Learnings from RVA Leaders

I am often teased about having a large network, that I know “everyone”. That is extreme, yet my life long adventures and engagements in RVA have yielded me linkages that are wide and diverse. The individuals, the leaders that I encountered over four decades in RVA provided me with my own personal leadership lab. I cannot remember all of the conversations I had with community leaders, but I do remember how they impacted me and the lessons learned from their actions and interactions. The following is one of many stories from my leadership lab.


In 1977, I had the unique experience to engage with the new leaders in Richmond history. I was the intern for newly elected Councilwomen for the 8th district Claudette Black McDaniel and 3rd district Willie Dell, the first black female councilwoman. At that time, as a seventeen-year-old, I did not realize I was in the midst of history.

One of my roles as an intern was to attend council meetings. I would sit in the audience, chat with residents and take notes for the Councilwomen. At one meeting, I met Mrs. Alma Marie Barlow. As a resident of Fairfield Court, she saw an opportunity to bring about change and created the Richmond Tenants Association, giving a heighten and collective voice for residents living in public housing. On numerous occasions, she spoke during the council’s public comment period. Mrs. Barlow had a posture of confidence and influence as she shared with city council the needs of residents. As a teenager, I was shocked and disappointed to hear the whispers of leaders in the audience making comments, not on what she was saying, but how she was saying it. They focused more on the delivery of her message rather than the message itself. Did they not think what she had to say was important? Did their biases cause them to miss an opportunity to gain new knowledge and/or perspectives different than their own?

Four years later, while working on my degree in planning at VCU, I wrote a paper on public housing in Richmond. I wanted to include the voices of the tenants. I called Mrs. Barlow and she invited me into her home. We sat in her living room and talked for a few hours. I cannot say exactly what she said, but I remember feeling that the residents had a leader that believed in their community. I do remember being interrupted often by knocks on the door by neighbors who needed to talk to Mrs. Barlow. It was a visit that I think of often.

Mrs. Barlow touched many lives, she made a difference beyond the tenants of the public housing “courts”. In an interview with VA Lawyers Weekly, Henry McLaughlin, former CEO of Central Virginia Legal Aid Society was asked, “Who was your most important mentor and how did he/she impact your career?” He answered “Alma Marie Barlow, executive president of the Richmond Tenants (Association). She taught me that differences are important and should be respected, but that those things that bring us together are more important. She changed the way I’ve interacted with clients.”

After many years of speaking for and working for the rights of residents, Mrs. Barlow died in 1993. I am proud to say that she was a member of the Leadership Metro Richmond Class of 1990. Her work in RVA was recognized, including being named to the first class of the YWCA Outstanding Women Award recipients, just three years after creating the Tenants Association.

Upon her death, the Virginia General Assembly agreed in a House Joint Resolution that “Whereas , never one to suffer injustice silently, Alma Barlow rose to prominence as the head of the tenants association and became an exceptional influential and respected advocate for the rights of the less fortunate and Whereas, her rise from humble beginnings gave proof, in the words of Governor Wilder, to the notion that a person’s ability to bring about meaningful change is not dictated by personal wealth or status in life, but by a genuine concern for the common good”

I am glad I was listening, not whispering. I would have missed history!

Myra Goodman Smith
LMR President & CEO
Class of 2006

“In This Place, They Have a Face”

They are the faceless individuals you don’t see standing on the corner when you’re stopped at a traffic light. They don’t want to work. They are shiftless and lazy. They are to be avoided. They are to be mistrusted. They are to be arrested for trespassing, for panhandling, for bizarre behavior. They are dirty and dangerous. They are the homeless.

Sadly, this has been and remains the opinion of many Richmond residents. The reality is that being homeless is a lonely and scary experience—ask anyone who has faced the frightening reality of being one paycheck, one sickness, one injury or accident away from losing one of life’s most basic needs: shelter. The challenge is to create environments which foster enriched, stable and healthy lives, instead of ignoring these individuals and viewing them as a malignancy.

