On Sunday February 10th, community members gathered at the Devil’s Half Acre for an event organized by RVA Dirt and Race Capitol called Leading Virginia Forward. The current crisis with state leadership makes it clearer now more than ever that despite the progress the community has made, Richmond still has a long way to go until reconciliation is reached. During the week prior to the event, demands for change in current leadership continue to mount; however, in every call there is a common urgent theme of transformation. Transformation can not begin without healing. In Richmond, what needs to be healed is the city’s past which must begin with a better understanding of our history. The event featured speakers as representatives of Richmond’s cultural and political histories speaking to the past, the present crisis, and craft a vision of the future.
Janine Bell, founder Elegba Folklore Society, opened the event with a libation ritual to honor the ancestors, rooting attendees with a moment of connection and reflection. “In this libation ritual, we bring [our ancestors] walk into our walk. Their contributions and their forfeitures into our heads. And their joy that we live into our hearts,” said Bell.
Free Egunfemi, independent historian and founder of Untold RVA, agreed to attend the event for the specific purpose of establishing a fundamental understanding that the site which event organizers selected for the gathering was in fact Ground Zero for Richmond’s historic resistance movements. Speaking from her authority as a keeper of local self determination narratives, Egunfemi directed her message specifically to those attendees who faithfully resist systemic inequity from the front lines. She encouraged them to stay focused on their important work, to direct their attention to one another rather than the presence of the news media, to protect themselves from the toxicity of the political fight, and to anchor themselves within the rich legacy of the guardian ancestor spirits, upon whose shoulders they stand.
Rebecca Keel, Justice RVA, spoke about her organization’s running People’s Constitution and welcomed people to add their own items to the list. Currently, their people’s constitution demands the following:
a new renewable energy agency, withdraw the air permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station,
order Dominion Energy be removed from lands occupied by indigenous communities,
appropriate state funds toward coastal residents facing increasing hardships due to climate change,
withdraw the 401 water certifications for the Mountain Valley Pipeline,
refuse campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies,
Investigate mitigation agreement between Virginia and Dominion Energy,
Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment,
Establish a process for popular referendums regarding important policy issues,
Vanessa Bolin, indigenous activist and founder of the Eyes Wide Open Project, gifted tobacco, which is important in her culture, as an offering to the ancestors and those in attendance before engaging in an important dialogue. Bolin, a healer, recognized that healing is an important part of the process that must happen first before we move forward. She spoke about how marginalized people do not owe white people or allies explanations, examples or any form of pseudo-understanding when sharing their stories. She also highlighted the work that is yet to be done by pointing to the city-funded project for the National Football League team in Washington whose name is a racial slur.
Jessee Perry, co-founder of RVA Dirt, advocated for the need of people to understand the past and the role of their ancestors as they fight for present change. Perry recognized that it was women of color who were instrumental in learning the history she frequently uses for context of current political discussions online. Perry said, “For every bit of rhetoric that we could come out here with today, really taking a moment to rejuvenate and really understand this so we can have substantive change. Because if we’re sitting here with 3 of our top elected officials, really 4, that we’re talking about in ways of we need to transform the government, we really need to take a moment and pause and thing about whose shaping this narrative and who is missing from the table and how do we fix that.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, founder of Race Capitol, acknowledged the unheard voices of black women and the lesser-known black women in Richmond history. Speaking as a black woman, Wise called for change because the men who represent the people at the Capitol will never truly see her or her story. Recognizing being both black and a woman she said, “don’t tell me something can’t be done to get better leadership in this office on our 400th year. We have got to do something. I want something to be done so I don’t have to face this duality. But if it was up to me, do not ask me about Justin Fairfax resignation until you give me Ralph Northam’s [resignation] first.”
Dr. Ravi Perry, scholar activist, made a clear call for a woman of color in the governor’s office to lead Virginia forward following strategic staggered resignations. First, Dr. Perry identified that, “the challenge that we have here is we have 4 elected officials who are putting their own personal careers before 8.5 million Virginians.” He cited that the leaders in question are men saying this is a “toxic, patriarchal, masculinity problem” while women politicians are typically more empathetic leaders. “If we‘re moving toward healing, we need someone in these seats who can guide us in that direction. Who can not only govern and do the job but who can lead and bring us in this state, and this nation, toward healing. And to me, that person needs to be a woman. And to me that person should be a black woman,” said Dr. Perry. He detailed two options available for staggered resignations. The first option was for Northam to resign allowing Fairfax to become acting governor for a brief period to appoint a woman of color as Lt. Governor before resigning himself. The second option was for Fairfax to resign first and Northam either appointing or not appointing a Lt. Governor replacement before resigning himself. Dr. Perry emphasized that if Fairfax is the only one to resign, he will have a problem with that inequity and racism.
Jessee Perry, of RVA Dirt, closed the event by encouraging people to go back into their world of activism with deeper conviction and understanding than they had when they arrived.
As one of the organizers of the Lead Virginia Forward event, we want to take a moment to thank everyone that was willing to lend their voice, a hand, or resources to make this event happen.
Thank you to our speakers who graciously accepted our invitation on short notice. We cannot thank them enough for the wealth of knowledge and experience they each brought to the event and we encourage you to check out and support their organization’s work.
Janine Bell, Elegba Folklore Society
Free Egunfemi, Untold RVA
Rebecca Keel, Justice RVA
Vanessa Bolin, Eyes Wide Open Project
Chelsea Higgs Wise, Race Capitol
Dr. Ravi Perry, Scholar Activist
Another person we cannot thank enough who came through in the clutch is Micah Morris. Micah managed day-of event logistics including help coordinate set up and take down.
Shout out to WRIR for lending us the speaker and Melissa Vaughn holding it down with the cords to hook it up. Another shout out to 1708 Gallery for lending us the platform and parking signs for the event. And I can’t forget Rick Tatnall for lending us some cones.
Thank you ‘Anonymous’ for lending your photography skills.
Thank you Kenneth, Nick, and Trey for your help lifting heavy things and directing parking.