Thursday, September 27, 2007

WE MAKE CHANGE, Sun. 9/30 at 4pm

Need some inspiration to renew your hope and optimism about civic life? Does the political system shut you out of the process? This book and this group could help you change your relationship to power in Richmond and statewide. As a Board member of the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP), I am proud to announce this weekend's reading from our organization's book on community organizing (one of the first of it's kind). I hope you'll attend and/or spread the word. Below is the announcement being forwarded by VOP organizers.
-RVA Foodie

With two major presidential candidates - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - offering their experience with community organizing as evidence of their ability to lead the country, many Americans are beginning to wonder just what a community organizer is.

We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do - and Why, a timely book by writer/editor KristinLayng Szakos and Virginia Organizing Project Executive Director Joe Szakos, helps to demystify this little-known profession and offer a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who make changing the world their life's work. The book has just been published by Vanderbilt University Press.

A FREE public event will be held:

September 30 at 4:00 p.m.
at the L. Douglas Wilder library,
Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Joe Szakos will be on hand to give a reading from the book and to autograph copies. We Make Change will be available for sale. All royalties from the book will go into a special fund for recruiting and training interns and apprentice organizers.


We Make Change is a lively, readable collection of stories and observations by organizers across the United States. The reader will come away with an insight into this fascinating profession and the people who have chosen it.

Community organizers are the people who work, often behind the scenes, to help come together to effect meaningful change in their communities by building effective community organizations. They are there with the neighborhood group working to bring bank loans to low-income homeowners. They are there with immigrant women organizing to get medical insurance for their families, with small-town environmentalists keeping a toxic waste plant out of their community, with parents trying to get schools to respond to the needs of children with dyslexia, with gay and lesbian students striving to create a safe space in their schools, with groups working to reduce the ravages of racism in their towns and institutions. Wherever there is a well-organized group agitating for progressive social change, chances are there is a community organizer nearby.

We Make Change explores the world of community organizing through the voices of real people working in the field - organizers in small towns and big city neighborhoods, women and men, some in their 20s, others in their 60s, of different races and economic backgrounds. In addition to 14 individual profiles, all 81 interviewees are given voice in chapters like "What is Community Organizing?," How I Started Organizing," "Why Organize?," "Achievements and Victories," "Disappointments Are Inevitable," and "Advice to Aspiring Organizers."

Join us on Sunday, September 30 at 4:00 p.m. in the L. Douglas Wilder Library, located on the campus of Virginia Union University, 1500 North Lombardy Street, Richmond, VA 23220. Parking is located adjacent to the library.

For more information: Cathy Woodson, (804) 261-7497,

Bistro-R: the most BANG for your Entertainment coupon buck

What the heck is a "bistro" anyway? Guess that question shows how little I know (or care) about fine dining. Nonetheless, after five minutes of sitting with my wife in this little high-end Glen Allen strip-mall restaurant, I knew I was in a bistro. Expensive food, relaxed service, and an unassuming setting. Okay, they got the price thing wrong, but what do you expect in the far West End?

Let's cut to the chase. The Entertainment coupon book expires at the end of October, so it's time to get to work using up the coupons that will get us outta the house, into some new experiences, and shave a little off the bill at the same time. Of all of the nicer restaurants in the section that has you bust our the Entertainment "gold card" Bistro R is the one that we were most intrigued about. My early blog posts demonstrate that some of the others eateries that section (like Cabo's - Richmond another "bistro") are merely traps where crap is served up as refined cuisine to people who don't care to know the difference and are happy to part with their money. Would Bistro-R be worth it? Would the coupon equal a bargain feast?

My wife is 12-weeks pregnant, and we wanted to celebrate the latest problem-free ultrasound (let this little aside serve as my public announcement, because I've been warned against turning this into a baby blog). We both hoped that this night's dining experience wouldn't wind up costing us more in anguish than the $16-off coupon would save us. Since we weren't drinking, this would be a great opportunity to have a minimalist meal that ends with a minimalist bill.

First off, the offer says (like all Entertainment book offers) "buy one entree and get one entree of equal or lesser value for free." In this case, the coupon is worth up to $16. However, there were no entrees for $16 or less. They range from $17-29, with about 6-7 pastas and the same number of meat/fish dishes. Whatever. I'm not allowed to talk about the prices on the menu while in a restaurant, because I tend to project my indignation around the room in the hopes of starting a movement for economic justice among the other dinners. Not exactly date-appropriate behavior.

