Category Archives: Learning

New Museums for Atlanta and Charleston

In the past year I’ve heard dozens of arguments in Richmond against museums: they’re not profitable, no one cares about history, they’re too expensive. In the past few months, Atlanta and Charleston have told a different story.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta opened a few weeks ago on June 23, 2014. The goal: tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship to Atlanta and legacy in the American Civil Rights Movement within the context of global human rights battles being fought today. Here’s a remarkable article on the center from the Bitter Southerner.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, set to open in 2017, will tell a complex cross-continental story of forced migration from Africa to Charleston and the American South. Mayor Riley announced last week that the museum will connect to Gadsden’s Wharf, the actual location where slave ships arrived in Charleston. Although the museum is still years away from it’s projected opening date, it already has a snazzy website promoting the museum and region:

IAAM Website

ArtNet News reports, “The 42,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits that describe the black experience in America. The displays will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who is responsible for the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol.”

Reading about these new institutions reminds me of the life lesson: make choices or they will be made for you. Richmond has a venerable place at the table in terms of historical significance. After all, it was Richmond, not Charleston or Atlanta that was chosen to lead the CSA. It was Richmond that industrialized while the Charleston elite held on to their agricultural society.

And it is Richmond that has spent the last 150 years wondering why.

Vocal residents and politicians in Richmond seem to think that history alone won’t be enough of an attraction for the city. Really, we make excuses to avoid telling the story we were born to tell. And while Richmond thinks, argues, and tosses plans on the shelf, other southern cities are making sense of their story and inviting the nation to drive down I-95 for a visit, passing straight through Shockoe Bottom on their way.

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Perspective

As I flew out of Richmond last week, I got a rare glimpse of the city at dusk:

River city

I just stared at that settlement on the banks of the James River and wondered what the next 400 years might bring. In the city of Richmond, there is the past, the present and the future. That makes us fortunate and it makes us complicated.

To move forward, we will have to make some sense of ourselves and our story.

In the past few months I’ve travelled all over the country: from Philadelphia to Dallas, to San Francisco. With each trip I’ve found new perspective on this current phase of the development of the city of Richmond. I’ve also found some clarity for myself and settled into four areas of focus for my writing:

1. Current events in context: If I ever write about current events, it will be to analyze and contextualize the story. I spent three years studying the debates in Richmond regarding the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That work left me particularly interested in economic development strategies and plans for improving the American city.

2. Drawings for the future: Like many of us, I’m constantly imagining new uses for old spaces and I’ve decided I’m finally going to get these on paper. I’m actually planning to draw them out. It will probably be pretty ugly at first, but I’m hoping to read a little on technique and improve over time.

3. The psychology of the city: I’ve been noticing for years that the city of Richmond has a certain personality. This personality comes out in furious debates as well as mundane daily life. Since college I’ve also entered the world of cognitive psychology, therapy, management, and organizational behavior. I’ve read books, met with academics, and watched every video I find. Insight from these fields will be my lens for understanding what’s going on in this crazy place.

4. The history of the history: There are so many stories being told about Richmond. I want to take those stories and study them to understand the different ways that we describe ourselves. I’m obsessed with historiography and excited to dive back into that field for a series of posts about the different ways we talk about our past. This is connected to the psychological perspective as well: how we talk about Richmond says a lot about how we think of ourselves.

I want a future for this city that is unique and authentic. I want Richmond to develop a maturity as a place that takes all of it’s qualities and integrates them into a coherent whole. As with personal development, this will require a lot of work. In a way, collective therapy. And all because we believe there is a best possible future for this city and that future must include a coherent, honest, and accepting understanding of the past and present.

As always, more to come.

Baseball at the Heart

The mayor’s proposal for Shockoe Bottom is a bit of a chameleon. When it was first revealed, it seemed like it was clearly a ballpark plan: baseball balloons, Nutzy, Parney Parnell cracking jokes. But as the plan progressed, this central goal became secondary to a host of other justifications for the development.

The phrase, “not just a ballpark plan,” has become popular in this current debate at the same time supporters of the mayor’s plan have proudly placed signs proclaiming, “I support Shockoe Ballpark,” in front yards and businesses. Clearly, we are confused. Like many, I’ve studied the proposal for Shockoe Bottom and attempted to make sense of all the arguments. As always with these sorts of plans, it is necessary to distinguish the certain from the projected.

Beyond all the letters of intent, the promises, and the economic projections, there is a baseball stadium. This stadium project will likely cost around $167M including interest over the next 30 years. We will hopefully finish paying off the debt around 2046. I will be almost 60 years old. These are the certainties of the mayor’s proposal. All other elements of the plan are subsidiary to the ballpark.

