Author Archives: Andrew Sharp

Was there ever a truly natural city? The Byzantines thought so.

Constantinople mural, Istanbul Archaeological Museums; Wikimedia Commons

A medieval mural in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums depicting the seaward walls of the Byzantine capital; Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AConstantinople_mural%2C_Istanbul_Archaeological_Museums.jpg

In an age that emphasizes sustainable urbanization and green growth in cities across the globe, it makes sense to look to the past to see if human beings have ever really attempted, much less achieved, a truly “natural” city—one in which the human and the natural were connected so that both would thrive. As it turns out, new research suggests that Constantinople may have been such a city, at least in the aspirations of its inhabitants.

From ancient times, the Greeks believed humans could achieve their full potential only within the context of a city, and perhaps no city built by Greeks more fully reflected their ideal of the polis as the crucial element of paideia (the formation or education of the citizen) than Constantinople. The heart and soul of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was the nexus of East and West, Empire and Church, heaven and earth, man and nature, the old and the new. Even after the Muslim Turks conquered the city in 1453 and up to the present, Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, has been a bridge between two worlds, whether it is Europe and Asia, the Islamic world and the West, or the modern and the traditional. Although the Byzantine capital ceased to exist more than five centuries ago, the legacy and spirit of Byzantium have continued and may even have important lessons for city dwellers today.

In The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible,  Bruce Foltz asks whether Constantinople was in fact such a “natural city.” Foltz, a professor of philosophy at Eckerd College, examines not just the built environment and the civic structures put in place by the Byzantines, but also the deeper cultural and philosophical systems that formed  their vision of what a city should be. Constantinople, he points out, was founded as a “sacred city” that celebrated the connections among the divine, human, and natural realms as an integrated whole. Foltz says that for Byzantine Christians,

[T]he Fall is a disorder of the whole cosmos…[and] redemption…[is] a restoration of humanity and nature alike…returning them to their paradisiacal state….Humanity [is to be]…that being through which the divine image within all creation becomes fully realized, the nodal point through which creation apprehends and consecrates its own inner divinity.

For Orthodox believers, there was an intimate connection between man and nature expressed and experienced not just on the individual or even communal level but also through the imperial city itself. Constantinople, the golden city, shone as the beacon and the paradigm for those living throughout the Byzantine realm and beyond.

Contemporary view of Hagia Sophia; photo by Murat Taner; #166989598 / gettyimages.com

 

The focal point of Constantinople was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Divine Wisdom, considered by many to be one of the great wonders of the world because of its scale, complexity, and beauty. The function of this architectural wonder was to symbolize the Byzantine understanding of the relationship among God, man, and nature, and to reveal their coming together in space and time. As  Foltz describes it,

The Divine Wisdom is the eternal Logos, seen as shaping the cosmos and holding it together. It is thus also the inner logos of each being that, when fully realized, joins it to the whole in a love that must be understood ontologically.… The Great Church of the Divine Wisdom, then, itself serves to bring together all elements of the cosmos in a transfigured form, making manifest the inner glow of their divine beauty.

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis, by Gunnar Back Pedersen, Wikimedia Commons

Anastasis, or Resurrection of Christ, icon from the funerary chapel at Choral Church, an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture and iconography in Istanbul; Wikimedia Commons

When the citizens of Constantinople came together in worship, they entered a space intended to bring together heaven and earth, and they  prayed “on behalf of all [living things] and for all.” Their liturgies were not only for the spiritual edification of individuals in the congregation but also for the renewal of a vision of the natural order, indeed of the entire cosmos, as something sacred, a gift from God given to mankind to treasure and protect. It was a bringing together of both present time and the future Kingdom of God in which humans and all of nature would reach their fullest potential in the image of the divine. Byzantine worship, through its mystical music and elaborate symbolism, also depicted the city as Heavenly Jerusalem, one that the earthly city of Constantinople was to emulate and that Byzantine rulers and citizens alike should strive to achieve. The belief was that a strong, vibrant, and (to the extent possible in this fallen world) “holy” Constantinople, a truly “natural” city, could link humans and nature, the divided races of man, and Heaven and Earth.

