by Caitlyn Johnstone
July 03, 2017
“Close your eyes,” commands Michelle Peters, Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Petersburg, Virginia. Her voice – buoyed by optimism – floats over the roomful of officials, government agents, nonprofits, businesses and Petersburg citizens gathered at the meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup. “It is the year 2030. It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg. Petersburg is an economically, environmentally, socially vibrant community… The spiritual, physical, emotional health of our community has been raised… It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg.”
When a speaker employs an envisioning exercise, most audiences listen politely and allow their gaze to wander –but this was in no way a typical meeting. The Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup chose to hold their quarterly meeting in the city of Petersburg in a conscious effort to put into action those methods that spark real change: to listen, to engage with a community and to be present where change needs to happen. In the auditorium of Virginia State University on the thirteenth of June, faces across the room were tilted up, seeing this revitalized and thriving town. It is in a town like Petersburg that a time capsule jump carries weight—for, here, time behaves strangely.
Petersburg, Virginia has a long history as a market town and leading tobacco center. Twenty-four factories made chewing tobacco, and the manufacturer Brown & Williamson was king. The civil rights movement in the sixties was energized in the city of Petersburg, which is the home of the important Underground Railroad hub Pocahontas Island and two of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the nation. Demographics were relatively equal and the city was dynamic. As the city grew and needed to expand, it hit a roadblock of legal zoning. With annexation illegal, the size of Petersburg was set. The middle classes, both white and black, left Petersburg for the more desirable Chesterfield and other nearby areas. Brown & Williamson, the largest employer for the area and the driving force of Petersburg’s economy, pulled up stakes and left the town for Georgia in 1983. And then: time stopped.
“The saddest day in the city of Petersburg was when Brown & Williamson left Petersburg,” Reverend Betty Jackson proclaimed at the meeting. “We had poured so much into one industry and were codependent.”
Close to forty years have passed since the loss of the tobacco industry, but the feeling in Petersburg is that it might have been mere months since the departure. Marcus Comer, environmental research specialist and assistant professor of agriculture at Virginia State University, explained the phenomenon and its after-effects: “When different industries left, they took their earnings but left their pollution and toxins. Historically, Petersburg has been on the negative side for so long that it’s hard to overcome.”
Stepping out of the past and embracing that envisioned future is exactly the hope of the day for all parties involved. Listening and understanding the starting place – historically and psychologically – is crucial to bringing about true change for the city, and realistic ideas for action grew from the protracted conversation rooted in that sense of place.
“’Oh, dear. Do you drink the water?’ When you tell someone you live in Petersburg, that is the first question you will be asked,” states Comer. According to him, “the perpetuation of negative perceptions has kept Petersburg down,” creating a learned helplessness.
“[At nearby military base] Fort Lee, [visitors] are told not to take a left turn towards Petersburg,” stated Annie Mickens, former mayor and longtime Petersburg resident. It is in discussing and realizing these limitations that residents found new strength and strategies. Through the course of the day, Petersburg citizens took ownership of their town and their own ability to improve conditions.
University of Virginia President Makola Abdullah put those ideals into action when he bought a home within the city of Petersburg and encouraged his staff to do the same, seeing investment in the city from within as the key to moving forward.
“Let’s change the way Petersburg views itself,” said Ronald Howell, special assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, to general applause. “Let’s look not from the outside in, but from the inside out… These are the resources we have. We don’t have the optics to garner people from the outside… Let’s look at who is driving the economy in Petersburg right now, and let’s see if we can bring that back home. That’s where we start. There should be a network of farmers, internal training, certification and development. If no one wants to come from the outside, let’s build from the inside.”
Real-time change was apparent as attendees and speakers alike slipped in and out of the meeting throughout the day to vote in a general election. Community members were taking action on the words of former mayor Mickens: “We don’t speak for people who have no voice. They have a voice. We have to get those people to the table, to say, ‘I elected you. Accept my voice.’”
Dr. Lucious Edwards, archivist and historian, spoke on the historical tourism opportunities of Petersburg and its mark on the shaping of America. “[We need to] engage, to blend, to see the value of and interpret the African American experience,” said Edwards. “We should move away from the expectations of confederate history, slavery, plantations and towards others. Petersburg is a jewel for architecture and industry.” Planning departments and cultural affairs departments are merging in Petersburg, in line with a new plan to revitalize through the lens of historical identity.
Before adjourning to tour the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center—one of the examples of internal Petersburg innovation—attendees settled on the takeaway action items for the Diversity Workgroup. EJ Screen is an environmental justice knowledge tool that provides maps with overlapping layers of data, combining both environmental and demographic indicators that allow users to make informed decisions. Incorporating community input on the city’s role in health concerns, EPA is considering adding a new data layer to EJ Screen showing failing infrastructure lead lines in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Diversity Workgroup will work to assist in Train the Trainer workshops and include lead remediation as a potential avenue for a green jobs workforce, while working more closely with local non-profit organizations and key community leaders on local issues.
By structuring meetings around the heart of communities and with an understanding of their history, as with this Diversity Workgroup meeting, it may truly be a great day in Petersburg and towns like it.
Learn more about the efforts of the Diversity Workgroup and the positive changes taking place throughout the partnership.