Below I have compiled four common arguments (other than baseball) and reasons why they are not substantive or central to the Shockoe plan:

#1. This plan will improve schools in Richmond

Schools argument

This is a photo of a billboard paid for by the LovingRVA ad campaign. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s exciting. How could any of us say no to a promise like “More $$$ for schools?” It pulls at our heart strings and connects the plan to something we love.

Then I realized: this is not a schools plan. Not a single dollar of this plan is allocated for school maintenance, construction, or modernization. There isn’t a contract that says that our government is obligated to increase school funding a certain amount each year. We also don’t have any idea how much added tax revenue this plan will generate so there can be no sure promise made for future increases.

And yet, we are being promised that this plan is for our schools and our children.

After digging around, I realized the connection from this plan to schools is pretty weak. The most I could find was a quote from Mayor Jones in the RT-D:

“I think that as we continue to negotiate with City Council people and get them on board, that there’s probably going to be some designated streams that go to some various places that people feel very strongly about….”

Wow. Either Jones was badly misrepresented or the mayor did a terrible job convincing me that that this plan will have any meaningful connection to things I “feel very strongly about.” This schools argument  is like playing “seven degrees of the Mayor’s economic development plan.” Where will all the money end up? We have no idea. But I promise there’s definitely a chance you could get a slice.

And I’m particularly annoyed because I do have a soft spot for schools. The need in RPS is incredible. There are countless reports and articles on the financial need and the deteriorating infrastructure of our school system. Our mayor is promising us more money will be sent to schools, but he isn’t saying how much. All we know is if we build the stadium in Shockoe and if it’s surrounded by lucrative businesses and if we can attract huge amounts of private investment on the Boulevard, then we will have more money that might be allocated to schools.

To me, that seems like a lot of “ifs.” If you care about schools, ask the mayor to sign on the dotted line. Anything less is empty promises.

#2. This plan will provide access to good, affordable food

grocery

I’ve heard this argument regularly enough that it deserves to be included in this list. I haven’t seen it on a billboard, but this is the argument that seems to tug at the “food justice” movement in Richmond and the desire for residents to have access to healthy, affordable food.

As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store. I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people. Residents nearby will be able to walk to get their food rather than drive around the corner to Farm Fresh. Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier than they would for the Kroger on Broad St. I wouldn’t have to drive out to the Martin’s at White Oak for fresh vegetables. Sounds great to me.

I just keep returning to the fact that the grocery store is not a central element of this plan. Honestly, this grocery store has more to do with economic development and the mayor’s revenue bonds financing scheme. I think we would have built anything there if it promised to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Also, do we have to build a baseball stadium to have a grocery store? More on that later.

#3. This plan will memorialize and interpret Richmond history

museum 2

The third claim is that this plan has been created in order for Richmond to restore the history of slavery to its rightful place. On the cover of the Venture Richmond “Downtown’s Transformation 2014” document (an unfortunate title), there is a presumptuous photo of the proposed slavery heritage site, an element of the Mayor’s proposed revitalization plan. On the second page of the document there is a photo of the ballpark. For some reason, Venture Richmond chose to promote the heritage site.

Here’s the problem: the slavery heritage site is not funded. We honestly don’t know when or if it will ever be built. To further complicate things, Richmond City Council and the state legislature of Virginia have recently committed funds to the construction of a slavery museum. Is the heritage site enough to fit the specifications of these funds? We don’t know. There are designs for a full museum, but they haven’t been adopted by the city or promoted publicly to my knowledge. If all funds go toward the museum, how will we pay to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site?

Many of us are in favor of building something to commemorate the history of slavery in Richmond. The Washington Post even wrote an editorial in support of a slavery museum back in December. It’s certainly the most historically, culturally, and socially important element of the mayor’s plan, but it’s not the main attraction. This “heritage site” has been tacked onto the ballpark plan to satisfy those of us who care about history, culture, and memory.

It’s a beautiful design and I would like to see it in Shockoe Bottom. But I have to wonder: why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?

I’m also very concerned with the process by which this heritage site/museum has been developed. When municipalities plan and construct museums or heritage sites, they typically spend years developing a network of scholars, institutions, community members, foundations, and government agencies in order to strategize the future success of the enterprise. If done well, this process results in a site that is ready to receive public school tour groups (where will the busses park?), host educational events (who will coordinate?), conduct relevant research, and curate exhibits to keep the material relevant and interesting for visitors. This sort of strategic planning results in a place that is vibrant and well-loved by locals and out-of-town visitors for generations to come.