Karen decided on a cup of crab bisque, which was super rich and flavorful and she let me eat half of it so she wouldn't spoil her appetite. I started with the salad of the day, consisting of arugula, yellow grape tomatoes, smoked trout and pieces of provolone. This salad rocked, although small. The greens were peppery, fresh, and pretty. And the fish was indeed smoky and not dried out like some other smoked fishes I've had. My only complaint was the choice of cheese - too soft and mellow to rival the other ingredients. Parmigiano Reggiano would have been a better choice (for almost any occasion according to prevalent food tv/mags that I look at).

For our entrees, we both decided to order what we wanted from the middle price range of the menu instead of the cheapest dishes (which would have maximized our coupon value). What the heck, you only have your first baby once. Time to chow down!

Karen got a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and marscapone cheese, served with some fancy mashed potatoes and sage butter sauce. She raved about it, at first. Tender, saucy, and savory. But with each bite, she grew less fond of it - calling it quits a third of the way through (not uncommon considering her current finickiness). The flavors were really strong. A little sage, my friends, goes a long way. In retrospect, the same level-pushing was at play with the slightly over-salted soup. And she didn't find the mascarpone in that chicken, because it had liquefied and run into the sauce.

Exhibit B: The cajun creme seafood penne pasta was enormous and vibrantly red. There were large and perfectly cooked scallops and shrimp (three apiece) and crab meat was distributed throughout the sauce. The cajun seasoning was delicious, but completely overpowering - as if a gigantic chunk of New Orleans "essence" had tumbled into the pot when a couple teaspoons were probably called for. A professional fire-breather , however, would probably have taken the cajun calamity in stride. Nonetheless, the heavy cream and saltiness was hard to take issue with. Sure, I was full after six bites, but I got to have it for lunch and dinner today, so I'm not really complaining.

Overall, I suppose I would recommend Bistro-R for its quality ingredients and friendly service (which I didn't go into here). If you like bold flavors, then this place is doubly for you. The food looks and tastes expensive, but you might not actually get your money's worth until you've eaten your entrees as leftovers in the following days.


Sometimes I wonder if the restaurants who advertise in the Entertainment book actually want you to show up with coupon in hand. I'm assuming that they paid in order to be featured in there to begin with. Then they have to give a dish away for free. Are there kick-backs for each coupon used? How does it work?

When I was at Bistro R, nearly everyone was using their Entertainment cards. I heard the server punching holes in the plastic repeatedly. It's not a stretch to think that maybe they build the free dish into the price of their entrees. In fact, the prices seemed to reflect that. But then again, I'm a cheapskate and I tend to be suspicious of everybody's financial motives. Part of me really believes that the eateries that advertise in Entertainment by offering buy-one get-one FREE deals are running some kind of game on me. Am I paranoid and/or are they really after me?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Illegal Eviction by Landlord Wilder?

The Richmond City School Board was evicted from City Hall by Mayor Wilder tonight in a "bloodless coup" that represents the further dismantlling of our local democracy. My feeling, in a word, embarrassment.

When the 11 o'clock news broadcast the after-hours abuse of power by our autocratic despot, my first reaction was to feel outraged by the arrogance and audacity of this misguided and possibly illegal action. This maneuver, however repugnant, falls in line with Wilder's other recent power-plays: A witch-hunt via Big Brother style snooping into City computer usage, parlaying the corporate well-fare program that is the CenterStage performing arts center into a corporate vote of no confidence for the elected School Board. These unfortunate distractions are only an escalation of Wilder's steady stream of ego-centric bullying of our local political process since he was elected. Which brings me to my second reaction to tonight's events: The chickens have simply come home to roost. This is what 80% of Richmond's voters asked for when they abdicated their power to an all-powerful Mayor whose charge was to serve as a check on the management of our city. Or was it?

Nonetheless, cynicism aside, Richmond citizens still have the right to vote and they/we should demand that we retain every opportunity to exercise our oversight of City government. When our elected Mayor misconstrues his job as that of a landlord who can arbitrarily evict elected official tenants from City Hall, we need to put him (and Council) in check. Regardless of how you voted in the at-large mayor referendum, I don't believe that this nonsense has anything to do with the job that Wilder was hired to do.

