Thad Williamson: The man driving the city’s anti-poverty initiatives

Why Mayor Jones put his faith in this unique UR professor.

Thad Williamson saw the Two Americas at the age of five while riding in his grandfathers car in Louisiana. “My grandfather…had in-house servants, maids during the day, who were African-American,” Williamson said. “I went along on the ride to go drop this lady off where she lived.” It wasn’t a house like his grandfather’s house. It was Williamson’s first look at the inequality and impoverishment of the Deep South.

The Two Americas appeared again in Chapel Hill, NC where Williamson attended school. “The schools were integrated by the time I came around,” he said. “I didn’t realize until much later how novel that was.”

Life in elementary school was fine and good during the day. His friends, black and white, played, studied, joked. The differences showed after the last bell. “The kids who were African-American took the bus home, and everybody else walked,” he said. Those busses took those children to a “public housing community tucked away” in Chapel Hill that “was designed for outsiders not to have a reason to go there.”

From elementary school up through high school, Williamson gradually saw the obvious. “You became more aware as you got older…[of] the racial inequalities.”

Williamson now fights those inequalities as a professor, writer, and, beginning June 2nd, the City’s first director of the Office of Community Wealth Building that will oversee and execute the City’s anti-poverty initiatives.

None of us were satisfied

Williamson’s consciousness of poverty and inequality that developed in high school motivated action in college. He campaigned for Jesse Jackson in 1988 and attended that year’s Democratic National Convention. “I was concerned about people and noticed all the people who were left out of the system: healthcare, housing, that sort of point of view.”

In his sophomore year at Brown University, Williamson lived with four other roommates in a suite. One day, his roommate and friend was “detained by the police on suspicion of an incident that had happened elsewhere near the campus,” Williamson said. It was obvious why his friend was detained: “by virtue of being black.”

“None of us were satisfied with the University’s response, so I wrote an article about what happened that got some attention,” Williamson said. “The positive feedback from that encouraged me to keep writing.”

During his junior year, he helped lead a student coalition that supported library workers who went on strike to protest reductions of their medical benefits. In time, Williamson, likely seen as the campus dissident by the University, became friends with Brown’s president.

“I always had a strong interest in social justice issues and a willingness to be vocal, be demanding, be part of protests, organized action…,” Williamson said. “But also being able to have some sympathy and understanding of how it looks from the people who actually have the power.”

Because sometimes those you think have the power don’t have nearly as much. And those you think don’t care about issues actually do. “They may be more sympathetic than you think.”

Williamson believes it’s better to extend an open hand rather than point fingers. “I think the conversation should be: ‘You know this problem, right? And I know you care about it. Let’s work together and find a solution.'”

Finding solutions motivated him to earn a graduate degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Ph.D from Harvard in political science. “I wanted to be in a position where I could make social impact and do engaging, intellectual, writing work,” he said.1

In 2005, he began teaching at the University of Richmond. His wife, Adria Scharf, the executive director of Richmond Peace Education Center, helped familiarize him with the city. “I began to meet some members of the community and learned more about Richmond.”

He also learned about Richmond through the work of his students. He teaches a Justice in Civil Society course “which sends students out to do work in typically high-poverty neighborhoods with kids.” Through their experiences and academic papers, “I got more of a sense of Richmond’s concrete problems.”

In 2011, Mayor Dwight Jones launched his Anti-Poverty Commission. There were several task forces within the commission. Williamson headed the one on policy, and also drafted the commissions final report (PDF).

The Mayor renamed the commission the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty. Williamson stayed on as co-chair.

In April, Mayor Jones appointed Williamson the first director of the Office of Community Wealth Building, which will oversee and coordinate anti-poverty initiatives laid out in the commission’s report. The University of Richmond granted him a one-year leave of absence.

Mayor Jones said this in April: “Thad is known locally as an articulate advocate for economic and social justice and is known nationally and internationally as a political scientist focused on issues of urban politics and social justice and social change.”

The residue of the past

Changing Richmond requires undoing decades of damage. “The high levels of economic and racial segregation are a product of a time period and mentality very different from today’s,” Williamson said, referring to pre-Civil Rights movement and the postbellum South. “You’re stuck with this residue from the past. How do you proactively change it?”

Some residue is public perception. “There’s always this straightforward ‘blame the victim’ approach, which takes this sort of naive view that society is structured in a fair way, and if anybody has failed it’s because they didn’t try or care,” he said. “People have such different day-to-day experiences” that cause preliminary rushes to judgement and preconceptions.

Williamson said the most vital component of fighting poverty in Richmond is the Workforce Development program that strives to train valuable skills to impoverished residents. “Without that [program], we don’t have a mechanism of getting people out of poverty,” he said.

Another initiative that excites Williamson are Promise Scholarships, based on a successful program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The City will attempt to “privately raise enough money to be able to guarantee college scholarships to all graduating seniors of Richmond public schools,” Williamson said.

Williamson also mentioned the goal of creating social enterprise strategies. “Using [the] economic power of large, anchored institutions” to build up businesses and local communities, he said.

For example, Williamson cites a hospital in Cleveland, OH, which simply changed its laundry service provider to a local business in a fledgling area of the city. That money went toward, not only the business itself, but to the local employees and to the community surrounding the business. “That’s how you can actually build wealth in neighborhoods, using and leveraging the existing wealth that’s already [here].”

While the future work of Williamson and the Office of Community Wealth Building is easily described as anti-poverty, the phrase gives Williamson some pause. “We have to be very careful when we talk about ‘anti-poverty’–we’re not talking about anti-poor people, we’re talking about empowering low-income people,” he said. “We have a lot of talent and social energy and potential contributions to society that are just wasted when people are deprived and not given the opportunity to fully develop the talents they do have.”

Williamson is eager to share the City’s anti-poverty initiatives and progress with residents. “It’s important that we show results to show we’re on the right track,” he said. “I think when people learn about what’s going on” that builds momentum. Community outreach initiatives and a website should come soon.

A principal in the city’s anti-poverty crusade, Williamson said his work is about the greater good. “It’s not about me, it’s about working together with the community to change the course of the city’s history.”

photo courtesy of the University of Richmond

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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