If the mayor’s plan were truly a plan devoted to the history of Shockoe Bottom, there would already be a consortium of interested individuals from all over the nation and the world developing potential directions for the space and the building. Right now all I see is a pretty picture.

#4. This plan will stimulate the economy in Richmond

city

The argument for economic development is the lynchpin of this entire plan. Many believe that the “baseball stadium + hotel + grocery store + heritage site + apartments + future development on the Boulevard” plan holds the greatest possible economic benefit for years to come.

I have to respectfully disagree. If maximum economic output were the ultimate goal of this plan, Richmond wouldn’t have a baseball stadium at all. Minor league franchises are mostly money losers. They are highly subsidized franchises with all salaries paid for by their parent major league team and stadiums funded by localities. So it’s counterintuitive to include a ballpark in an economic development plan. Unless by “economic development” you mean “we need to find a way to pay for this darn baseball stadium.”

Also, not only are minor league stadiums expensive on the front end, they usually require renovations 20-25 years after they are built. It’s fitting that our local leaders travelled to Durham in January. A few weeks before the Richmond delegation made their trek, The Hearld Sun reported that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, the model for our ballpark scheme, is now planning a $20M renovation. Nineteen years after it first opened.

If it weren’t for the ballpark, Shockoe Bottom wouldn’t even be on the mayor’s radar. This flood plain is surrounded by the many hills of Richmond that don’t require a $20M investment in infrastructure for development to start tomorrow. There are cranes up in Richmond right now already investing in the future of this city. The only reason we’re talking about Shockoe Bottom is because we have this baseball team and we need to find a place to put them that can generate enough money to pay of the enormous sum it will cost to construct a brand new stadium. But if economic development were the goal, we would be saving our future tax dollars for general use rather than for servicing the debt on a baseball stadium for the next 30 years.

So why are we calling this an development plan? The argument is this: the ballpark should go in Shockoe Bottom because it’s best in Shockoe Bottom because it will allow us to 0pen the area to private development so that the lease on the ballpark will be paid for. This is a cyclical argument: we have to spend money so that we can make money to pay off the money that we spent. Also, the word for that is not “free.” The only legitimate argument for economic development is on the Boulevard, everyone agrees on that. But why has there been so little planning done for this site? How sure can we be sure of its success?

You may be asking, “What about all the data that proves the stadium is a good idea for Shockoe Bottom?” Here we have to make a critical distinction between data-driven projects and data-justified projects. Throughout the planning process, our leaders have selectively chosen data that supports their goal: constructing a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. We can be certain this was not an externally vetted process. All the evidence we have seen is simply a case that our leaders have developed to debate and defend their plan. That’s not my idea of leadership.

Regarding this plan for Shockoe Bottom, we can only be sure of the expenditures. The revenue is all projected based on letters of intent and market analysis.

Again, expenditures = contracts. Revenue = projections.

The report put together by Davenport & Co. LLC includes a comparison between developing the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. According to this report, putting the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom is a responsible option. But in the low estimate for revenue generated in Shockoe bottom, the debt service (at $4,062,976) is greater than total revenue ($3,874,778) which leaves a projected deficit of $188,198 annually. And everyone has been telling me this ballpark is “free.” Am I reading that wrong? If this project were truly concerned with economic development, it would not include the city of Richmond diverting tax revenue toward paying off the debt service for the next 30 years.

Our leader is convinced the ballpark is our ticket to success when it is actually the ball and chain we will drag, year by year, into our own reluctant future.

***

My final question is, why isn’t Mayor Jones talking about the ballpark?

Perhaps it’s because an estimated 70% of the people that go to the Squirrels games live in Henrico and Chesterfield. Does it matter? I think so. Why should we divert $4.8M in tax dollars each year for the next 30 years to pay for an entertainment facility that primarily exists for county residents? Or why didn’t we wait for a more unilateral deal? In 2003, the counties were planning to pay two thirds of an $18,500,000 ballpark renovation. That proposal was sidelined by a local official that decided he wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The deal was scrapped, Nothing has happened ever since. Now we’re planning to pay 100% by going out on our own.

Mayor Jones seems to only talk only about economic development. Many other leaders in Richmond are excited about the heritage site. Most of my friends are excited about the benefits for local schools. All the while we’re skating around the most controversial elements of the plan: the cost of the ballpark, the lack of public support for the ballpark, and the location of the ballpark.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Zimbalist:

“Cities spend millions of dollars to support a variety of cultural activities that are not expected to have positive economic effects, such as subsidizing a local symphony or maintaining a public park. Sports teams can have a powerful cultural or social impact on a community. If that effect is valued by the local residents, then they may well decide that some public dollars are appropriate. However, if the public or its political representatives are trying to make the case that a team or a facility by itself will be an important development tool, then the electorate should think twice before opening its collective wallet.”

