A few days ago I tweeted, “as VCU students we should all be uncomfortably aware of the central (role) our campus plays in the gentrification of Richmond.”
My tweet was prompted by the ongoing battle over the status of Richmond’s public education system following Mayor Dwight Jones’ announcement about his proposed budget plan for the 2017 fiscal year. According to Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jones’ plan calls for an increase in city fees, such as “street parking, garbage collection, vehicle licenses and business licenses.” Yet, the main source of contention was that Jones’ plan denied the Richmond School Board’s request for an $18 million increase, and instead, called for closing of eight schools.
As a result, just a few hours before City Council’s first public hearing regarding the proposal, on April 11 students from Richmond high schools led a student walkout toward Richmond’s City Hall to protest the budget cuts. They were supported by parents, faculty, educational advocates and community organizers who believe that these budget cuts – or the budget stagnation would — further hinder an already struggling school district.
Despite the enormity of the situation and the multiple protests happening in areas just a few blocks away from Monroe Park, many of my peers were either unaware or uninterested. Regardless, it was a sign of privileged negligence: a disconnect from what the majority of people are experiencing outside our own relatively secure campus hub. It’s a type of disconnect and inherent privilege which comes from attending a university which, despite all their best efforts of community integration, has shielded students away from the local population.
According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute, VCU’s market value jumped from $438,140 in 2012 to $1,326,915 in 2013 – a 203 percent increase. That same school year, 12 of the 37 schools which the Virginia Department of Education considered to be in danger of failing were located in Richmond.
The disparity between the income VCU is receiving and generating, while our campus is located in a city with a 25 percent poverty rate and, according to the VDOE, has the highest dropout rate in the state, as well as an abnormal amount of failing schools is sickening. It illustrates the socioeconomic burden for Richmond citizens that many students simply have very little contact with.
Richmond students and other local citizens are clearly aware of how the lack of proper funding limits students’ opportunities to pursue further education or any sort of career. The initiative these students are taking to actively secure their future and to demand something better is the epitome of leadership. Maybe VCU students, myself included, could learn a thing or two from them.
It may feel that students, have little influence on the ins and outs of our educational opportunity. To an extent, that may be true: there may not be much we can do right away to change the socioeconomic game of the educational system. However, at the very least, we can understand the privilege we have to be relatively sequestered in a stable haven while Richmond and it’s citizens are going through various economic, social and political transformations. By understanding this privilege, we can then use our various platforms within our university to help magnify the voices of local Richmond students.
We should realize that ignoring the numerous activist-led movements in the Richmond area is irresponsible, mainly because many of us at VCU have either consciously or subconsciously divided “Richmond” and “VCU” across very gentrified and stereotypical lines of poverty and blackness. After all, VCU is part of Richmond and even if it’s for a short time, we should actively be aware of what is happening and use the uncomfortable reminder of socioeconomic disparities between our campus and some local areas to mobilize change.
If we are pursuing higher education in a growing university, then local Richmond students deserve the basic right to a well-funded education. Simply being aware of this concerning disparity can help mobilize enough concern, and eventually can influence a movement towards change. This is the strongest foundation possible in order to fully break down the divide between Richmond population and VCU students.