After watching the news coverage and noting Mark Holmberg's open indignation at being kicked out of City Hall, I decided to hop on my bike and pedal down to 9th and Broad and see the spectacle for myself. In Richmond's sleepy downtown, I found roped off streets around City Hall and no one but scads of police standling idle around the building and bunch of busy movers. Among the officers, I spotted Chief of Staff, Major Bukavich, whom I'd met years ago while negotiating a permit for a rally. After some cordial remarks, I told that man that I felt that I was witnessing my democracy being dismantled under cover of darkness, and I asked the him if he thought that perhaps this action was illegal. He shrugged and said that was a matter for the courts to decide. As he walked away, I added, "Well, I guess you just gotta do what the Mayor tells you, huh?" No comment, but he did roll his eyes a bit.

Riding around City Hall a couple more times for posterity, it occurred to me that our police department should know better than to carry out orders that are contrary to the public interest. They should know that they are supposed to "protect and serve" and that they were wasting many tax-payer sponsored man-hours evicting elected officials when there are so many more pressing duties for them to carry out around the city.

So, I'd like to lay some of the blame for this act of political aggression on the armed men and women who carried it out on Wilder's whim. The political power of our elected officials is dependent on the cooperation of other public servants, and that cooperation is NOT mandatory. It is obviously out of fear that so many continually lay down for Wilder (because it's not our Mayor's charm or reason that appeals to Richmond's public employees). It is so frustrating to see our city's political officials and public servants' inability to exercise critical thinking in the interest of the public (as opposed to the general tendency to act out of self-interest). Come to think of it, Richmond's voting public probably resembles that remark as well.

People, feel free to continue this discussion via comments.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Byrd Park turns out for peaceful streets

Rather than posting my usual rambling confessional to serve as a recap of the Byrd Park neighborhood meeting against violence, why don’t I just paraphrase NBC12’s "news" coverage: About 50 people came out on Saturday morning to find out how to curb violence in Byrd Park thanks to the outreach efforts of a Richmond City Police Department flyering campaign.

Okay, that wasn’t accurate at all. Back to plan A. Personally, I’m really glad that the issue got some press, because it may help to create a buzz that something new is happening and send a message that Byrd Park is not going to stand for shootings, drug trafficking, and violence. However, it’s awfully predictable that our local media would get the story wrong, because they cannot fathom grassroots mobilizations where citizens assert their power and organize themselves.

In the days leading up to the neighborhood anti-violence meeting, my wife designed an outreach flyer and I took it door to door in the 2000 and 2100 blocks of Idlewood, Rosewood, and Maplewood Avenues. As the gateway to Byrd Park from Meadow, these residents have the most at stake and the most responsibility in taking a stand against destructive behavior in our midst (I live in the area in question). Although crime is significantly lower in Byrd Park compared to ten years ago, there has been a resurgence in recent months, particularly in this area (clearly not just a summer flare up).

On the morning of the meeting, over 60 people showed up at the Roundhouse in Byrd Park where we sat outside on folding chairs. When asked for a show of hands for people who live between Meadow and Shields, over half of the audience raised their hands. This was really gratifying. I had dropped flyers with the Byrd Park Civic League “block captains” throughout the neighborhood, but chose to make the eastern most region my personal mission. So, chalk one up for one-on-one conversations as a neighborhood organizing tool. In those conversations, I implored people to take an active role and to nurture whatever hope they have for a peaceful Byrd Park.

The meeting featured a pragmatic and manageable agenda that was set by the Byrd Park Civic League officers (text taken from the distributed agenda):

-Introduction and Civic League President’s Comments (5 mins)
-Updates on Recent Events, Arrests and Warrants by Police (5 mins)
-What the Police Want – An Open Forum for any RPD officers or CAPS officer/inspector to speak (10 mins)
-Neighborhood Watch – Why it is SO IMPORTANT (15 mins)
-What the Neighborhood Wants – Each person will be allowed to speak about 2 issues, properties, corners or areas of concern, 2 minutes per person. (30 min)
-Next Step(s) – Join the Neighborhood Watch, the Civic League and its Crime committee, or just have an evening meeting with your neighbors around your home. (15 min)

Now, I want to steer clear of saying anything too controversial about the proceedings, because we’ve all got to work together and live together, and this meeting will hopefully serve as a turning point for a safer neighborhood. However, I do think that there was consensus that the meeting became a free-for-all as soon as the police paused in their brief presentation. My neighbors peppered the police with questions about everything from litter in the alleys, to feral cat-feeding policies, rolling stops at intersections, open alcohol containers, etc. In some cases, they were speaking truth to power and in others just venting frustration. So, we spent too much time following long tangential stories.

