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It’s one of my hopes that The Sunday Story, now nearing its sixth month, will become a conversation starter with readers. Regular readers know I favor the reported over the opinion column and that I seek to offer a mix of the timeless and the topical. The former would include “Renewal,” the column about Dot Robelen’s memorial garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden or “Walking Man,” about rambling man Takeshi Imajo.
Last week’s Sunday Story “Beyond the Protest” about the student protesters would fall into the latter grouping.
I’m going to add another tab to the mix. Call it “The Conversation Continues.” This would be a place to pass on stories or details or events that might further elaborate or provide another perspective to a subject about which I have written.
In that vein, here’s your reminder that Heroin: The Hardest Hit, the documentary directed by Richmond native Jesse Vaughan for the state Attorney General’s office premieres this Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St.
I talked to Vaughan a couple weeks back for a Sunday Story and, if you missed that, he told me that in his travels throughout the state working on this film, what astounded him was that opiates, opioids and heroin are so closely linked. “It is a much more serious problem than people realize. One detective has investigated over 50 heroin deaths in Hampton; 547 Virginians died from prescription overdose deaths in 2014. There’s a woman in Winchester, her 24-year-old daughter died while she was taking a nap next to her 2-year-old. You ask what shocked me? That shocked me.”
The Conversation Continues also should be a place for the interesting thoughts I have to cut from my story because it’s grown too long and I’m past deadline and the online editor, she who creates the newsletter, is waiting for me to file my damn column, already. (Her name is Samantha Willis and she has the patience of Job.) Some things are too good, too thought-provoking to leave in a notebook.
Example: In last week’s Sunday Story about the VCU black student protest over the lack of black faculty (among other things), I quoted E. Gaynell Sherrod, the chair of VCU’S department of dance and choreography and an African-American. Sherrod was explaining how oppression shapes African-American life in the United States. But she also said privilege must be understood in the same way, and that explanation, equally powerful, did not make the story.
I asked her to imagine herself conducting the kind of faculty cultural competency course for which protesting students are asking.
How would you begin that conversation, I asked.
“I’d start with the question, ‘Why do you check the white box?’ Let’s talk about that first. What is you like about checking the white box because no one came here as white. They came here as German or Czech. They came as Italians, Scottish, Irish, Polish, whatever. No one came as white. But you check that white box and if I ask you what you get in return, your answer probably relates to systemic advantage. ‘I get a job. I get a loan.’ Now, you ask me, ‘Gaynelle, what is it you like about checking the African-American box?’ and I would say it’s all about cultural things, food, music, etc. Whites generally will not answer culture because over time they gave that up to check the white box.
“So, we have to ask a series of questions: What is power in America? What is the power structure? Who created it? How was it developed? Who put it in place? What was the capital foundation that built the system? And you have to go all the way back to enslavement.”
Last Sunday’s column drew some differing points of view from readers, and that, too, should be included in our ongoing conversation. Certainly, there are ideological disagreements here, and no one is likely to budge in that regard, but I’d like to address two points I heard from a few respondents.
The first is the mental leap some made from “hire more black professors” to “lower standards.” No one suggested anything of the sort. No one wants that. Qualified black, Latino and American Indian — the university’s self-identified “underrepresented minority” faculty — are out there. It’s a matter of how and where one looks. It’s a matter of who is looking. It’s a matter of money.
There is, as some wrote, undeniably a pipeline issue, a practical obstacle of supply and demand. Roughly 1 in 3 whites have a college degree compared to roughly 1 in 5 African-Americans, according to census data. In the 2009-2010 school year, according to census figures, the number of African-Americans earning doctorates was 10,417, about 7 percent of doctorates conferred that year. Data tracking education levels by race and gender from 1920 to 2014 show a persistent racial and ethnic gap in high school and college completion rates for people 25 to 29 years old. Again, a pipeline issue.
VCU has to compete in that arena. That it is difficult is not a question. That it is imperative isn’t, either.
In the still-lingering spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to thank you for taking time on your Sunday to read my latest offering. A thank you to those who have starting sending me story ideas. A thank you to readers who disagree, but do so with civility. A thank you to those who share what they read with others, allowing me to grow my network of eyes and ears in this city and region.
I look forward to seeing what you see, hearing what you hear. And should you come across someone, some place, some moment, and say, “That would make a great Sunday Story,” you know how to find me.
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