Reimagining a Black Geography in Southside Virginia
April 17, 2023
By Brad Stephens, PhD Student in Planning, Governance and Globalization
The Community Change Collaborative (CCC) has always been an excellent place for students and faculty to learn through community-based praxis. CCC members have learned immense amounts by working in places where they can provide assistance, such as strategic visioning or technical support, but there is always an understanding that these engagements are a two-way street. This reciprocal relationship has never been more visible than in our recent work with St. Paul’s College 4 Life (SPC4Life), an alumni-led effort to reimagine what St. Paul’s College, a closed historically black college (HBCU) located in Lawrenceville, VA, might become. Since CCC first engaged with the project in September of 2022, the character and dimensions of our role have been fluid, with both partners nudging the other into new understandings as we have grown together. The CCC team is advised by Max Stephenson, IPG Executive Director; Bob Leonard, Professor in the School of Performing Arts; Andy Morikawa, IPG Senior Fellow; and coordinated by Brad Stephens, PhD student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization.
This project has required that we grapple with new and complex physical spaces, as well as employ theoretical conceptions we had not previously explored. On the surface, Lawrenceville, Virginia, looks like many other small rural towns struggling in the wake of economic and social globalization. With a population that has declined more than 29% since 2010 and fast-diminishing employment opportunities in each of its principal industries, the community is clearly distressed. The story of Lawrenceville is intimately tied to that of St. Paul’s College which, prior to sitting empty for the past 10 years, played an instrumental role in the life of the town, economically, culturally, and socially. Its closing was a blow to the entire region.
Amidst this facade of boarded-up storefronts, a more nuanced story is unfolding as SPC4Life imagines a path forward. To prepare for work in this new space, CCC has explored Favors' investigation of the “second curriculum” and “communitas” historically found at HBCUs (2019). We have engaged with Gilmore’s framework concerning what our current neoliberal frame has dubbed a “forgotten place” and how citizens can organize to fight back against such claims (2008). We have also reviewed other examples of how communities are seeking to reimagine black geographies (Roberts, 2019; McKittrick & Woods, 2007). But, as helpful as these conceptualizations have been, what SPC4Life is doing is unique, and our understanding has been deepened with every interaction with members of this group.
SPC4Life members are navigating their collective and individual grief and trauma at the closing of their college and the loss of what many considered a sacred space, while also reimagining what a historically Black geography in Southside Virginia can become. Despite having to pivot several times in its first few years, the group remains remarkably resilient and driven to build a program, such as leadership education, workforce and personal development, that benefits the young, especially Black, people of Lawrenceville and Brunswick County. We have been privileged to witness that resilience these past several months and are constantly learning from how they are handling collective decision-making and their growth as an organization.
When the Institute for Policy & Governance (IPG) and CCC were first invited by the Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE) to assist with community visioning with SPC4Life, it appeared it might be a relatively straightforward process of helping them hold some community meetings to envision a new purpose for the college campus. As our engagement with the group deepened through regular conversations, we began to see that a more nuanced relationship could be more fruitful for both sides. In search of this, we have allowed our ties to the group to grow slowly and organically. To date, we have traveled to Lawrenceville twice to support meetings of the group as its members have grappled with questions concerning their governance leadership and structure, the educational programming they might offer, and how to secure resources to ensure success. In the process, we continue to build trust in both directions and uncover new possibilities.
This more organic relationship has meant that instead of serving as traditional facilitators, we have assumed a more flexible role as we have worked concurrently as advisors, observers, and participants in the work of the group. This has challenged us to live in the same grey space that the SPC4Life itself occupies as an evolving project. The evidence we have to date suggests that our engagement has been fruitful for both sides. For its part, SPC4Life has both clarified and taken steps to realize its goals and we have learned a great deal about the factors that mediate social change in difficult places and contexts.
Chris Stephenson, the leader of the SPC4Life project, shared that the involvement of CCC “has been instrumental in helping SPC4Life expand a sense of possibility …[and has led our] team to examine the power of storytelling.” Meanwhile, the CCC team is not just learning about the practice of community change, but also how participatory community-based inquiry can and should be undertaken. This continues to require that both the CCC and SPC4Life teams be vulnerable and open to allow for necessary individual and collective growth.
Moving forward, we are excited to see what our continued engagement with this dynamic group may bring. As our conversations have continued, we have had additional opportunities for collaboration arise. We have already enlisted a number of our partners from Virginia Tech to provide guidance and expertise in areas as diverse as agricultural education, visual storytelling, and vocational training as those concerns have arisen in our ongoing dialogue. Getting to this point has required that we collectively navigate an ever-emerging path, which has required flexibility, patience, and a willingness to be uncomfortable, but the rewards have already been great.
For more information or questions about this project, please reach out to Brad Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Favors, J. M.-G. (2019). Shelter in a time of Storm: how black colleges fostered generations of leadership and activism. University of North Carolina Press.
Gilmore, R. W. (2008). Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning. In C. R. HALE (Ed.), Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (1st ed., pp. 31–61). University of California Press.
McKittrick, K., & Woods, C. A. (2007). Black geographies and the politics of place. Between the Lines.
Roberts, A. R. (2019). "Until the lord come get me, it burn down, or the next storm blow it away": The aesthetics of freedom in African American vernacular homestead preservation. Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, 26, 73–97.