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In effort to combat poverty in Richmond, leaders urge listening Leaders in Richmond's effort to combat poverty say top-down solutions aren't the answer

Richmond Times-Dispatch - 10/17/2017

Felicia Dixon fought tears on Monday as she confronted the memory of moving with her three children into Mosby Court four years ago, unemployed and struggling in all the ways a mother can.

One child had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and a speech delay, and the others weren't reading on grade level. Dixon herself was collapsing under the weight of her own financial and mental health challenges.

"I felt lost," she recalled with a smile reserved for when such things are shared in the past tense. "It was time for me to take control of my life. But I was stuck."

Now 40 and a full-time employee of Universal Health, Dixon shared her experience Monday with those gathered for a celebration of empowerment at the Peter Paul Development Center, which she credits with uplifting her and her children.

The victory belongs to Dixon, said the center's executive director, Damon Jiggetts, who called on other service providers in the room to put people before programs and always challenge themselves to ask, "So what?"

"So what, you've served 300 kids, what does it all mean?" Jiggetts said. "Ten years from now, would you be able to walk through these communities and sense that something had changed?"

Jiggetts, Richmond Health District Director Danny Avula and Reggie Gordon of the Office of Community Wealth Building all called Monday for people and organizations working to combat poverty to listen more than talk.

Avula said more organizations in recent years have been seeking out the nearly one in four Richmond residents living below the federal poverty line to ask what they need to improve their own lives.

"It's still an evolving dynamic," Avula said. "There are clear examples of leaders and institutions that are thinking that way and some that still aren't there yet."

Help shouldn't be charity, Gordon said. There's nothing revolutionary about handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas; hiring a parent so they can provide for their children is a lasting solution, he said.

The bottom line, Jiggetts added, is that organizations need to focus more on empowering disadvantaged people to do their best than on descending into their neighborhoods and telling them what's best.

"It's about making sure that those most adversely affected by the policies and structures of poverty are being built up in a way that when it's time to go to a school board meeting or a city council meeting that ... they are able to stand up at that podium and speak truth to power," he said.

Richmond's not there yet, Avula said, and some institutions still are working to regain trust damaged decades ago.

He held up as an example the razing and redevelopment of 440 units of public housing in Blackwell nearly 20 years ago. Some families returned to the 75 units of similarly priced replacement housing that went up at the site, but the rest scattered, mostly to other neighborhoods through the use of housing vouchers or to other public housing communities around the city.

Current public housing residents and housing advocates have raised concerns about the displacement that occurred then in conversations about future redevelopment the city's housing authority hopes to undertake.

"People weren't a part of that process and we don't really know what happened to the people who lived there," he said. "That experience haunts (the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority) and the city."

Dixon is a co-convener of Peter Paul's housing team and said that stepping up and getting involved in solutions has been critical for her personal growth.

She had to be talked into it. Dixon at first told the center she wasn't qualified because she hadn't finished college. After an intervention over breakfast with the center's Gwen Corley Creighton, she relented.

"I thought to myself, 'This woman must see something in me that I can't see,'" she said.

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