Jo White (left), once a full-time contracting company owner, and Thomas Cox, once a full-time criminal, of the Richmond chapter of the Guardian Angels. (Photo by Tina Griego)
Among the several dozen National Night Out gatherings held in the city last week was a barbecue in the side yard of the old wide-porched Highland Park home that is the office of the Richmond chapter of the Guardian Angels. Yes, they of red berets and street patrols. Its members number a dozen on a good day, despite the ongoing recruiting efforts of Jo White, once a full-time contracting company owner, and Thomas Cox, once a full-time criminal.
“I came up, you know, basically from a situation where I had my mother and my father and no brothers or sisters and my father was really not there and my mother --she was such a good person – she died when I was 13,” Cox says. “I was good at school. I wanted to be a professor at a university, but once my mother died, I was basically alone and I just lost it. I became a little criminal.”
He spent 37 years in and out of jail. Mostly in. When he was paroled in 2007, he was 60 years old and determined to spend the rest of his days persuading young people to leave the street life for the straight life. “Through the years what changed is that I think I became who I really am and that is my mother’s child,” he says.
Cox is not a man to soft pedal things, which makes him a good counterweight to White, 55, who is more of a soft-spoken tour de force. She lives in eastern Henrico County, but came to Highland Park as a contractor working on affordable housing and decided her true calling was to serve the community and “not just worry about making money.”
“Jo White is a special order from God,” says Rosa Jiggetts, a community powerhouse in her own right from the nearby Providence Park neighborhood. She’s munching on potato chips, half-listening to two young women discussing their personal trials and aspirations.
“Jo deals with you where you are and she don’t try to carry you nowhere,” Jiggetts continues. Mmm-hmm, says the woman sitting next her, crediting White with helping her son get past some youthful troubles.
“To sustain change, it’s going to take people to realize ‘I am my brother’s keeper,’ ” White says. “That is what it will take. People need to look out for each other.” (Photo by Tina Griego)
At the moment, White is dealing with a stubborn volleyball net and wondering what happened to the bouncy-castle man. People are wandering over, some, admittedly, for the free food. But others come in the spirit of community and acknowledgment of the work it takes to sustain. In this group, that work revolves around crime prevention and youth education and unshakeable belief in the power of community policing as a force for good. The next night, two Richmond police officers, one white, one black, will kill an armed African American man in a reported exchange of gunfire. Cox will focus not on the shooting, which also left an officer wounded, but on the later photograph of a white police officer hugging a distraught African American woman at the scene.
“The only way we can continue to survive is to stand together. We have to continuously fight. Giving up is not in our vocabulary,“ Guardian Angel Mark Jackson, the afternoon’s grill master, says as he flips burgers. “To change things in our communities, it takes steadfast dedication and willpower and being able to keep everyone motivated, not just on National Night Out, but on a daily basis.”
“The only way we can continue to survive is to stand together," says Guardian Angel Mark Jackson. (Photo by Tina Griego)
Highland Park today is not the Highland Park of five years ago or 10 years ago and it’s not even close to the Highland Park it used to be back in its streetcar suburb days before whites left and jobs left and middle-class blacks left. It has always held on to its North Side neighborliness, even as parts of it became no man’s lands where lack of opportunity and lack of education meet. Its poverty is persistent. But so, too, are the people working to combat it.
Highland Park residents at the neighborhood's National Night Out celebration. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“It takes long-term commitment,” says the Rev. Louis Williams, pastor of Life Transformation Church in neighboring southern Barton Heights. He arrives with his own chair since past experience has taught him National Night Out will be a crowded celebration. “In under-resourced communities across the country, if you want to be a catalyst, if you want to build an organization that will transform a community and you’re not going to commit 10 years to it, then don’t even start.”
When White and Cox first partnered in the neighborhood a little more than five years ago, they did so with a character development and leadership program called Saving Our Youth. That led to the Neighborhood Watches and, in 2010, to the Guardian Angels and neighborhood patrols and regular meetings with police and block captains.
“To sustain change, it’s going to take people to realize ‘I am my brother’s keeper,’ ” White says. “That is what it will take. People need to look out for each other.”
“Jo White is a special order from God,” says community activist Rosa Jiggetts. (Photo by Tina Griego)
The evening proves quiet. Not many people show, which disappoints Cox and doesn’t seem to faze White.
It’s a night for neighbors, she says. Have a burger. Take a seat. Relax. Tomorrow, it’s back to work.
To get a fresh Sunday Story delivered to your inbox each week, sign up for the newsletter HERE.