Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Working Toward a Just Society: How One American City Is Building Wealth Among Its Disenfranchised

September 8, 2016
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Working Toward a Just Society: How One American City Is Building Wealth Among Its Disenfranchised
Thad Williamson, former head of the Office of Community Wealth Building, reads to a group of pre-K students at Maymont Pre-K Center in Richmond, Va. Courtesy of Thad Williamson
A new government program in Richmond, Va., aims to reduce poverty by equipping residents with the tools to achieve self-sufficiency.

In his seminal 1971 book “A Theory of Justice,” the American political philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment in his quest to define a fair and just society. He asks us to imagine ourselves in a situation in which we know nothing about our personal characteristics — not our gender, race, wealth or educational background. From this blind starting point, we’re tasked with laying the framework for a new, just society — the catch being, of course, that if you don’t know where you’ll land in the social hierarchy, what kind of world would you choose to live in?

Like Rawls, Thad Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, believes the key to a fair and just society is one in which capitalism works not to make as much money as possible, but to distribute wealth by offering equal employment and social opportunities. It’s a political theory usually confined to debates in lecture halls and academic journals. But two years ago, the city of Richmond offered Williamson a unique opportunity: to build a new government agency, from the ground up, that would tackle the constellation of causes that has led the city’s poverty rate to swell to 22.1 percent, triple the rest of Virginia.

That agency, the Office of Community Wealth Building, or OCWB, launched in 2014. OCWB attempts to boost the number of high-paying jobs for adults, offer more learning and development opportunities for kids and realign current housing stock to be more affordable and public-transit accessible. By 2030, Williamson hopes these efforts will cut Richmond’s child poverty rate in half, creating a more just city.

“We have a fragmentation of services. The issues that really should be discussed holistically are separated: employment, education and housing are all deeply tied together in an urban context,” Williamson tells NationSwell. “Getting separate departments and agencies to cooperate can be a challenge. That’s one of the reasons why the Office of Community Wealth Building was built: to set the strategy for the city as a whole.”

Richmond’s struggle against poverty can be traced back to more than a century ago, when the city segregated neighborhoods. In 1937, the most destitute areas were redlined, leading to “urban renewal” programs that, just a couple of decades later, razed entire neighborhoods and took blacks’ savings (which was tied up in their property). A dangerous cycle ensued. The city’s next generation found themselves lacking proper education and reliable public transit and involved in crime or child protective services. “Far too many children in Richmond have grown up, and are growing up, with the odds firmly stacked against them, as a result of growing up in poverty conditions,” Richmond’s Anti-Poverty Commission remarked in its final report in 2013, where the idea for OCWB was first suggested.

Williamson proposed that the OCWB focus on employment first, directing people to nursing and medical technician jobs at the area’s 20 hospitals, and to positions as logistics supervisors and welders for an expanded port. “We started unpacking what it takes to get to a job with a living wage, what the career path is and the practical obstacles that a family had to overcome,” says Williamson. “We came back to transportation, child care and health concerns” as issues that needed to be dealt with before parents could begin to think about work. “The thought all along was that a standard workforce program is not a bad thing, but for families in deep poverty, it wouldn’t be sufficient.”

MOVIN’ ON UP

The agency’s signature pilot program, called Building Lives to Independence and Self-Sufficiency (or BLISS, a word rarely used to describe government services) kicked off by providing 18 families living in public housing with whatever support they needed to secure jobs and move out. The participants — 24 adults and 46 kids — say the program is unlike anything they’ve ever seen in government. Only a select number are accepted (though all other workforce-innovation programs are open to everyone). Since BLISS is locally funded, with no mandates set by the state or federal government, members set their own personal goals, and the agency strategizes ways to achieve them. Caseworkers aren’t clock-punching bureaucrats either, cordoned away in an office; once BLISS gets involved in your life, you’ve practically got a new family member, participants report.

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Jessica Ortiz is one such person. With two young daughters to support, Ortiz was laid off by a corporate law firm, where she had worked on foreclosure cases against homeowners. Initially, she applied for any job opening she could find: retail sales, administration assistant, hospital staff, line chef, security guard. Weeks later, if Ortiz did hear back from employers, they often said she was overqualified. After eight months of unemployment, Ortiz’s savings had evaporated, and life in her housing project was downright miserable. Her sink had been backed up for two years, the landline phone broke, and “D.C.-sized rats” infested the rooms, including the bathroom, where one rodent managed to dislodge the toilet pipes.

Within about three months of enrolling in BLISS, Ortiz’s caseworkers pointed her to a job opening at a local community-development nonprofit. Armed with her résumé and a reference letter from a BLISS caseworker, Ortiz was offered a job helping people with down payments on their first home or negotiating their debt. And the assistance didn’t stop there. In addition to hooking Ortiz up with a job, the agency called the housing authority to see that her toilet got fixed and the rat holes sealed, and it subsidized her childcare, which would have cost Ortiz about $1,250 a month. OCWB also organized regular meetings for the two dozen BLISS parents (including Ortiz) to swap advice, and it held sessions on topics like saving money via coupons, finding children’s books at the right grade level and balancing a budget. Unlike most state and federal programs, “the regulations [at OCWB] are coming from the people themselves, and they adjust to the participants,” Ortiz says. At BLISS, she adds, the staff views “you as an investment.”

PUSHING FORWARD

At the end of BLISS’s first year, 16 of the 18 heads of household had new jobs, and three-quarters completed financial literacy training to prepare them for homeownership. Seeing the results, the city council voted to make the OCWB a permanent fixture. Williamson says he’s particularly proud of assembling a capable and diverse staff of 14 employees during his tenure. “It’s such a huge undertaking, and the agency is trying to accomplish big things in a context where doing even little things often is very challenging and requires great persistence,” he says.

After laying the groundwork for the OCWB and leading it to its initial success, Williamson has returned full time to the classroom. Taking his spot is Reggie Gordon, a Richmond native and member of the city’s previous anti-poverty commission, who is stepping down as CEO of the American Red Cross’s Virginia chapter. Gordon says he’s got a prototype for how the agency should work, and it’s now a matter of obtaining long-term financing, growing the number of participants and rigorously documenting what’s effective.

In the hands of Gordon, and Williamson before him, what began as a thought experiment turned into something tangible, a government program that helps poor families move toward independence. Rawls would probably agree: Richmond is starting to see what a just society looks like.

MORE: Participants Claim This Program Boosts Them out of Poverty. Should Other Cities Implement It?

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