The practical ramifications of this ideal play out in a number of ways. For example, historians Stephen Barthel and Christian Isendahl have demonstrated that Constantinople’s urban gardens, agriculture, and water management systems were more efficient than those of many modern cities, in large part because of “the close connection between urban people and their life-support systems,” a concept which they argue must be reignited among urban dwellers today.

There were multiple reasons why this grand urban experiment eventually came to an end, as Steven Runciman and Donald Nicol have chronicled so well in their now-classic works on the subject. The Constantinopolitan model for a city may also be a hard sell in today’s world, particularly in the secularized West where the Byzantine concept of symphonia—a system in which  political and religious leaders work in unity to provide the material and spiritual needs of the people—is rejected outright. Still, to the extent that it can serve as a model of a natural city, Constantinople remains a useful paradigm for us today. Foltz may be right when he concludes that:

Byzantium may nevertheless remain for us in the West, heirs to both Athens and Jerusalem, the exemplary bridge between the secular and the sacred, the temporal and the eternal, between the visible and invisible: the once and future natural city.

The true lesson of the Byzantines, so crucial to us today, is their understanding of the connection between mankind and nature. We can learn from Constantinople that the world around us is composed of living things, not just dead matter for us to take and exploit to make products that we then set before ourselves in an elusive search for meaning and happiness.

Andrew Sharp is Research Scholar at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he serves as the Thriving Cities Project Manager, and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His publications are in the areas Eastern Christianity, Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations and his book is Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age (Brill, 2012).

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Faith in the City: Part III, City Soul—An Interview with Cardus’ Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities with Cardus, “a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture” based in Hamilton, Ontario. He directs a new project area within Social Cities called City Soul. I spoke with him recently about this effort and how he believes faith-based organizations can contribute to the life of neighborhoods. 

Q: What is the City Soul project and why did Cardus initiate it?

City Soul is an effort to explore the possibilities of connecting faith-based organizations with long-term planning in cities. This came about as Cardus sought to look for ways to encourage city leaders to place more emphasis on human factors such as social interaction, purpose, meaning, belonging—emphases that we believe foster full human flourishing rather than engineering or marketplace efficiencies that minimize costs and maximize private returns on investment. We think it is important to consider the social return on investment in cities, and that this is maximized when faith-based institutions are part of the equation.

Q: It seems faith-based organizations are already quite involved in their cities. Why is this project needed?

A wide range of social care and service-level involvement is typical of the faith-based sector, but what is more rare is involvement in thinking about and planning for the spatial arrangement of neighbourhoods and cities. There needs to be a more disciplined approach to thinking about the social infrastructure of cities, particularly the institutional landscape that includes religious organizations along with the more normal considerations such as businesses, schools, government organizations, and non-profits.

Q: What has been the response from city leaders?

So far, there has been a real interest in this type of interaction with faith-based organizations. Cites are beset today with many social challenges in their communities, and local government does not have the resources to address them adequately. Whether it is the aging population, increasing social isolation, economic hardship, the loss of the middle class, or increased globalization, the social stresses in urban centers today require that every possible resource is used to offset worrying trends by building up the social fabric of cities. There is simply a pragmatic realization that religious institutions in their varied forms are to the social fabric of cities what swamps and bogs are to the ecological landscape. Cities that are serious about attending to the various social challenges in their communities can’t afford to be snobbish about a scarce resource.

Q: Are there concerns or fears about faith-based organizations partnering with local governments?   

Yes, at times, and we hope City Soul will help change current perceptions. Our contemporary sophistication and anti-religious vogue attitudes incline many to minimize the potential contributions of faith communities toward the common good. Some fear simply the mix of religion and government. However, having faith-based organizations more involved in long-term planning in cities does not require religious commitments or the adoption of a theocratic view of governance.

Q: What are the key challenges to getting faith-based organizations more involved in the city planning process?

