A room with a view … point

Several weeks ago, I attended a presentation held at a private club in Washington, DC. I was looking forward to the topic, “Alleviating Poverty: The Universal Basic Income Approach.” One of the speakers was a colleague from a monthly breakfast group that I’ve been a part of for over a decade. In fact, I was so looking forward to the presentation that I hadn’t paid much attention to the location.

That changed as soon as I walked into the room. I had been to this club before, but for some reason, I saw it differently this time. I was struck immediately by its grandeur. Versailles came to mind. It was ornate, replete with goldleaf, lots of mirrors, and corner cherubs. The place settings sparkled, ready for us to enjoy dinner before the presentation.

It was breathtaking and it made me uncomfortable.

Was this where we should be discussing alleviating poverty?

My discomfort wasn’t just about the physical setting. It was the combination of the setting and the attendees.

The people in this room were members of the club, literally and figuratively, and their guests. There was lots of chatting during the cocktail hour before the event. One person commented to me that she had been married in this room.  The venue was familiar and comfortable for them. They were proud of it. They repeatedly celebrated the quality of the food, the comfort of the club’s library, and the proficiency and long tenures of the staff. This was their place. They were at home.

I had expected the attendees to be older and white. I just hadn’t thought I’d be the only Black participant. I’m pretty sure that everyone was white except for three of the five presenters, a staffer accompanying one of the speakers, and me. So, was that why I was uncomfortable? Was this about race?  I don’t think so. The dissonance I felt was more about class and understanding/frame of reference.

To me, these were wealthy people. Their conversation, however, suggested they thought of themselves as being in the middle class. Educated? Yes, but other than that, I think they thought of themselves as Joe and Susie Average. Frame of reference is everything, right? Had anyone in the room ever been poor or had direct familial relationships or contact via deep friendship with people who were poor? Could they understand poverty?

Several people commented that many in the club were liberals and that all were knowledge seekers.  Liberals? Was this said so I’d think they were proponents of racial justice and knowledgeable about racial injustice? Was it code? Knowledge seekers? I knew that learning was one of the founding principles of the club. Was this presentation primarily an intellectual opportunity to understand the concept of universal basic income? Did they think that a universal basic income would level the racial playing field, not taking into account the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism? Was I overthinking this? So much swirled through my head as I sat in that room. Did anyone else feel the disconnect?

For those of us who see ourselves as change agents, we are the bridge between the community that is most impacted by the problem to be addressed and the community, that, by their positions and power, hold some of the keys to addressing those problems. We must be comfortable in both places, going to both to gain and provide information, and to discuss strategy. We – the change agents – must be able to navigate very wealthy/powerful/white spaces and translate the realities of poverty to people with none, or little, experience with it (which the panel of presenters did brilliantly).

My concerns about what people did and didn’t know about race, racism, poverty, and class didn’t need to be addressed in one evening. I needed to move beyond the setting and focus on the potential. Because of the inequities of our society, the people in this room had the needed financial, social, and political resources to respond.

Was this private club in Washington, DC the right setting for a conversation on universal basic income? I think it was one of many “right” venues. The club’s program committee had recommended the topic. The attendees were a ready, willing, and able group; so, let the education begin. Plus, the right people are always the ones in the room, right?  Still, what a room …



Another statue comes down …. Celebrating protest art

Stepping into His Shoes, East Capitol Street, Washington, DC — with and then without Barack Obama

Walking in my neighborhood a few years ago, I saw a tiny art installation. The piece was called “Stepping into His Shoes” and featured President Obama rising into Abraham Lincoln’s shoes. I loved it. What a great use of a 19th century fixture — a fire department call box — for a 21st century message. Again, my neighborhood came through with quirkiness and  public art.

Then a few days ago, I saw something disturbing. Obama was gone, forcibly removed from the art installation.  I immediately thought, “Why do people deface art?” That thought was followed by an important memory. I recalled my reaction to what I called embellishments to — not defacement of — the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue in my hometown.

