Controversy/History Series at The Valentine: Information and Perspective

Editor’s Note: After the Valentine's Monuments & Tourism event, RVA Mag published a scathing opinion of the event that said it fails to address real issues. I was not at the event so I can’t say whether or not the opinion is an accurate depiction of what happened. However, after sitting down with Bill Martin, executive director of the Valentine, to discuss the upcoming January event, I do not think the opinion is in line with the vision or intent of the event series. The goal of the content to follow is to provide information and context about an event series that has the potential to provide a forum for productive discussion. 

The Event

During public comment at a recent Richmond City Council meeting, I heard the understatement of the year made when one commenter observed that Richmond has a “complicated” past. Complicating matters even more, frequently Richmond’s past isn’t really the past; it is our present. Like that Virginia Creeper someone thought was pretty decades ago when they planted it but now, season after season, it comes back to expand its choke-hold on your yard. Much like with Virginia Creeper, the only way to resolve our past is to attack it at its root; however, this is no simple task as the roots of Richmond’s history are deep, mangled, and overgrown. In addition, whether it be what to do with Confederate monuments or where to build a baseball stadium, Richmond’s invasive past tends to be or become controversial which can make productive discussion challenging.

Photo provided by The Valentine

Photo provided by The Valentine

To facilitate bridging the gaps between our past, present, and future, the Valentine Museum breathed new life into their community conversations through their Controversy/History series that serve to explore current local hot button issues through the lens of history paired with recent data. So far, the 2017-2018 series has conquered the topics of Voting Rights & Redistricting and Monuments & Tourism. The series will continue next year with topics of Job Creation: Immigration (January 2nd), Coordination Transportation: The Interstate Highway System (February 6th), and Richmond History Makers (April 3). If the topics alone didn't peak your interest, let me seal the deal by mentioning that one of my top 25 favorite people in Richmond, the illustrious Kelli Lemon, is one of the co-hosts! Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, and Lemon open the events by providing audience members with biographies of the evening's expert panel. The panelists present content from their respective fields of expertise to provide facts, data, and context to begin the evening's discussion. The audience is able to ask questions about the panelist presentations prior to breaking into small groups to link the historic perspective provided with modern challenges we have in the city through discussion. 


Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, to discuss their vision for the series and the upcoming Job Creation: Immigration event on January 2nd. Following the conversation, I couldn't help but be reminded of Plato's (groan all you want; much like there always being a Seinfeld reference to be made, there is also always a philosophy reference so I Kant [insert self-loathing groaning here] help myself) Allegory of the Cave. TL; DR of the allegory: people are stuck in their own isolated reality unless they endeavor on the painful process of enlightenment through knowledge-expanding experiences. 

My understanding of Martin's vision is this:  To create the conditions necessary to bring together different groups of people with the purpose of sparking conversations about modern times using historic facts to create links to commonality and foster understanding between groups of people who may be metaphorically chained to their own world-view. People defacto exist, isolated, in their own reality and come to conclusions based exclusively on their personal individual reality. Without outside facts and interaction across different groups of people, our realities will never change. If we are all really honest with ourselves, we can admit that in Richmond, unless you consciously step outside of your bubble, it is very easy to self-segregate based on race, class, interests, and wealth. The existence of two (read: several) Richmonds frequently results in staring at each other (or local government access programming) mouth agape questioning how people could possibly have such a vastly different understanding of the world. The answer? Individual realities created from our own narrow existences. 

Did you know the Columbus statue in Byrd Park was erected in response to anti-Italian immigrant sentiment in the region? Yet another statue whose story may not be as it seems.   Photo Credit: V.60.38.01, “In Honor of Columbus”, Richmond Newspapers, Inc., October 12, 1959

Did you know the Columbus statue in Byrd Park was erected in response to anti-Italian immigrant sentiment in the region? Yet another statue whose story may not be as it seems. 

Photo Credit: V.60.38.01, “In Honor of Columbus”, Richmond Newspapers, Inc., October 12, 1959

On January 2nd, Job Creation: Immigration will set out to explore the impact of Italian immigration to the Richmond-area in the early 1900's and create a link to current Latinx immigration and modern anti-immigrant sentiments. Is the discrimination against Latinx community members all that different from what Italian immigrants experienced? Over 40% of 2016 Fortune 500 companies list were founded by immigrants or their children. Immigrants are even considered to be the "most entrepreneurial group" in America.  Small businesses are a cornerstone for job creation. A negative attitude toward immigration will ultimately have a negative impact on available jobs (irony being anti-immigrant sentiment manifests in part as people blaming immigrants for stealing American's jobs). So how do federal policies that close the borders impact our local economy? What lessons are there to be learned from the Italian immigrant experience that can be applied to not repeating the same mistakes today? 

The Valentine has partnered with individuals and organizations to expand the guest list outside of their normal supporters to include members of the Latinx community, immigration lawyers, and decendants of Italian immigrants. Hopefully, the event will draw a diverse audience to take part in a multidimensional discussion about modern issues. As Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I believe that the only way to truly advance as a society is for the improved education of the general populous which starts by breaking free from the shackles of our narrow realities and staring into the painful sunlight of knowledge. 

Um... what just happened? 

I said some stuff about an event I would love for people take part in on January 2nd from 6-8PM at The Valentine. Having read the RVA Mag opinion piece, it seems that the vision for the series did not translate well in practice at that event, which is unfortunate as it is an important discussion to be had; however, that does not obliterate hope for the remaining events in the series. I believe the success of the event relies heavily on diverse engagement from the community during the discussion. I hope The Valentine has a strategy for the small group discussions to be well-rounded with diverse attendees in each group.  I will be there live tweeting the event (with traditional heavy opinion and observations on how things are going) so if you can't make it out... join the discussion on the interwebz!