical environment of learning for many in our city as well as understanding and accepting the impact different socio-economic factors play in education. It means visiting each school in the First District, as well as across the entire city, to be able to identify the areas of inequality, not just from reading a report, but also from seeing them with my own eyes. I need to hear the needs and challenges from the source, from the teachers, parents, and students of each school. Just as Athens showed me, we need to lift up the rug, to see the truth about the situation facing all students and school faculty. This is the only way to truly define the path to improve our schools.

We need to identify the root causes of the challenges facing our public schools by seeing, listening, and observing them with our own eyes. We need to outline the best ways to coordinate our strong community partners to drive the outcomes our children need. We need to pursue a diverse array of funding options to supplement and compliment our budget through strategic cooperation between grants, foundations, and philanthropy. This is not just a government issue, but a community led solution. We cannot blindly throw money at the problem and expect it to go away. We need to surgically target the areas that will generate the most impact, the biggest result, and ultimately drive the outcomes our city’s children deserve.

If you select me as your next First District City Council representative, I commit to building and leading a diverse team of leaders and experts to find the best practices, solutions, and lessons needed to improve our schools. I do not have all the answers, but I am committed to finding the best solutions needed to address this great challenge. I will visit each school in the First District (Mary Munford Elementary, Albert Hill Middle, and Thomas Jefferson High school) each month to meet with school leadership, speak with teachers, and students. I will meet with the First District School Board representative monthly to maintain dialogue about budget and resource needs, priorities, and next steps. I will also visit each school in the city once per year. It’s important to be able to understand the contrast of schools in the First District, which are some of the best in the city, with those that are challenged with lower socio-economic statuses, poverty, dangerous crime, and high truancy.

It is City Council’s role to produce and approve a strong budget that is accountable and strategic in accomplishing the goals of the city. This means working hand-in-hand with our public school leadership, community leaders, and non-profit organizations to drive the changes needed to improve our schools. As the First District City Council representative, I promise to make improving Richmond Public School’s a top priority in my actions in office. Not only will I make sure to firsthand experience and learn the challenges facing our city, but as we define our next steps and budget the needs required to drive this change, I will also lead the charge for creating citizen facing reporting to express the impact our funding had in generating outcomes. Together, we need to make our schools better. It’s time to take page out of Athen’s book and apply it to our challenges.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.