Robert E. Lee statue, with embellishments, Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

For over a century, that statue, unveiled in 1890, towered on its pristine white marble base over Richmond’s Monument Avenue. When George Floyd was murdered, I was supportive as graffiti grew on the pedestal in response.  For me, the addition of those thoughts not only contextualized the statue, but they also took away  any power it may once have held.

So, when the public art removal/change/embellishment aligns with my world view, it’s okay, but when it doesn’t, it’s defacement. Wow. I need to think about this.

The Lee statue was offensive to me because it celebrated the leadership of someone who chose to denigrate and subjugate my people.

I celebrated the Obama-Lincoln statue because it recognized the leadership of someone I admired. Obama was removed by someone who I suspect felt as much distaste for Obama as I felt for Lee.

Now what? Who becomes the arbiter of public art? What is built? What stays? What goes?

The same people as always. Those in power.

My understanding is that public art, art paid for with tax dollars, is typically approved by a panel of reviewers chosen by an appointed, or perhaps, elected official. Some group that is supposed to be representative of the sensibilities of the community makes the decision.

In the late 1800s, in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, there was significant support for the erection of the Lee statue. His nephew was then Virginia’s governor and many wanted to celebrate Lee, the South, and Southern sentiments. It is reported that 100,000 people attended the unveiling of this 60-foot-tall statue.

I guess the lesson here is to ensure that the people in power in your community, share your values. Those values will be reflected in big issues, like how they vote on policies with deep and long-lasting impact and in the somewhat lesser decisions, like who is celebrated in public art.

Protestors rallying to remove Lee statue

And, when your values are not shared by those in power, it’s vital to remember your own power – the power to vote out those office holders and the power to organize a public outcry against what doesn’t align with your values and those of others in your community. That’s what happened in Richmond. The Lee statue was removed amid major public support, nationally and locally, for racial justice in public policy and in public art.

Wider view of the original fire call box art — “Stepping into His Shoes”
“Emancipation” located  in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC

Now, here’s the kicker. Unlike what I thought, “Stepping into his Shoes” is not public art, at least not as I described public art above.

A little research revealed that while some call box art in DC was approved by the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, a public agency, that was not the case with the art piece in my neighborhood.  No public dollars were used to create it nor was public input sought.  No? No, but it’s located on a public street — East Capitol — in a structure owned by the District — the vintage call box. Does that make it a form of public art?

I now know that “Stepping into His Shoes” is another example of  protest art, not public art as I had thought. When I saw the Obama-Lincoln statue originally, I only recognized their coupling as philosophical kindred. The art was saying much more, but I didn’t see that initially.

So, when a protestor removed Obama from the small art installation, I noticed. That person’s act caused me to look more closely. Not just kindred spirits, the statue had also been an artistic plea by a group called Fearless Girls 2020 to replace “Emancipation,” a statue of Lincoln located a few blocks away with a statue of Obama.

Did the removal of Obama deface the art, enrich it, or both? You decide.


“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” — James Baldwin

Randall Robinson: A Life Well-lived

A few days ago, I learned of the passing of Randall Robinson. I learned about it, not from a major media outlet, but from a colleague who posted on Facebook. I immediately checked the news outlets, but nothing was posted – that I could find – until yesterday, two days after his death.

I kept looking for the coverage and was surprised that someone of his stature would not be lauded by the national media. Then it struck me. Do I know Randall Robinson because he was from Richmond, my hometown? Do most white people, and younger Black people, not know who he was? Why isn’t the passing of this remarkable man being announced and his work recognized and celebrated?

I don’t know why his passing isn’t being widely announced. I do know that I want to recognize someone who I felt had lived his life with passion and purpose.

Randall Robinson founded TransAfrica in 1977, an organization committed to influencing American foreign policy in relation to African and Caribbean countries.

Randall Robinson organized and led the protests, beginning in 1984, in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC focused on freeing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. His voice and his actions were critical in elevating Mandela’s plight and leading to the multiple interventions instrumental in his release.

