Humans of RVA & VCU exemplifies the importance of community
November 4, 2019

In the Fall of 2018, the VCU Honors College rolled out its innovative new curriculum, featuring the much anticipated first-year Humans of RVA & VCU (HoRVA) course. Inspired by Humans of New York, this impressive new experiential learning based course includes small, diverse student cohorts that are exposed to relevant, current issues of the day affecting the Richmond and VCU communities, from community engagement to social justice and change.

As we prepare for the holiday season, full of loved ones and cherished memories, the instructors of Humans of RVA and VCU reflect on the importance that community and the HoRVA program hold for them. When asked why community as a whole is significant to her, Professor Rachel Pater opens up about the role it has played in her own life.

"A big sense of community in my 20s came from connecting with other folks who identify as LGBTQ. While that's still a part of my identity, in my 30s I find myself forming community based more on proximity. When we moved to Richmond from Denver, I made cards for every house in a two block radius, telling people that we were new and inviting people to drop by whenever they wanted (this was not exciting to my introvert wife). We also became part of our neighborhood civic association, where we can connect with neighbors around hyperlocal causes and events."

Similarly, Professor Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead, the Coordinator of Humans of RVA & VCU, threw herself into her Richmond community after moving down from New York. She diligently joined myriad groups and got involved in diverse areas of her community, from book clubs and writing groups, to her sons’ sports teams, the theatre community, and volunteer work.

Professor Brandi Daniels might even sum up the deeper meaning of community best, stating “Community can be considered to be a relative term but…has become the social engine for me to develop as an individual, co-collaborator, and researcher in every facet of my life. As a community advocate, it is also rewarding to witness leadership roles in communities shift, as residents, young adults, and youth learn the tools to become ‘change agents’ within their environments.”  She continues, adding, “for me, learning through reciprocity is an essential element to define and shape community in any path of civic action-the duality that exists within community definitely keeps me plugged in on a personal and professional level.”

Being instructors for a community driven course, Prof. Halstead, Prof. Pater, and Prof. Daniels all hold a strong, admirable appreciation for the role that Humans of RVA & VCU plays in the lives of their students and beloved community. “I value the opportunity that the HoRVA program affords students to learn about RVA, both past and present; to explore all that Richmond has to offer; and to connect with new communities,” explains Prof. Halstead. “I also value the relationships the program inspires; I love hearing that students met some of their closest friends in their Humans of RVA & VCU class or through their HoRVA internship.”

Prof. Pater seconds Prof. Halstead’s opinion, mentioning “I love the way it’s giving students opportunities to root into their community, both VCU and greater Richmond. Teaching this material and engaging in conversation around it has taught me about the history of Richmond and the way it's viewed, both by students who have grown up here and those who approach it with fresh eyes.” Moreover, Prof. Daniels agrees, HoRVA allows students to “identify [their] own implicit biases then step out to engage in storytelling, which is a very courageous feat. I also enjoy being a partner with them along the journey of the course.”

For students and other community members looking to get more involved in the Richmond and VCU spheres, Prof. Daniels has some helpful advice on how to do just that. “I encourage students to nurture their self-discovery and discipline as it relates to their course schedules as well as the identified areas or social issues they would wish to get involved in VCU/RVA,” she explains. Next, she continues, “create a realistic goal plan and…be proactive to research potential community agencies to ensure that they become familiar with the expectations up front. Lastly, use strengths and talents to balance responsibilities and effect change when they answer the call to action.”

Need specific ideas of where to go? Our professors have ideas for that too! It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, according to Prof. Pater. “Check Style Weekly's event page if you don't know where to start - there are lots of free options too! Stop and read historic markers. Go to museums. Get out in nature. Invite someone along.” Of the same mind, Prof. Halstead adds “Here’s my advice: just go for it! If you’re passionate about something, find an organization related to that passion and get involved.”

Particular hotspots to check out, lists Prof. Halstead, are free museums, the historic Byrd Theatre for a $4 movie, and some tried and true student-recommended restaurants such as Brewer’s Café (Manchester), Bottoms Up Pizza (Historic Shockoe Bottom), Charm School (ice cream- Jackson Ward), and Proper Pie Co. (Church Hill).