The difficulties of connecting faith-based organizations and city structural planning are significant. Cities run with the help of highly organized, bureaucratic (in a good sense), and secular (in the sense of serving a diverse public interest) administrations. Faith-based organizations typically operate with smaller administrations, depend heavily on relational rather than formal organizational ties, and are oriented to something other than purely secular commitments. The balance required to design more effective communication and learning between city and faith-based organizations faces the perils of all new initiatives: that misunderstanding, assumptions, and established prejudice on all sides will undo the effort before its full measure can be taken. Most of the infrastructure (social and institutional) is not in place. City-planning processes do not regularly or consistently engage with faith-based organizations in longterm design—they are assumed irrelevant to such processes. This is not intended to be a direct criticism. City planners often overlook faith-based organizations because these organizations have had so little involvement in the formal processes of planning-related deliberations.

Q: What are the barriers to getting faith-based organizations to work with each other and together with city leaders?

Faith-based institutions and organizations are neither literate about city-planning process nor in any significant way coordinated with each other. The result is that they speak to planning-related issues in a highly fragmented way, if even at all. Weaving across this gap would require a regular and persistent structural approach that is not driven by any particular issue. What is needed is a steady and patient interaction rather than a volatile and episodic flurry. It is easier to generate interest in engagement when a particular cause or issue arises that captures the interest of faith-based organizations (changes to parking bylaws, for example), but support for such rallying causes tends to decline just as rapidly once decisions about the issue have been made. Another challenge is that faith-based organizations may insist on confessional alignment as a precondition for cooperation on city issues. It often seems to be the case that issue-driven or confessional comfort are the key drivers of cooperation. Just as businesses coordinate in a chamber of commerce on the basis of being commercial entities, faith-based organizations could explore ways of cooperating and coordinating on the basis of being faith-based organizations, that is, a particular type of entity in the larger urban landscape. I further explain this concept in a recent article for Comment magazine.

Q: What will it take to overcome these issues for both city leaders and faith-based organizations?

Pursuing this kind of meaningful engagement around long-term structural, social, and spiritual themes will require greater investment (or re-allocation) of resources, from both city and faith-based organizations. New work often requires investment ahead of concrete results. Investing social, intellectual, and financial capital in this framework of process requires an exploratory, pioneering mindset. We do not understand enough about the costs and benefits, but one effort that is emerging in Canada builds on the work of Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining the replacement cost of services that local faith groups provide to their neighborhoods. The early results show a substantial value to neighborhoods. Funding is not the only need, however. Equally important will be finding people willing to stick with the work even when cause-effect results are hard to see or perhaps not even possible in a full sense. This effort will entail a great deal of searching and persistence. Finally, communication will be key and the development of new tools, resources, strategies, and approaches will be essential.

2013 - 06 - PS - MFriesen

 

 

To learn more about Milton Friesen and his work, read his article in Municipal World,Social Infrastructure: Underpinning the success of cities” and his recent one in Comment, “The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire.”

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What are the Challenges of the City today?

For centuries, social theorists worried about urbanization and its consequences for social life.  While many of their most dire fears never materialized, pressing questions about cities and city life still remain. On March 21, the Urbanization Project from New York University’s Stern School of Business brought together popular urbanist  Richard Florida, economist Paul Romer, and sociologist Robert Sampson for a panel on “The Challenge of the City.” All three speakers have made significant contributions to our understanding of cities in recent decades, and their discussion addressed many of the challenges and opportunities for cities in the next hundred years.

Each speaker recognized that the long-term challenges of urbanization will continue: by 2100 the world’s population may approach 11 billion people, with a projected 75 percent living in urban centers. Urban studies from the latter part of the 20th century revealed how structural shifts in economic production and growth produced persistent disadvantage in cities.  So far, the cities of the 21st century still contain areas of concentrated affluence and concentrated disadvantage—what Florida calls the “compression of inequality.” Sampson’s research into “neighborhood effects” highlights one key aspect of this trend: inter-generational transmission of disadvantage in certain areas. Inequality, he shows, persists even amidst significant residential turnover, pointing to the durability of structural and cultural factors that shape life outcomes. Such deeply rooted problems, which have afflicted cities for decades already, loom large for anyone concerned with the future of urban thriving over the coming years.