In 2000, Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks was published. This was the first book I read that fully explored the concept of reparations.

Randall Robinson left America in 2001 and moved to the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts noting that he was looking for a place that was more welcoming to Black people.

I hope you will reflect on this life well-lived, why his life isn’t getting the deserved recognition, and then look at his work as another example of how to make a difference in the fight for racial justice.

Reveal. Reflect. Recalibrate.


Will we ever really live as neighbors?

Last weekend, I drove through my childhood neighborhood, Northside, in Richmond, Virginia. It was a pretty, spring-like afternoon. Battery Park, the neighborhood park two blocks from my house, was full of activity. All the tennis courts were being used and kids were playing on the basketball courts.*  I saw adults, old and young, out walking or sitting on their porches enjoying the day.

It is as lovely a neighborhood today as I remember from growing up there over 50 years ago or visiting my dad twenty years ago. There was just one thing that was different. Everyone I saw was white. Everyone. My neighborhood had been Black.

Gentrification? Not exactly.

This wasn’t a neighborhood that declined, and then wealthier people moved in. Surprisingly, this little enclave stayed pretty much middle-class for decades. People kept up their property, the lawns were tended to, and there was never trash on the sidewalks or in the streets. This neighborhood simply moved from a stable, white neighborhood in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s to a Black, middle-class neighborhood in the ’50s and well into the early 2000s when white families started to trickle back in. Now, it’s a white neighborhood. Why?

Why aren’t young Black families moving into this community?

The homes seem desirable to me. The neighborhood is walkable.  The park is an asset.  What is missing?

I asked a Richmonder for an opinion. Here’s the gist of that response.

When buying a home, Black families may be making more permanent housing decisions than their white counterparts.  They can’t move into a neighborhood in which the schools aren’t good because they may not be able to afford private schools. They need to know that the amenities in the neighborhood will grow, not falter, and close. Unlike their white counterparts, Black young people may not have family resources to fall back on should their housing decision in the city not work out. Black families are more likely purchasing a forever home. White families may see it as a starter house. And while Northside has generally withstood that test of time as far as maintenance of the housing stock, it still doesn’t have those cultural markers of a stable, middle class, white neighborhood – a Starbucks or a Whole Foods.  The neighborhood is seen by some as risky. Seemingly, white families can take the risk.  Black families can’t.

Hmmm…. this theory makes sense to me.  Once again, the racial wealth gap is a critical factor.

As I was reflecting on that, I had another shock when I went out to dinner in Churchill, a historically Black section of Richmond. Churchill was the area in which my mother had been born and raised. For most of my young life, Churchill had been an all-Black community.  In the ‘60s, my grandmother was forced to move when a transit improvement – the building of a bridge – wiped out her immediate neighborhood. Even with that, Black folks stayed in the community. In the late 1970s, white families started to drift back into this neighborhood. At that time, it was just a few people here and there. Last weekend as I drove through historic Churchill  and dined in a Churchill restaurant, just like in Northside, I only saw white people.

I was reminded of a phrase that James Baldwin made popular, “Urban renewal means Negro removal.” The transit decision that affected my maternal grandmother’s home was mirrored in my paternal grandparents’ reality. The building of a new highway in the ’50s decimated their all-Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward. The financial and social status of the residents of Churchill and Jackson Ward made them of little concern to the powerbrokers in Richmond. Just as the wealth gap is a factor today in housing decisions, it also was decades ago when my grandparents were being impacted by racism.

I reminded myself that I am fortunate. Unlike my parents’ experience, my childhood house is still there and the neighborhood is very much the same even though the residents have changed. I was sad not to see young Black families enjoying the neighborhood as I had.  I began to wonder if we will ever see really integrated communities. Not ones with a few of that kind of person, or this kind, but neighborhoods that don’t tip to one race or ethnicity, one religion, or one sexual orientation which seems to be the pattern. I’m talking about a residential equilibrium where all are welcome like those signs say and have the resources. Is that even possible?


*The Battery Park amenities were left from when the community was all white.