In 2000, a group of nine LMR rookies came together to form and to storm. Back in the day, teams selected their LMR project from proposals submitted by local nonprofits. Team TGFKAX as we were known, began to educate ourselves about community perceptions surrounding homelessness and specifically those related to a community housing environment which offered shelter in South Richmond to eight chronically homeless individuals with severe mental illness. What we learned was transformational for us and what we were able to accomplish was transformational for the nonprofit with whom we were partnered, The Daily Planet. Team TGFKAX spent our next 10 months working in collaboration to address and resolve some of those misconceptions.

We were fortunate to convince HUD to reserve federal funds for the re-establishing and relocating of a special and unique transitional housing facility/program (Safe Haven). The program once located at 316 East Clay Street was forced to move to make way for the Richmond Convention Center expansion. After meeting individually with the Mayor (now Senator Kaine) as well as all district representatives AND confronting attitudes of NIMBY from many in the community, the team was instrumental in getting the approval of City Council for a special use permit allowing a new facility to be built.

Daily Planet Health Services continues to embrace innovative ways to motivate homeless clients out of their disenfranchisement by redeveloping the social inclusion and community they have lost. After 18 years, how would I know this? Because two members of that LMR team are still involved today! One of our team members joined the board following our graduation, and I became a volunteer on a board committee (thanks to that board member reminding me that we always “make a good team” and that I had a skill set that was desperately needed). After serving on the board fund development committee for 5 years, I received a recruitment call asking if I’d consider becoming a “Planeteer” (employee) and devote my fund-raising skills full-time on behalf of the organization.

Fast forward eleven years, that board member and I are still inspired to advocate as a team for the at-risk populations served by Daily Planet and still applying the lessons learned during our LMR experience.

Maureen Neal, CFRE
COO, Advancement, The Daily Planet
LMR Class of 2001

Programming notes:

The title of this blog post refers to Safe Haven and was also the title of the poem written specifically for our 2001 LMR project presentation.

The photo above is from the cover of Daily Planet’s 2000-2001 Annual Report reveals some of the City Council representatives we worked so hard to convince they were making the right choice. Recognize any recent VP candidates?

It’s Time for a New Word

As we begin 2018, we will hear announcements from Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and other credible sources about the most important word from 2017.  We do not have agreement among the experts as to the ultimate word of the year; however, reviewing the top words on their respective lists does remind us about the tone of our society, both nationally and globally, during the past year.

Locally, a small group of leaders in the nonprofit and public sectors spent some time talking about words last year too:  words that we habitually use in speeches, meetings and grant applications.  More specifically, the words and terminology we use to describe the people who we help.   We challenged ourselves about the tone and messages relayed by the use of certain words.  The conversations were uncomfortable, yet necessary.  We all agreed that it is time for a new word.

In an era where we are intentional about highlighting the assets of all members of our community, it feels antiquated to refer to large segments of our community as disadvantaged or underprivileged.  Although those terms might have been appropriately descriptive at some point in the past, we now have a more evolved understanding of the damage that can be caused to the psyche of a child, or even an adult, by labeling them as “less than” or “under” the rest of us.  We need to find more respectful terminology.

I made up my own litmus test to confirm that it is time to retire those words from my vocabulary.  I imagine standing in front of a room facing a crowd of people who need the services that I have to offer. Then I assess if I would feel any discomfort, or if I would think that I sounded condescending, if I looked them in their eyes and called them disadvantaged or underprivileged.  I realized that I would not be able to call them by either word to their faces.  Therefore, I will not do it behind their backs.  I am now trying to use phrases like “children with untapped potential” or “individuals who are struggling financially.”  Yes, these are more words, but they pass my litmus test.

I encourage LMR members and all of our community leaders to be mindful of your word choice.  I am hopeful that the local conversations about changing the words we use to describe the people we help will continue and broaden to include more community leaders in 2018.  The time is right.

Reggie Gordon
Class of 2002

Reaffirming My Professional Journey

In 2008, I was hired as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher in a rural school division located within the Greater Richmond Metro Region. I was told I would be responsible for both administrative and educational tasks for four out of five schools in the county.

Being an ESOL teacher in a rural Virginia county is challenging. Often, ESOL teachers in rural counties are responsible for administrative work, designing language support curriculums, plus implementing the regular teaching load. In addition, ESOL teachers create the bridge between language and culture for ESOL families and the rest of the community. They are agents of change and advocates for those who do not have a voice or who are not familiar with the American system of education. Because change is difficult, ESOL teachers can encounter barriers from those who want to keep things the established way. At times, change creates resistance, so an ESOL teacher must learn the balancing act of pushing for change slowly and incrementally. You can read more about this work on my school blog.

