Celebrating Our Spaces: A Recap of University of Richmond's Connecting Womxn of Color Conference

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The prompt was simple: If there was a mural or a piece of art created about you, that told your story, what would it look like?

As urban planners, we have the power to radically shape the built environment. In graduate school, I was often told that urban planners build in concrete, so when we are making decisions about what what should go where, we must be aware of the things that cannot be undone. Unfortunately, the planning profession has a long history of development with harsh repercussions for neighborhoods and communities, and it is no surprise that black, brown and working class people have typically been most negatively impacted by this development.

Last month I had the opportunity to lead a workshop at the University of Richmond’s 10th annual Connecting Womxn of Color Conference. This year’s theme was CELEBRAT10N,  in honor of the last decade of womxn of color on campus and in celebration of the magic and beauty that is us.

In prepping for the workshop, I knew I wanted it to be a tactile experience for the attendees, something that required us to collectively create a piece of work we felt reflected who we were as women of color in our communities, something we’d want to see as we walked down the streets of Richmond and how we’d want our experiences and stories to be reflected.

Fortunately, when I enter my office each morning, I get to see the mural of Angela Patton, founder and CEO of Girls For a Change, but this is not often the case when I choose to wander the roads of my neighborhood in the West End, and sometimes not the case when I am in the City of Richmond, so I was excited to lead a visioning session where we as women of color could converse and create while imagining spaces for ourselves.

I began the session by telling my story. Born and raised in Harlem, NY on 143rd between 7th and Lenox. I say this with great pride because my block was one where I felt safe, a sense of belonging and a part of an extended family. At any given time, I’d leave my building and be met by folks hanging on the stoop, girls jumping double dutch between the fire hydrants, kids running through the water that flowed from it, or boys playing cee-lo in the corner. I mean, I could speculate what some of the people hanging on the corner were doing, but quite frankly it wasn’t my business and they didn’t bother me. In fact, they looked out. They’d greet  me with the proverbial “How you doin’ ma” in that New York accent that I’ll forever love, and sometimes during the summers when straight back cornrows were poppin’, I’d sit outside in between the legs of the girls who braided my hair. Surrounded by all black and brown faces, I felt safe and I felt at home.

This is my story, but during the workshop similar stories emerged from the women who, as we talked, were creating a collage from the newspapers, magazines and other materials I had provided them.

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What does this have to do with urban planning, and why is it our jobs to engage in discussions around how women of color, or people of color in general, envision our spaces. Well first, gentrification. The process of renovating and redeveloping neighborhoods to increase the property value and spur economic development also comes with the insidious process of social displacement, leaving folks who once lived in a community feeling as though they no longer belong there.

In the City of Richmond right now, there is rampant discussion about the The Navy Hill Neighborhood Redevelopment, where the blocks between 5th to 10th Streets and Marshall to Leigh are to be revitalized using an economic development tool called Tax Incremental Funding, or a TIF. I’ll leave you to look into the project yourself, but in short, some are excited about the project’s possibilities but they are also skeptical. Like Jackson Ward, Navy Hill was once an predominantly German and then African-American neighborhood that fell victim to the construction of I-95 in the 1950s, displacing thousands of families in the process. In 2011, a marker commemorating the history of the neighborhood was finally replaced after it was displaced by the construction of Altria’s Center for Research and Technology. One could imagine that if it had never been replaced, many people would have never learned crucial facts about this once black space, such as the Navy Hill School was the first school in the City of Richmond to employ black teachers. There would be no representation, no memory that the neighborhood was once a space where black people called home.

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The stories we tell using historical markers, murals, and other forms of visual representation are important. What we don’t see in a neighborhood is just as important as what we do see. Being able to walk through a neighborhood and see ourselves reflected and to read about our history isn’t just about place-making, it’s tells us who belongs and has a right to the space.

As I think about the creations that the women made during the workshop and the energy that permeated throughout the room, I am encouraged not only by how we see ourselves, but how we want to be seen in our communities, how we want our stories to be reflected. My hope is that as I continue to use this visioning tool it helps others truly see us, recognize the danger of white-washing out spaces, and serve as a message that our blackness, our culture, and our stories cannot be built over with concrete.