Let Richmond’s Kids Figure Out What to Do With the Monuments

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.

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13 comments… add one
  • William Clark Aug 19, 2017 @ 8:32

    Earlier in the week RTD asked for comments on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city. My first response was to simply get rid of them. But they are a part of Virginia history and the Old South. Now I think putting them in a Reconciliation Park might be an idea worth considering. Reconciliation efforts were useful in South Africa after the collapse of apartheid. Germany has many reminders to its population about what the Nazis did so that the German people, by owning their history, insure that it doesn’t happen again.

    A Reconciliation Park in Richmond could put the monuments in an educationally historical context and perhaps over time contribute to addressing the moral injustice of slavery.

  • Louis Drew Aug 10, 2017 @ 8:49

    You have suggested what is to me a refreshing new idea/perspective. I hope it’s seriously considered and adopted. It’s especially appropriate given that we’re now at the start of a new school year.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2017 @ 8:51

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

  • Jimmy Dick Aug 10, 2017 @ 7:47

    I think those with the flagger mentality would view leaving monument removal up to the public as something akin to popular sovereignty. They would only accept the public’s decision if they agree with it. If the public chose removal, the flagger types would immediately decry the choice and attempt to use state government as a shield against removal (sound familiar?).

    Regardless of what the decisions of students would be, the supporters of any side would claim brainwashing and bias in teaching about history (again, does this sound familiar?).

    Getting the views of students would be an interesting idea, but in the end the adults are too invested in this struggle for the identity of their local community (county, state, region, nation) to allow someone else to make the decision for them.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2017 @ 8:10

      First, I don’t think the Virginia Flaggers matter that much to this discussion. They have every right to speak out and carry out the kinds of antics we’ve seen, but they are largely irrelevant.

      Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that the students should be final deciders no more than any one public forum. What I am suggesting is that their views do matter and that they constitute an important part of the community that has yet to be tapped.

    • Andy Hall Aug 10, 2017 @ 9:13

      “I think those with the flagger mentality would view leaving monument removal up to the public as something akin to popular sovereignty. They would only accept the public’s decision if they agree with it.”

      We don’t need to speculate about what they “would” do, because they’ve already been doing it consistently for years. The first thing they do is find some reason that supposedly invalidates the authority of the institution they’re targeting, because they’re not originally from the South, or they’re a secret commie, or (in the case of the Sikh mayor of Charlottesville a couple of years ago) because they’re a “raghead.”

      This is essential to maintaining the support and enthusiasm of their supporters. If they ever had to acknowledge that (say) the actions of the Danville City Council actually represented the will of the citizens of that community, their whole effort would collapse.

  • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2017 @ 5:52

    Good in theory but in practice I think they will just reflect the views of their parents.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2017 @ 6:04

      To a certain extent you are right, but you underestimate the ability of young people to listen to one another when engaged in the right way. They are also likely much more willing to consider new perspectives as opposed to their parents.

      • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2017 @ 6:28

        I have lived in this area for almost 20 years and rarely do I encounter a child whose views are different from those of their parents..whether they are pro or anti monuments, etc. .I was a substitute teacher out west and saw much more division between psrents and children in the 1980,s than I do here.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2017 @ 6:38

          Children may tend to fall in line with their parents, but I also think placing them in a situation where they have to listen and be respectful to others may lead to some interesting discussions and suggestions about how to move forward.

          I say this as someone with a good number of years of teaching under my belt.

          • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2017 @ 6:47

            You definitely could be correct.

  • Joyce Harrison Aug 10, 2017 @ 4:49

    Terrific suggestion, Kevin! You’re absolutely right when you say that “we are not going to hear anything new from adults in these public forums.”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2017 @ 5:53

      Thanks. I think it is the closest to a fresh set of eyes/new perspective that we are likely to see.

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