The event was co-sponsored by the NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Marion Institute on Cities and Urban Environments.

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Globalization and Urban Pollution

iStock_000012611934Small

(Source: iStockphotos)

 

What happens when a citizen sues his own city over air pollution?  We may soon find out in China. 

Li Guixin, a citizen of Shijiazhuang, a city about three hours southwest of Beijing, recently submitted a formal complaint to a district court asking, according to Reuters,

… the city’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to ‘perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law’, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said. He is also seeking compensation from the agency for residents for the choking pollution that has engulfed Shijiazhuang, and much of northern China, this winter.

New York Times Chart of Fossil Fuel  Consumption

(Source: New York Times)

Given China’s widespread environmental problems, Li’s actions do not seem that surprising. Air pollution in Chinese cities is so severe that the New York Times has dedicated a special section to it.  A recent article from the Times cited a study published by a Chinese state-run think tank that actually deemed Beijing unfit for human habitation. Not surprisingly, that study was soon censored by the Chinese government. Another article revealed that only three out of 74 Chinese cities actually had “healthy air” in 2013. Pollution in China is a result of complex factors related to population growth,  industrial expansion, public-private corruption, and high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Even as coal use in the US decreases, it grew on average 8 percent annually during the past decade in China. According to the most recent data, China now consumes nearly  four times as much coal as the US.

(Credit iStockpotos)

(Credit iStockpotos)

Recently, the World Health Organization released a report that indicted toxic air pollution for 3.7 million deaths worldwide. Though China is currently taking steps to curb its smog epidemic, such as giving monetary rewards to cities and regions that reduce their pollution, the untold environmental, health, and social consequences will take some time to assess. China’s urban pollution woes, though extreme, are hardly unique. Even developed Western cities are struggling to reduce their smog. Just last month, Paris briefly made public transportation free in an effort to reduce air pollutants from automobiles. Although the United Sates has been able to relocate some of its dirtiest industries oversees, what people on the West Coast (no strangers to smog) are quickly realizing is that the effects of air pollution cannot be restricted to one city or or one country–or even to one continent. In a study published in January, scientists discovered that emissions in China can be carried across the Pacific to US shores, thanks to powerful global winds. Researchers say that Los Angeles experiences on average one extra day of bad air per year because of Chinese factories.  The next time a Chinese city is sued over its pollution, the plaintiff may be a resident of Los Angeles. When it comes to curbing drastic levels of urban pollution, there are no technological silver bullets. With the world quickly urbanizing, cities and their denizens will have to work individually and collectively to press for new laws and accountability measures–and to see that they are enforced.  The question then remains: Who will step up and take responsibility for the future ecological health of our growing cities? In China, we will soon find out.

 

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Faith in the City: Part II, Will the New Urban Evangelical Change Cities?

9780415779364Those intrigued by the apparent shift among evangelical Christians toward a greater emphasis on cities would be well-served to read a fascinating collection of essays edited by Nezar AlSayyad and Mejgan Massoumi in The Fundamentalist City? Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban SpaceAccording to AlSayyad, the project was an attempt to study “the relationship between fundamentalism as a concept and urbanism as lived reality.” It was an ambitious interdisciplinary effort with a global scope—encompassing case studies among urban Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including American evangelicals—in light of “the unanticipated resurgence of religious and ethnic loyalties [that have] given new meaning to religion in the public life of many communities.” One result was Omri Elisha’s article, “Taking the (Inner) City for God: Ambiguities of Urban Social Engagement among Conservative White Evangelicals,” which sheds some light on what is driving the new focus on cities among American evangelicals today:

Renewed engagement in the field of urban ministry on the part of suburban evangelicals entails both the realization that the fate of the city is irrevocably tied to their own, and the recognition that the city remains a problematic place where they do not intuitively belong.