Richmond, if we want a new baseball stadium, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much we might be willing to invest in a new stadium. Let’s talk about where we would want it to be built. Let’s not allow ourselves to be convinced into needing a stadium for a host of unrelated reasons.

Book review: How Children Succeed

I love books written by journalists. In his latest, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough weaves together delicate personal stories and obscure academic research into a nonfiction that reads like the biography of a life I would be proud to live.

Beyond a student’s GPA and SAT score,  there is an entirely different measure that determines whether a they have what it takes to succeed. These “hidden” strengths are called a range of terms including non-cognitive skills, socio-emotional intelligence, soft skills, and character. Without a critical mass of these character traits, which range from self-control to optimism, an individual has a significantly lower chance of success. The research on character forces us to look past academic knowledge to something deeper that guides our choices and drives our behaviors. While the new psychological research is fascinating, the idea of character isn’t the most revolutionary.

But there’s another concept that I find to be more eyeopening and important: the idea that stress in life causes harm to the body and the mind. I first wrote about this topic in a blog post a year ago in response to a This American Life episode. In it, Ira Glass (also a reader of the book) interviews Tough and others  about the emerging research on the relationship between stress and the brain. As I listened, I memorized the phrase, “the biology of stress.”

As in, the biological response to the stress of life.

You see, ever since I graduated from college I’ve followed a meandering path of books on topics such as leadership, therapy, and growth. But none of these books made a biological connection between life and the body. In his book, Tough more clearly describes this connection as the HPA Axis which stands for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (the chemical) response to stress. It’s this system that senses stress and responds in an attempt to protect the person involved. When these chemicals flood your brain, you lose the parts of your brain that house the executive function and revert to a “fight or flight” response and a more reactionary animal nature. Sadly, the more often you’re in stressful situations, the more likely this will be your primary response to life.

It’s this connection that most influenced me when I heard  Tough speak about his book at the Sabot School in Richmond. (I’m also proud to say I shook his hand and spoke with him when sat down at the end my row before the program.) While he spoke, I diagramed his speech on my bulletin:

Notes from Paul Tough event

As you can see, I found two main ideas: The Biology of Stress and the Psychology of Growth. It’s clear from the research that trauma and stress (and especially chronic stress) wreak havoc on the human brain, stunt learning, and prevent growth. But there is also incredible research in the field of psychology about the antidote to this stress: a secure attachment to parents who are are comforting and who help children manage their stress. For those who are older, a caring adult and a safe support group can also provide opportunities for people to feel accepted and to accept themselves.

This acceptance is the first step to growth.

But there also is a surprising third point that connects both stress and growth: that is the believe that growth is enhanced by, indeed requires, the presence of stress. And on the affluent end of the spectrum, Tough and others believe there is even a deficit of adversity which prevents students from ever fully developing into themselves. They simply pass from one institution to another seeking stability and a straightforward path of rewards for their work. In contrast, students in poor communities have a much higher risk of failure, but the students that get out have something their wealthier peers lack: the knowledge that they have achieved something great and the determination to do it again. I drew another diagram while trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend and simultaneously trying to understand it myself:

Notes on Class and SuccessThe point is not to be naive about poverty (especially extreme poverty) and it’s also not about “success” in monetary terms, but in the more personal sense of achievement. Tough writes that the point is to be more understanding of the role of adversity. For the high school student I mentor in Richmond, it wouldn’t help for me to remove all adversity from his life. That would stunt growth as well. Instead, I need to give him a safe place to feel accepted, to know he is loved, and to enjoy life for a moment. He can go to school or the basketball court and know that I’m only a phone call away. And, of course, when he needs something that he definitely can’t get on his own, I’ll do my best to help him out.

Which brings me to Fatima.

I first met Fatima while she was walking home from work one day this summer. I am friends with her roommate, but I had never met her so I made the connection and asked her about her life. I quickly realized that Fatima has a goal: she is determined to get her driver’s license. So I agreed I would teach her how to drive and do whatever I could to help her. A month or two later, I got a call and for the past two weeks, her roommate and I have been riding in the passenger seat while Fatima, timid and incredibly nervous, has been learning how to drive.

This morning, I picked her up to go to the DMV and take the driving test for the first time. She told me she has three chances to get it right before her learner’s permit expires on October 14 so she wanted to get an early start. “I want to drive,” she said when I picked her up. “I want to drive to the DMV.” Aside from a few “dad moments,” I kept my cool on the way and she got us both there with relative skill. As expected, the place was crowded so Fatima got in line to get her number (to wait in another line) and I sat in a seat nearby.

