– Lissie Baker, Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School
Having grown up in Richmond on Cherokee Road, surrounded by tall pine trees and quiet calm on my family’s long, shaded lot, working at Anna Julia Cooper School is a little different. David and I take Belvidere north to I-64, and after about four miles we take the exit to Nine Mile Road. As we drive in, to our left is a sprawling cemetery and to our right is Creighton Court. Nine Mile is dotted by shoddy convenience stores, bus stops, huge public housing complexes, and small, worn-down houses that sit sleepily before we take a right onto North 29th Street and park in front of the school. Every single morning, the drive has the same effect on met: I feel as though I’ve entered a completely different city.
During my childhood, I was aware that Richmond had several impoverished neighborhoods, but (until now) was essentially clueless to just how isolated our poorest citizens are from the rest of the city’s metropolitan area. Richmond’s public housing areas are concentrated in the city’s east end, while suburban areas exploded in the far-west end. Because of this stark geographic separation and inconvenient public transportation, residents of Richmond public housing are hugely cut-off from opportunities readily available to those in downtown and suburban areas. Richmond’s development of the past fifty-odd years has failed to create any large-scale, government-funded investment in the communities.
While the average ‘Richmonder’ may drive a whopping twenty to twenty-five minutes during his or her commute to work (heaven forbid they live in Midlothian!), bus routes – the only means of transportation for many residents of east end – can take up to an hour to travel the 3 to 4 miles between downtown Richmond to the Creighton or Fairfield Court area. Furthermore, it’s not like the job-creating urban sprawl that’s blown-up Short Pump has made any movement towards the east end. Besides some high-end local restaurants that have popped up around Church Hill’s more gentrified areas, opportunities for nearby employment are scarce, if non-existent. Employment is found miles and hours’ commute away, making work inconvenient and eating into the precious hours these men and women need to make a living and, hopefully, to improve their situation for themselves and their children.
This is the reality in which my students at Anna Julia Cooper are growing up. Their neighborhoods are not safe, or quiet, or calm – they’re actually incredibly violent; their parents’ jobs may be temporary, and the next meal on their table is not guaranteed; their home lives may not be the supportive, loving, stable environment in which I grew up.
And yet, they come to school every single day with their heads held high and are surrounded by a group of teachers whose only wish for them is to have a dream, and to excel in that dream.
Having grown up in Richmond, I will admit that I couldn’t have imagined my students’ reality before seeing it for myself. I couldn’t have known just how isolated the East End is, how cut-off these people are from the opportunities and vibrancy of life in Richmond. But I get to wake up every morning, drive down Nine Mile Road, and watch God’s hand working in my students’ lives. I see Him in my students as they grapple with grammar and geography, as they excel in sports, and as they struggle with personal issues in the comfort and company of a trusted teacher or coach. These kids are given a chance to leave behind their struggles at the door, if only for eight hours a day, and to be children again: they get to learn, play, make friends, heal, and start to make dreams for their future.
After my first month, I’m feeling pretty blessed to be working at Anna Julia Cooper. And although my view of Richmond is different now – it’s a little darker, though not more cynical – I’m lucky enough to be a part of something that is giving these children and their families an opportunity they wholly deserve, and to watch our city become more beautiful, little by little.