Greater Fulton, Cheryl Groce-Wright, and being at the center of a movement

YWCA Pat Asch Fellowship for Social Justice grantee Cheryl Groce-Wright and the Greater Fulton Neighborhood Resource Center should absolutely and positively be on your radar.

The YWCA’s Pat Asch Fellowship for Social Justice awards one woman a significant chunk of change to take to the next level whatever plan she has for making change in her community. The requirements: you have to be 50, working in the City of Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Goochland, or Powhatan, and a total social justice superhero.

Have you guys met Cheryl Groce-Wright?

Executive Director of the Greater Fulton Neighborhood Resource Center since 2012, Groce-Wright helps the Fulton area regrow programs that the rest of the city’s neighborhoods may take for granted. This Times-Dispatch article from 1967 is an eerie description of the state of the “Bottom” before it was bulldozed into oblivion. Many of the current Fulton Hill residents are transplants who have moved “up the Hill,” just to see the neighborhood lose its stores, post office, banks, and library. 

“The Neighborhood Resource Center was created to be a positive in a neighborhood that had just been left on its own,” explains Groce-Wright, who took over after the passing of tireless activist and local treasure, Mary Lou Decossaux, who founded the Center in 2005. The history of its early days is a fascinating thing, and a testament to how much change can truly be accomplished by a neighborhood who knows it can determine the path of its own future.

Groce-Wright admits that she spent some time worrying how to walk in Decossaux’s beloved footprints–though she’s not a native, she’s been doing social work and research benefiting various aspects of the City of Richmond since 1993. She decided, ultimately, what the neighborhood already had–her own strengths were plenty. ‘I thought, ‘I don’t have to be Mary Lou,’ ” she remembers. ” ‘I can be who I am to move this mission forward.’ ”

“Fortunately, I walked into an organization that was already plugged into the neighborhood in several ways–providing childhood care for preschool and school-age kids. At the time, it was a computer lab too, where you could get help with resume writing, job listings, notary services, copying, faxing, phone–that kind of thing.” That computer lab grew into the Financial Opportunity Center, which is primarily funded by LISC, and still serves as the adult programming of the NRC. 

In 2010, Groce-Wright also organized Greater Fulton’s Future, a community initiative anchored by charrettes–“laid-back facilitated meetings with neighbors, where we asked them what they would like to see.” As a result, GFF organized five work teams in the areas of housing (renovated several homes through Rebuilding Together Richmond), economic development, legacy (did a full oral history of Fulton before its destruction), parks and infrastructure, and services (got Bon Secours to send their health caravan to the area once a month).

Oh, and Groce-Wright also was a primary mover and shaker in the Stone Brewing Co. decisions, leading neighborhood meetings, working with council representative Cynthia Newbille, and making the trip out to Stone to make sure it was up to muster. She’s now firmly for the idea, by the way, and believes the brewery will make many of Fulton’s goals a reality–goals like a new grocery store, more river access, and, of course, jobs.

If all of this sounds overwhelming, it’s with good reason. Sitting with Cheryl Groce-Wright at a table in the exact middle of the Center was like being at the epicenter of the most productive hurricane ever. An adult computer course was in progress about a foot from me, a line of small children snaked happily by on their way outside, something inside the on-site kitchen started to smell amazing, and a neighborhood resident stops by to get something from the library. Those kids, by the way, are enrolled in an official Montessori preschool program with a sliding-scale weekly tuition (“We thought, why stop at just after-school care? Why not offer a preschool? And why stop at just a preschool, why not have the best preschool?”). They ate a vegetable-laden lunch on tiny picnic tables under a tree outside, chatting with each other and generally seeming well-behaved and jubilant. 

Meanwhile, Groce-Wright recounts the success of their newest tax preparation program, which turned in more than 70 tax returns in its first year alone. Oh, and have you seen our enormous garden out back, with its raised beds, tended by the kids, who frequently turn the vegetables into their next nutritious meal?

This building practically pulses with the fruits (and vegetables) of the very hard work of so many committed residents. A “center,” it truly is, and Groce-Wright’s own down-to-earth, “let’s make things happen” friendliness is evident throughout.  Recently, it’s starting to make beneficial partnerships with nearby organizations like Church Hill Activities and Tutoring and Peter Paul Development Center that have made even more resources possible. But that’s not to say the NRC Is without need–they’re constantly looking for volunteers to tutor kids, teach a class, work in the gardens, lead a workshop, all sorts of things. 

So with so many ideas for further expansion and programming, what’s Groce-Wright going to use her $17,500 fellowship grant for?

After observing so many communities get on their feet and seeing the pride and empowerment that comes from hoeing your own row, she has a notion that teaching a community how to organize itself, and then turning that community into a teacher of another community may just make change expand exponentially. 
“For me,” she says. “I’ve seen such amazing transformation happen in people’s personal lives when they’ve been invovled in changing their communities. Folks that really know that they’ve made an impact–it’s really life changing…Improve your own situation and then teach and help others make their own change.”

The first step is attending an international conference in England and learning from community developers from all over the world, then visiting cities who have made huge strides, like Chicago and Atlanta. Then, stay tuned. Groce-Wright has plans for Fulton that could inspire your own neighborhood to come take some lessons. And that’s really the idea. 

“It seemed really natural to me that one of the outgrowths of NRC could be not only helping communities figure out what they need in order to help themselves, and help residents be not only part of the change, but teach that to other communities. Improve your own situation, then teach and help others make their own change.”

Keep an eye on Fulton as the next couple of years unfold. Any community powered by the energy of Cheryl Groce-Wright, the team of volunteers and employees at the NRC, and the dedicated residents of the Greater Fulton area is bound for great heights.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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