Elisha points to the evolving nature of the evangelical view of the city. Previously the “progressive” lifestyle, temptations, and crime of the modern city made it an unappealing place to live for many evangelicals. Some evangelical leaders would even compare it to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Over the past decade, however, and especially with the younger generation, this has begun to change. New urban churches are springing up across the country. This pattern can be seen in the “fundamentalist” strands within many of today’s world religions, as other chapters in The Fundamentalist City show.

This new, softer image of the urban evangelical, who offers service to city dwellers with no strings attached, has been difficult for some to accept. For example, in reaction to Joy Allmond’s article (see Part I of this series) that claimed evangelicals were leading a New Great Awakening in New York City, Anthony Bradley asked, “Are evangelicals really that important?” In an article for the Acton Institute, he made the case that religious communities other than white (formerly suburban) evangelicals might see things differently:

After reading Allmond’s article one might get the sense only evangelical Christians are thriving in the city. But what about the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, traditional Black Church, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian/Asian-American congregations? Many of those churches have been far more active in New York since World War II than evangelicals have been. It seems to be if God was going to ‘awaken’ New York, or any major city west of the Mississippi River, he would do so by using a coalition of Christians across the traditions who are already there to bear witness to work and person of Christ.

It is hard to argue with Bradley on this point. He and many others are waiting to see if the new urban evangelical movement is going to make a lasting impact on cities. It seems the real test will be whether evangelicals consistently partner with “Christians across the traditions,” who, unlike many evangelicals, stayed in the inner city and consistently maintained ministries to the urban poor.

A larger question in all of this is the extent to which religious groups should be taken seriously as a force for positive, lasting change in cities. More than ever, faith communities need to be part of the conversation when it comes to urban planning, capital expenditures, educational priorities, and other decisions of lasting impact upon a city. Far too often over the past century the major decisions that have left a legacy on cities—from the built environment to the landing of big business deals—have been made by a very small club of individuals, in which religious leaders have either been denied entry or refused to join. This needs to change, and perhaps the new engagement of evangelicals in cities is a positive sign that this is already happening. Looking at this issue globally and inclusive of other faith traditions can again shed light on the changing significance of religion in cities. In an article in The Fundamentalist City about what she calls “post secular urbanisms” in Delhi—where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have played an important role—Mrinalini Rajagopalan gets to the heart of the matter:

Conventional definitions of modernity have relegated religious belief to the realm of the private and have attempted to abrogate its public appeal by privileging scientific temper and rational thought…. Undoubtedly, and like many other imaginations of modernity, this is an artificial divide that has been questioned by those who offer valuable insights into alternative or multiple modernities.

The usual suspects in city leadership need not fear faith communities and would do well to give them a seat at the table when it comes to those important decisions to address their city’s problems. An important study by Cardus, a think tank in Canada, has recently shown that the key to success is to “improve structural engagement” between “faith based organizations and city planning departments.” Will city leaders in the US be willing to take faith-based organizations seriously? Will religious leaders among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others be able to come together to share common goals for their city and speak with one voice if city leaders give them a seat at the planning table? Time will tell, but I have a strong suspicion that a city’s ability to thrive will largely depend on the community’s ability to say yes to both.

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Faith in the City: Part I, The Evangelicals are Coming!

This is the first in a series of posts from different perspectives on the role of religious communities in cities. 

Evangelicals are coming back to the city, both figuratively and literally. The big change, as they are heralding it, is that they are now focusing their energy and new ministries on America’s urban centers. Some have even moved out of the suburbs and into areas of the city where they would not have imagined themselves living just a few years ago. They have come to the city, and people have noticed. A striking example of this occured when the Luis Palau Association began sponsoring a “Season of Service” in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, garnering positive attention from a city famous for its secularism and progressive outlook. As USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker reported, churches were:

fanning out across the Portland area to feed and clothe the homeless, provide free medical and dental services, fix up local public schools, and support their low-income students with supplies, mentoring and other resources. All this with “no strings attached,” [as the organizer Kevin] Palau emphasizes, meaning the service comes without the proselytizing that is often associated with Christian missionary outreach.