Though the years that I have worked in my county, the ESOL program has developed from infancy into an established ESOL program. During this time, we have observed an increased level of school-based and division-level administrator support, which has helped to further develop our program. Together we have worked with our school community to familiarize them with Title III (ESOL) administrative requirements and regulations, ranging from the home language identification processes, translation needs, to testing accommodations. Our work has paid off. After our 2016 audit, we received recognition from the Title I/III specialists of the Virginia Department of Education and were asked to present our ESOL handbook, timeline and sample curriculum at an upcoming consortium conference. The hope is that our rural ESOL handbook and timeline can serve as a model for other rural counties in the state of Virginia.

I have always felt supported by my colleagues, administrators, and community volunteers. But pioneering the work of a new program in schools can be isolating. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and start making connections beyond county lines. Early in May 2016, I stumbled across an email from Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR). The subject header stated, “Six days remaining to apply for Leadership Quest.” My interest was piqued. I started to research Leadership Metro Richmond’s mission statement and programs. I read “(LMR) is a community leadership development and engagement organization with a mission to connect and educate a diverse group of community leaders, inspiring them to serve the greater Richmond region.” The words “connect, educate, inspire, and serve” incentivized me to apply for the program. I applied and was accepted.

There are so many experiences that stand out during my 2016/17 LMR leadership quest. I will only name a few because they reaffirmed my career as an ESOL teacher. The first was the friendships and connections I made. LMR places participants into immersion groups and our job is to investigate and create a project related to a regional topic. In this case, my group was selected to address the topic of immigration. We were composed of extremely diverse and talented professionals such as the chief executive officer of the YWCA, a dean at the University of Richmond, and an executive director of construction operations. My group set out to learn more about the topic of immigration and to understand its complexities through visits and interviews in the community. We went to places such as Crossover Clinics, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Sacred Heart Center. A culminating event was when my group hosted a movie screening and panel discussion on the topic of immigration at the University of Richmond. For more information on my Leadership immersion group experience, refer to the LMR link entitled Immigration.

In addition to forming long-lasting friendships and “enduring bonds,” there are a couple of other people who spoke to our LMR class who inspired me and reaffirmed my career choice as an ESOL teacher. One person was Jonathan Zur (LMR ’08), director of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. His talents lie in the area of facilitation and drawing in the perspectives, experiences, and emotions around some of today’s toughest topics. He presented on “Practicing Courageous Conversations.” I have written in my LMR journal three questions that referenced courageous conversations. I refer to these questions often in my job as ESOL teacher. These questions are “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said right now? Does it need to be said by me?” Contrary to thought, courageous conversations involve listening. But, they also require us to not cower and cover up what needs to be said. When we cover up or ignore an injustice or an unfavorable trait, we are not standing up for civil rights. We are perpetuating them. We must stand up for those who are deemed unfavorable and be a voice that champions injustice.

Another individual who impacted me in my role as an ESOL teacher was Damon Jiggetts (LMR ’16) who works in the east end of Richmond and currently serves as the executive director of the Peter Paul Development Center. He spoke on the need to teach people to ask themselves “What can we do for ourselves?” He stated that if we empower those who are impoverished and help them find their self worth, they find that they have so much within themselves to give. Damon Jiggetts spoke again at our LMR graduation ceremony in June 2017. Three words that have guided him in his professional pathway are “passion, purpose, and profession.” He stated that his passion guided what he did professionally. This outward expression of passion has become his purpose. He also spoke of learning through his career and how his purpose evolved into a profession, which was consistently motivated by the lessons he’s learned.

For me, the privilege of being part of the class of Leadership Metro Richmond helped me to connect to an amazing network of professionals and it helped me become more educated about the intricacies and complexities of community issues. Most importantly, it reaffirmed my passion to continue serving the ESOL population in the greater Richmond region. I am grateful for my career as an ESOL teacher and also for the experience of Leadership Metro Richmond, which has educated, inspired, and enriched my career in so many ways.