As she stood there, a short, middle-aged Moroccan woman, I was amazed by her courage. No mother or father was there to help her. No husband, partner, or lifelong friend was there with her for support. A stranger (me) was her only chance to get this right and to accomplish her goal. But to Fatima, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the woman behind the counter was a little rude or that she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. She was focused on one thing: getting a driver’s license to get a car to get a job.

And at first I thought she was incredible for her courage, ambition, and resilience (qualities she certainly possesses in great measure). But, as Tough writes in his book, that is never the full story. While we were waiting in her third line of the morning, I asked her about her family. She told me that she has three younger brothers: one who lives in Rhode Island, and who two live in Morocco with her mother. Her father has passed away. “How is your mom?” I asked mostly to be polite.

“She’s doing good,” Fatima replied.

“Do you get to talk to her very often?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her everyday.”

Every day. I don’t quite know what drives Fatima, but I know it’s somehow connected to the relationship she has with her mother and her brothers. She is loved. And every day when she goes out into this stressful, foreign world she knows that she can return home to a conversation with her mom, a peace, a calm. She’s even told her mom about me, about her goal of getting her license and the stressful test she has to take. And from this loving relationship she goes back out into the world, ready to fight every step of the way. Tough writes that this is the fundamental difference between stress that harms and stress that results in growth: a chance to be restored.

This book may make you think about your life, your kids, your students, your friends. It’s a study that pushes the conversation about “education reform” to a new and more meaningful place: failure, success, and the perilous journey in between.

Sadly, Fatima did not pass the driving test today. I don’t even think the instructor let her out of the parking lot. She very gently told us that Fatima needs more practice. She was just way too nervous and unable to complete some basic tasks as a result. I know she was devastated. After months of work and hours of waiting, she her license was still out of reach..

If that were the end of the story, if Fatima went home and gave up on her dreams, it would be a pretty sad story. But I am sure that she is Skyping with her mom as I write this post, telling her all about this morning, the lines at the DMV and the events of the day. And as she shares with her mom, Fatima is slowly replacing her own stress and fear with her mom’s love and acceptance. She even called me a few hours later to make sure I would let her know when I found a time to take her back for her second test. I believe that through her experiences today Fatima will move forward more prepared for the test and determined to pass.

And that is how anyone succeeds.

Crying Over Spilt Rilke

I’m thankful for the Adam Lauver sharing his thoughts on this Rilke letter and the rest of the collection which I own, but have still not finished. Maybe this is the encouragement I’ve been needing 🙂 I’ve reblogged his post here for anyone else who is interested in a little encouragement today. It’s not an answer to your questions, it’s a new metaphor for your life.

During my first year of college, I struggled a good bit. On the outside, I was effortless: taking upper-level seminars, making friends with the president. But on the inside, I was asking big, fundamental questions about myself and about life. And I was, for the first time, on my own. During this time (as with much of my life since then) I began to reach out for life preservers—little bits that I could cling to for hope and assurance in the “goodness” of the future.

One such bit of wisdom was “Letter 4” from Ranier Maria Rilka written to a young poet. The interim chaplain at the time emailed the piece to me and I will never forget reading it one night while “studying” in the library. I read the words “Live the questions now” and my eyes began to open to a new perspective on life and a new peace I had never previously comprehended. Rilke continues, “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The Narratician

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was…

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How People Grow

“At some point, having owned the issues, people need to let go of debts, feel sadness about the past and losses they can’t change, and receive forgiveness for what they have contributed. This is often a sign that they are well on the road to resolving a particular issue, as grief means they now have enough love inside them to tolerate letting go of someone or something they have lost.”

How People GrowThis book is for people who want to grow and for people who facilitate growth in others. It’s also from both the perspective of Christian doctrine and psychological research which I appreciated. I think I was a little ahead of myself reading it, but it will definitely be on my shelf for future reference. There are so many amazing takeaways from this book that I can’t list them all, but one of the biggest lessons for me was that it all starts with acceptance.

Here’s to truth and growth and life.

*Quote from p. 360, How People Grow

The difference of an early bloomer

There is so much truth to this Mozart quote I found on The Meta Picture:

Mozart

I personally don’t identify as an early bloomer/genius. Crazy, I know. If you’re the same way, check out this article about a late bloomer for some inspiration: “Discovered at 64, a Brooklyn artist finds his place” and definitely read through Malcolm Gladwell’s article related to the topic: “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?