Krattenmaker’s piece also points out that this led to unusual coalitions, thrusting “the area’s evangelicals into partnership with Sam Adams, who [the previous year had become] the first openly gay candidate elected mayor of a major American city.”

The Season of Service (now called CityServe Portland) was so well-received in Portland that the model has been replicated in Anchorage, Houston, Little Rock, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego; within several evangelical denominations; and even in the State of New Jersey, where the Christie administration has called on citizens to volunteer “through local groups, houses of worship and civic organizations,” calling it a “season of service.”

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

Another signal of the shift toward cities among evangelicals is Movement Day.  Beginning in 2010, this has become an annual “gathering of leaders to catalyze gospel movements in their cities.” At the forefront of this effort has been Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a congregation of 5,000 in New York City.  This year’s Movement Day will highlight the efforts in Portland; Luis Palau, Kevin Palau (of CityServe Portland), and  Adams will all be plenary speakers.
Season of Service and Movement Day are just a couple among numerous examples that signal a shift, at least among a segment of evangelical Christianity, away from the kind of engagement with society epitomized by the Christian Right and similar movements toward the end of last century through the past decade. The significance of this new urban focus has led some, such as Joy Allmond of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to speak of the next “Great Awakening.” Jay Tolson had previously reported the same term was being used to signify something slightly different by another strand of evangelicals, but either way it seems there is a big change on the horizon that is taking place in cities.  
The evangelicals are coming. Are cities ready?
In Part II of this series, we will talk about some of the responses to this trend and the divergent views about what it may mean for cities.  

 

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Can Richmond heal its past to become a thriving city? An interview with Julian Hayter

(Credit: iStockphotos)

(Credit: iStockphotos)

I met up recently with Julian Hayter, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of the University of Richmond. A historian, Hayter focuses on municipal politics in the post-1945 South and specifically Richmond, Virginia. His research does more than interrogate Richmond’s past, he explained: “I’ve asked historical questions that beg contemporaries to think about Richmond presently.”

Q: As part of the Institute for Advanced Cities in Culture‘s  Thriving Cities Project you’ve been asked to write a city profile for Richmond. How are you approaching this?

Outside of thinking about things within the ideological framework Thriving Cities champions, I’ve simply relied on many of the research techniques I use as an historian. I’m currently writing a book that ends in 1985—many of the sources I’ve used to uncover Richmond’s past aren’t that dissimilar from the data I’m using to understand Richmond now. 

Q: Do you think Richmond is a thriving city?

Frankly, portions of Richmond thrive. Other portions of Richmond, which were purposefully underdeveloped during the Jim Crow era, still struggle. Unfortunately, Richmond has struggled to overcome segregationists’ lack of long-term political vision.

Q: If we think of cities as having inheritances, what do you think is Richmond’s primary treasure that lends to its ability to thrive?

Richmond’s history, which has been its Achilles’ heel, might be used to turn a corner. This area occupies a special place in American history—Richmond and Virginia were central to the creation of the American democratic experiment, trans-Atlantic slaving, the establishment of the Confederacy, and much more. Richmond has inherited a special place in American heritage. Yet, this is a hotly debated space. History’s been used in this area to divide. I see no reason why Richmond’s history can’t be a unifying force.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or barrier to Richmond’s thriving as a city? 

Even more frankly, Richmond’s biggest challenge is poverty—it’s rampant and generational. Richmond’s poverty, unfortunately, is also closely linked to Jim Crowism. Yet, local policymakers are finally addressing this issue. (See the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.)

Q: What is one thing that has surprised you about Richmond in your work so far? 

I’ve been studying Richmond’s relatively recent history for nearly a decade. My colleagues are local policymakers, social workers, organizers, and active citizens. Very little surprises me about this area.

(Credit: University of Richmond)

(Credit: University of Richmond)

 

To hear more from Julian, check out the opinion piece he wrote for Richmond’s Style Weekly (The Rest of the Dream) about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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