Renae Townsend
Class of 2017

What We Give

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

With Giving Tuesday just a few weeks away, we would like to highlight how one of our members has chosen to uplift the importance of giving back to the community by honoring exceptional volunteers who support a variety of worthy causes throughout the region at their annual “Carreras Gives Thanks” event. Rejena Carreras (LMR ’93) expressed to us on a call earlier this week that “LMR’s mission of inclusiveness and making a difference in the community is also a part of the mission of Carreras Jewelers.” Below, we asked Rejena to provide some inspiration for this Giving Tuesday (November 29, 2017) by sharing with us what motivated her to create the “Carreras Gives Thanks” awards:

As Carreras Jewelers celebrates our 50th year we are keenly aware that we would not be celebrating this golden anniversary without our loyal customers and our amazing community.

It has always important to our company to give back to the community that gives so much to us. Four years ago, we started “Carreras Cares”. During the month of December we invited 12 non-profits that we either had relationships with as a store or that were organizations my employees personally supported, to each nominate a volunteer that went “above and beyond” for their organization for us to honor. The volunteers were invited to come in during store hours where we showered them with excitement, honored them with a piece of jewelry, and snapped pictures for our social media.

The volunteers were appreciative but my staff did not feel that it was enough. My staff wanted to be able to spend more time with the volunteers and hear more about why they were nominated. But, as many of us know, the holiday season in a retail store is hectic.

Two years ago, we started “Carreras Gives Thanks”, a way to continue honoring volunteers and giving them the recognition and appreciation they deserve. But instead of inviting the honorees to come in individually throughout December, we combined it into a single fun cocktail event in the beginning of November.

This year, on November 1st, we honored 11 volunteers from 11 different non-profits: HandsOn Greater Richmond, The Links Incorporated, Richmond (VA) Chapter, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Reinhart House, Sheltering Arms, Richmond Triangle Players, VCU Massey Cancer Center, Children’s Hospital Foundation, Thrifty Sisters, Make-A-Wish Greater Virginia, and SPARC. Volunteers, their friends and family, and members from the organizations enjoyed an evening of celebrating each other’s achievements. Carreras’ staff members read “bios” about each volunteer written by their organization, while everyone cheered and clapped. Each volunteer was presented with a yellow rose and a piece of diamond jewelry from Carreras.

“Carreras Gives Thanks” has become one of the staff members’ and my favorite events. We enjoy meeting everyone who attends and recognizing the amazing and dedicated local volunteers. We look forward to continuing this event for years to come!

Rejena Carreras
Class of 1993

Legacy of Leaders

Every fall as we usher in a new class of community leaders, we establish a theme for the year ahead to guide not just our current class members but alumni of the program as well as the community at large. This theme appears on the cover of our printed member directory and influences the direction of programming for the year. In FY2017 we focused on “Leading Responsibly,” which requires staying informed and continuously learning. We looked for innovative ways to update our community leaders on understanding the needs of those they serve while considering what means the most to them and the issues we face. Events ranged from an update on the riverfront plan from James River Association as we paddled along the James River, to a courageous conversation with Linda Hancock from The Well at VCU around the effects of Heroin and Prescription Narcotics in our communities. Our keynote for the Spring Luncheon was a moderated discussion between LMR members VA Senator Jennifer McClellan (D) and VA Delegate Chris Peace (R) around how to lead responsibly as elected officials by bridging the partisan divide.

As we launch into FY2018, our theme of focus for the year is the “Legacy of Leaders.” Respected leadership expert John Maxwell stated, “The greatest legacy a leader can leave is having developed other leaders. Develop them as widely and as deeply as you can.” LMR selects a group of diverse individuals each year for the purpose of enhancing their knowledge and developing their abilities to be impactful community leaders. We then encourage them to become engaged by modeling the way for those that will follow. This year we identified a number of families that exist within our membership; parents and children who decades apart felt led to go through our Leadership Quest program and connect to a network of diverse community leaders in our region.