There were questions about the two August shootings, but that was quickly swept aside in favor of a laundry list of everyone’s pet peeves including some alarming anecdotes of irresponsible and disrespectful police. Although all of these issues are connected, playing roles in chain reactions that lead to dangerous situations, I was hoping for a more specific focus on shootings, robberies, and other violent crimes. I was also left wondering why we have to pull together a meeting like this and invite police reps in order to find out the status of investigations of murders, drive by shootings, etc. So much misinformation has been circulating and now things are only slightly clearer. The Aug 1st shooting, car chase, car wreck, and more shooting WAS related to Byrd Park residents and was over a bicycle. Also, Joseph Wynn’s murder DOES NOT appear to have been a “domestic affair,” and is currently considered a botched robbery. Numerous people in Byrd Park had been dismissing both incidents on the grounds that the car chase just happened to pass through Byrd Park and that a man killed on his porch was not a neighborhood concern. Personally, I don’t like being placated or lied to when my personal safety is at stake. Strike one for jumping to conclusions. At the meeting, police circulated a picture of two “persons of interest,” but no arrests have been made.

The thrust of the meeting seemed to be that anyone with concerns about bad behavior and violence should refer all comments to the police and/or the Civic League president. My neighbors with past experience with these kinds of meetings in Byrd Park said that this has been the mantra for years and that they tend to feature residents venting about their neighbors whom they’d never imagine talking to directly. I think this is probably pretty common that neighborhood groups turn gossipy and passive aggressive. Nonetheless, some neighbors truly cannot be reasoned with. They use intimidation to strike fear into their block, and do need to be dealt with. It really seems to me that we’ve got to start thinking outside the box if we’re going to make headway in this area. Just as you would hear from any politician who says s/he doesn’t know how to vote unless you light up their switchboards, police representatives said that if we don’t tell them which houses have guns/drugs going in and out all day, then we shouldn’t assume that they know. Most people found this idea ridiculous.

It’s time to figure out how to show community power, without always abdicating responsibility to the criminal justice system (which does not work!). Suggestions on this are appreciated. Last week, I took it upon myself to contact a public safety liaison (resident, not police) from Ginter Park, where they’ve had some success with a similar initiative and hope to turn up some good ideas from that meeting next week.

Here’s an email quote from a Byrd Park neighbor who I agreed with, “I think there are different ways to approach community issues like crime & public safety, most of which have their place. I am drawn to the approach of first building relationships & then collaborative action (the conventional approach seems to be the opposite and I would argue that's a big reason why initiative "fizzle" (as noted yesterday). I am also drawn to the preventative side of the issue. As a means of better understanding the culture and issues of many who have been isolated / disenfranchised in the city...” and then they let me know about this interesting event.

So, now I’ve got to plan my next steps. My wife was buoyed by the news that the “no dogs allowed” law will soon be lifted for the actual parks in Byrd Park. But, we’ve still got work to do to make the neighborhood safer and more family friendly. Many people that I talked to after the meeting felt that there were few if any next steps offered at the meeting. It was clear to me that the only option that was promoted was to join the Civic League and restart their defunct anti-crime committee. Their next meeting is Saturday October 13th at 10am at the Roundhouse. Many people took note of this fact.

For me, joining the Civic League may be the best option. However, I really want to focus on my end of the neighborhood, sponsor community dialogues, bring in non-profit groups to facilitate issue focused events, develop block phone trees (a la Neighborhood Watch), and hold block-specific social gatherings to develop relationships and understanding. I’m not sure if these things are on the agenda of the Civic League or even if they should be (especially since my focus is only on six-square blocks). Neighbors should be able to organize themselves and in the past two weeks, we did just that.

(I hope that readers – especially Byrd Parkers – will chime in with constructive comments. Obviously, this is a personal perspective and I know there are more out there.)