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Opinion: Richmond's Resources Are Great, But the Biggest Achievement Is Our Variety of Residents 

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Go to any financial planner and the first thing he or she will tell you is to look at your history of spending to know who you are. What he or she doesn’t tend to say is that your spending is also indicative of what you are becoming.

A hundred or more a week of bar bills suggests you’re on your way to some alcohol concerns. Never having any withdrawals for savings suggests a bleak future. And an Ashley Madison account. … Well, that’s just one of those life-changing expenses.

The City of Richmond often trains the augur’s eye on its spreadsheets in the hopes of a) finding a remedy to its woes, b) discovering a path to the leprechaun’s gold, or c) distracting the public’s short attention from the decades of misspent funds past and onto dreaming of misspent funds future.

You may call me bitter and cynical. I just call me a graduate of the Richmond Public Schools and the parent of two children enrolled in the system with the same problems 30 years later.

Those who move into the city consider the native-born Richmonders less than welcoming. We have our code names for exotic places that newcomers have never seen. We travel a Nickel Bridge to a Mosque. We claim to recall a time when Byrd Theatre seats were comfortable, there was parking in the Fan without tickets, and downtown was covered in sludge biannually. Native Richmonders go to one restaurant but call it by the name of another, see one band because it has the members of a long-defunct one, and can recall every boundary change of what was city and what was suburb since 1940, even if our parents weren’t born yet.

The blind spot of the birthright Richmonder is the civics lesson. Far fewer are the residents who recall the work done to improve health care, education and transportation. While many Richmond bank accounts from the 1970s show restaurant receipts and multiple trips to downtown department stores, others show significant withdrawals for renovations in every corner of the city to preserve the historic architecture and privately fund trees that the city was not yet paying for. The tedious tales of long PTA meetings, church committees for employment equality, and neighborhood groups that shaped the direction of this city are mostly forgotten.

Moving forward we can all work together — legislators, city employees, newcomers and natives — to plan for a future of the city, but it requires a spirit of civic cultivation and engagement that’s downright retro. Richmond’s greatest attribute is not its four distinct seasons, architecture, placement on the river, universities, or music and arts scenes. Our greatest achievement is the variety of residents we have — from the kindergartners to the nonagenarians, the natives to the transplants. If we could consciously cultivate ourselves as citizens, and spend our treasures of time and money accordingly, the city would better reflect our collective needs and dreams.

I began thinking this way in studying genetics and wild mustard. Wild mustard is viewed as a weed and can grow in most any climate, from Greenland to the desert. It is edible from its flowers to its roots, but has an edge to it depending on where it’s grown, and at the point in its life cycle you harvest it. (Sound familiar? I know I was far more tender a decade ago, I don’t know about you.) Because of its adaptability, it’s been cultivated by suppressing and drawing out different traits to make it into more familiar edible plants. Cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale and cabbage all are wild mustard that’s been motivated into a more socially helpful form.

What if we began spending some of our money as a city on ourselves? We do this in very small ways, embarrassingly small, now. We offer educational opportunities, public health, parks and recreation, libraries, and our constantly underfunded public schools. But what if we spent the kind of money a city spends on sweetheart deals for businesses and sports, and instead cultivated ourselves from wild mustard to something else?

Some ideas cribbed from recent grassroots efforts might include: A segment of us become kohlrabi by learning coding and using it to help things as varied as neighborhood group websites and tutoring middle-schoolers. Or interested parties would pair with local groups already involved in mediation and peace-making work and enhance our kale properties by working with the many layers of the justice system from prevention through rehabilitation. There could be vocational training that cultivates hundreds with cabbagelike skills aiding in volunteer city construction and beautification projects while making a better-skilled city work force.

These are just small ideas coming from a cauliflower mind, but Richmond’s paying for Richmonders — the new ones, the long standing ones, the wee and the grown — to dream and create a better Richmond organically from our own experiences as residents has a better feeling to it than many of the ideas our city dollars have gone to in recent years.

There’s an inherent flaw to this line of thinking, however. Some wild mustard just likes to hang out in the field getting stringy, going to seed and watching TV while blaming the state of the city on the cornflower, the Queen Anne’s lace and the dandelion. That hasn’t, and won’t ever, make for a decent future for Richmond. Even if our city elders never vote to spend a dime on our betterment as people, we need to cultivate ourselves, if for no other purpose than to pull up our roots far enough to waddle to the voting booth come November. S

Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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