In a very unique case, we found a husband, wife, and daughter who all went through the LMR journey in 1989, 1992, and 2012 respectively. They inspired one another into a life of service and leadership, and continue to inspire those around them to this day. The daughter of the family was just appointed to serve on the LMR board of directors and her mother previously served as chairman of the board in 2006. It’s not just our children who are watching, but it is also our spouses, siblings, parents, neighbors, friends, and in the age of social media, it is even complete strangers. As LMR President and CEO Myra Goodman Smith often says, “all eyes are on you” as we work towards a better region, and hopefully your example will encourage others to join in and continue this work for the sake of future generations.

What we can learn from Hurricane Harvey

Is it true that hard times ignite great leadership? As community leaders, we must serve first and then lead. Prime example: Houston furniture store owner Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale opened the doors of his Gallery Furniture stores up to Hurricane Harvey evacuees in the days leading up to the one of the busiest weekend’s in retail (Labor Day Weekend). Mack sacrificed this past holiday weekend’s sales to continue to serve those in need of shelter and meals after being displaced from their homes by the storm. In the spirit of our own theme this year “A Legacy of Leaders,” Mack was quoted in an interview with CBS News as stating the reason for his generosity was simply, “This is what my parents would have done.”

Offering the resources at your disposal to uplift those around you in a time of crisis should not be exception, but the norm. For some, it’s financial resources and spheres of influence. For example, comedian Kevin Hart issued the Hurricane Harvey Relief Challenge to his friends in entertainment via social media, which led to multiple $25,000 donations towards hurricane relief efforts. Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt has encouraged the sports communities (players and fans alike) to give, raising over $4 million for hurricane relief. Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela used the power of social media to report emergency situations and help get quicker assistance to those falling victim to the rising waters. In community leadership, community is key. We can accomplish more together than we can apart.

Locally, many Richmonders stepped up to the plate by both traveling down to the Texas for physical assistance but also using their resources here at home to raise funds for relief efforts. Patrick McKann of Glen Allen gathered a group last week to go down and rescue horses and livestock stranded in the floodwaters. Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint on Grove Avenue donated 100% of their profits last week (and through the holiday weekend) to the American Red Cross. We applaud these individuals and businesses as well as the many other local efforts continuing to provide support to the hurricane relief. There is much to do in the aftermath of the storm and it will take a lot of time and resources. It is important that we continue to think of south Texas as their cleanup efforts have only just begun.

Looking for ways you can help south Texas? CLICK HERE for a recent article from ABC News on how, when, and what to give.

Charlottesville’s Call to Action

People often feel compelled to take swift action after events of enormous impact, such as what took place in Charlottesville over the weekend.  That demonstration of divisive behavior fueled by hatred was seen and heard around the world.  This is bigger than a single community, a state, or even our nation.  Hate rooted in unfounded prejudice has created a long history of battles all over the globe and that war continues.  So what do we do as community leaders?

After watching several news reports, reading the chatter on social media, and talking with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors it is clear that there is a lot of blame thrown around and not enough conversation getting to the roots of issues.  Historically there have been decisions made based on biases and gaps in access of all kinds that continue to divide us (education, economic prosperity, healthcare, basic social services).  Those gaps have led to an even greater divide in communication, which has led us to a place of misunderstanding.

Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR) was created to be a catalyst to close those gaps in the Richmond region. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman wrote in their recent book, Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, "Leadership Metro Richmond offers exactly the type of opportunity for bias reduction that contact theory suggests."  Each annual LMR class is a group that reflects the diversity in race, gender, profession, industry, and economic status across our region.  We bring together diverse leaders to broaden perspectives and connect those who are working towards the same goal of a better and brighter future for our communities.   However, while we continue on that mission today, our annual program is just the beginning.  We continue to urge our members/graduates to take the knowledge, experience and connections they have to create positive impact. We want them to keep building bridges of understanding and engage in inquiry to heighten their own understanding.

This fall we will host a facilitation training for our members through the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities so that the tough conversations we are able to have within our membership can continue outside of our doors.  We want our community leaders to not only talk to each other, but also facilitate challenging conversations in their own communities.  We desire for our members to continue to push for diversity and inclusion in leadership so that many voices are present at the table.  Encourage diversity within mission driven and public service boards and councils.  We envision a future where we can look around at those with decision making power and smile with pride at the fact that they reflect the culture, best interests, and values of many.