Last night the Richmond Monument Avenue Commission held its first public forum at the Virginia Historical Society. It went about as well as I predicted. You can read about it here, here, and here. The commission went into this meeting hoping to steer the discussion away from removal to what it describes as a “middle-of-the-road” solution. The audience appeared to largely ignore the direction and I can’t say that I blame them. At its heart this discussion is about deeply-held beliefs about history, heritage, and community identity.
I applaud the commission members for taking on this tough assignment, but I suspect that the next public forum will include much of the same if changes are not made to its structure.
Unfortunately, one of the things that has been lacking in public forums across the country is the student voice. This is a curious omission given that these discussions have been framed largely around the question of how communities should move forward with relics of Confederate memory. Sadly, the very people who will have to live with these decisions have been ignored or not engaged directly.
Here is my suggestion to the Richmond Monument Commission.
Send out invitations to every public and private school throughout the city and even the surrounding suburbs. Each school will send representatives from grades ranging from the 6th or 7th through the 12th grade. These students will take part in day-long discussion around the the question of what to do with the city’s Confederate monuments. They will need to be provided with plenty of direction, historical background and other relevant information as a foundation for these discussions.
Small working groups should be formed that each reflect the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of the greater Richmond area. These small groups will encourage students to listen to one another and engage with their peers from very different backgrounds and perspectives about the present and past. Their conversations will ultimately culminate in suggestions, arrived at by consensus within each group, about what to do with the monuments and the city’s broader commemorative landscape.
I can even see these working groups meeting more than once.
Let’s face it, we are not going to hear anything new from adults in these public forums.
As already noted, these students will certainly need direction from commission members and other organizers, but having spent a good chunk of my adult life working with young people, I have no doubt that they will rise to the occasion.
More importantly, their suggestions will be helpful in moving the city forward.