Thad Williamson is coordinating Richmond’s fledgling anti-poverty initiative. The University of Richmond associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law took a year’s leave to head the city’s new Office of Community Wealth Building. (University of Richmond)

The last installment of the Richmond: The Legacy of Poverty series took us to the heart of the city’s challenge: an East End neighborhood with a 70 percent poverty rate. That visit made plain the extent to which the city will have to transform, expand or just start again with every major piece of the poverty puzzle: jobs, housing, education, transportation.

Daunted a little?

The man in charge of coordinating all this is Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law, who took a leave from the University of Richmond to become the director of the city’s new Office of Community Wealth Building. He’s been on the job five months.

Richmond’s history is tragic and triumphant, Williamson says. The past — and, many would argue, to some degree, still present — racial politics of the area have left the city operating in a regional economy without a regional transportation system, with a school system still crippled by white and black middle-class flight, with a “hyperconcentration” of public housing. But, Williamson says, the city has evolved in many ways, particularly in its ability to “speak constructively across racial lines with widespread understanding of the city’s history.”

Richmond’s leadership, including its political, faith, business and nonprofit communities, recognize the urgent need to give residents across the city much better opportunities than they now have, he says. “Without getting too grandiose, we’re trying to write the next triumphant chapter in the city’s story, and this one is more difficult in some ways.”

Williamson talked about the work ahead in a wide-ranging conversation this week.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Richmond has roughly a 27 percent poverty rate, almost 2½ times that of the commonwealth’s. Much of that poverty is highly concentrated — in some neighborhoods affecting half or more of residents. How does that density affect the city’s strategy?

Because the poverty is so extreme in those places, sometimes we forget that a neighborhood with a 35 percent poverty still has a high level of poverty by national standards. So we need a citywide approach. We want to avoid putting all the critical support in one area and inadvertently creating more poverty traps than already exist, which means that it needs to be possible to go from a worse-off place to a better-off place without losing access to the supports that allowed you to make that step in the first place. And a critical challenge is making sure, as best we can, that transition is successful, because if it’s not a family can end up worse than where they started.

Every day at the city workforce center, which, right now, is the hub of the city’s plan, there are people who can’t get to work because they don’t have cars and the jobs are in the suburbs and the buses don’t run there. The city can’t do anything about that. There are people who can’t find decent-paying jobs because they lack adequate formal educations and the city can’t do much about that. You have a big group with felony records that hinder employment, and I’m not sure what the city can do about that. I don’t mean to be negative, but what realistically can a city alone do?

Mark Robert Rank uses a musical chair metaphor to talk about the organization of the economy as a structural driver of poverty. He says that by matter of game design, if you will, if you have 10 people playing and only eight chairs, two people always lose. And that is kind of what we are confronted with and this is why the social enterprise piece of the plan is ultimately so important because this is our strategy for directly creating jobs.

And it works how?

Basically, we are trying to build a chair in neighborhoods that have the fewest employment opportunities.

Given the policies that exist, the challenge is whether you can you create a pathway out of poverty anchored around employment and/or entrepreneurial opportunities. And the first question is, “Can you do it for anyone?” The second question is, “How many can you do it for?”

And third is, “What will we learn from the process about those sticking points that prove to be the most challenging?” We expect the system isn’t always going to be helpful, and we are determined to find ways to overcome that. If we can show something that actually works — at least for a certain number of people with a certain level of preparation or readiness — then we can make the case not only locally, but nationally, that this is what we should be investing in.

We have a lot of assets in Richmond — universities, hospitals, large corporations — many of which have a vested interest in the city’s well-being. If some of the money that flows through these institutions can be channeled to seed or support emerging business — social enterprises — that would be tailored for people with the kind of barriers you are talking about, it would be a huge boost.

My one sentence way of putting this is: Can we find the mechanisms that will connect our concentrated wealth to our concentrated poverty?

It is my sense that this discussion is happening in some places among some circles and that they are very engaged, but that the city as a whole hasn’t really caught the spark.

I think that’s probably fair. We do need to tell the story as we go, to take the conversation into different places. We will have to do a better job of bridging the gulf in the way issues and policies are discussed at the City Hall level or even the daily newspaper level and the way they are actually talked about and perceived in our highest poverty neighborhoods. So we will invest more in outreach. I’d like to see more investment in neighborhood leadership development. City Council is looking at establishing the Maggie Walker Citizens’ Advisory Board (made up of people living in poverty or working with those who do) as a formal body. That’s a huge step. But we need to take it out to the grass roots all across the city, including the affluent parts.


Jarrell Miller, a bouncer at the Mansion 534 club in Richmond, had to walk an hour home from work at 4 a.m. Upon hearing this, Richmond’s biking community rallied, getting him a bike and equipment within hours. (Timothy C. Wright for the Washington Post)

Say you are having one of these future meetings in middle-class/affluent West End and you are making the case for why this matters, what is your argument?

There are several. There is the most narrow form of self-interest, that this is bad for the city’s tax base, that it’s bad for business and not healthy to have a city in which middle-class or affluent people only invest in a couple neighborhoods. It’s bad from the standpoint of crime and costs associated with that. But there is also the moral argument about what kind of city do we want to be. What kind of community do we want to be? Do we want to be a community at all? And I think whether it appeals to a sense of justice or as a question of what is your duty to your neighbor or a matter of self-interest, we have to pursue all those avenues to reach people.

And so you say this to a group and it resonates, their next question will be, “What can I do?”

I’ve actually been having this conversation. We’ve been looking at concrete ways to offer concrete support at the workforce center whether it be bus tickets or provide rides or clothes closets and mock interviews. But we’re also having preliminary discussions about a peer support program to provide people going through this with three or four people they can rely on, to talk to, to share in their journey, not necessarily mentoring, but just a stronger support group.

The faith community has done a lot to reach out to kids, so now how do we make it a more two-generation approach to reach not just the kids, but the families? I do think when people see the challenges firsthand, something like what Ms. Brown is going through has to make them more informed advocates for their fellow citizens who are struggling to overcome poverty. It has to move them.