I am the immediate past vice-mayor and current city councilman in Charlottesville, Virginia. The home of Thomas Jefferson (whose birthday we no longer celebrate), the place where white people dressed up in white and carried tiki torches, and where our African American community was decimated for urban renewal, is still—in my opinion—the greatest city in the country.
I was elected at 28 years old, making me the youngest elected official in our city’s history and the only African American on the city council during the white supremacist attack in 2017. For better or worse, I get most of the praise and most of the blame for the “bad people on both sides” coming to our city.
So why do I say Charlottesville is the greatest city in America? It’s simply because Charlottesville is ground zero for racial healing. I love both the beautiful and ugly parts of my city, one that is climbing out of a past when people who looked like me were viewed as no more than livestock. From City Hall to the back roads, today Charlottesville is a city actively pushing and intentionally fighting for budget decisions for racial equity impact.
City budgets are important places to prioritize racial equity through targeted investment. Acknowledging inequities and race-based root causes allows cities to make revenue, procurement, and contract decisions intended for improving local governance. Cities are both conducting regular racial equity assessments of budget decisions and making decisions driven by a desire to address inequities and systemic racism.
Local leaders can pretend that they are ready to talk about race, proclaim to want to make a change, but often when it is time for action everyone gets quiet—this is not the case in Charlottesville! Here, we actually put city resources behind our words.
Today, white students make up 40 percent of Charlottesville’s enrollment and African-American students about a third. But white children are about four times as likely to be in Charlottesville’s gifted program, while black students are more than four times as likely to be held back a grade and almost five times as likely to be suspended from school.
Led by former Councilmember Kristin Szakos and I, the Charlottesville City Council passed a $4 million equity package in 2017 specifically for marginalized communities to fund public housing redevelopment, GED training for public housing residents, scholarships for low-income and public housing residents, a park, a black male achievement staff person, and the African American Heritage Center. All targeted funds were aimed at bridging the gap between outcomes for residents of color and white residents.
Over the years many community members warned me that racism is a problem in Charlottesville. I confronted that racism when I requested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the center of the city. But the 2017 protests really were not about the statue. The violence and hate were rooted in something systemic—they were rooted in white supremacy.
We’re still in what some would consider the Deep South, the capital of the Confederacy, and we’re moving and really vocal about equity. We’re not with the nonsense—and that makes us a target. I’m fine with that. I hate the fact that we’ve had a tragedy, but I do think that it is important again for us to continue to stand up.
When we talk about the city of Charlottesville, again, this is a city that I absolutely love but it’s also a city with a history. This is the same city that chose to close down its schools, as opposed to integrating them. This is a city that demolished Vinegar Hill, an entirely African-American community. So, we’ve had issues here for a very long time.
But times are changing.
Community organizations throughout the greater Charlottesville area are now taking part in racial equity training. Volunteers and employees from organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Virginia Humanities, and the City of Charlottesville are getting introduced to the idea that racism is a structure that has been built in cities across the United States for centuries.
I love my city because we commit ourselves to let our budget do the talking for us. America can no longer to simply want to have “dialogues” about race. There must be strategic, targeted, and poignant efforts taken to right the wrongs of yesteryear—wrongs that still plague us today.
We have community dialogue and “feel good” events (Cville Unity Days) and we allocate substantial resources from our city budget to traditionally underserved communities (Equity Package, Business Equity Fund, High-Speed Internet for Public Housing). At each moment when I propose policy measures and budgeting measures to level the playing field, my colleagues, most of whom are white, had the courage to follow through.
This is how you create change. This is how you move from talking to action. This is why I believe that even with all of our scars, Charlottesville is still the most beautiful city in the United States of America. The Charlottesville that I know is a place of residents that will rally around each other. And we are going to love each other. And we will be stronger because of it.
About the Author: Dr. Wes Bellamy is the youngest person to ever be elected to the Charlottesville City Council. He is also the author of Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue.
To learn more about examples of concrete policy and budgetary changes local elected officials have made to prioritize racial equity in their cities, towns, and villages, visit REAL’s Repository of City Racial Equity Policies and Decisions.