Public Square

How Mentorship Is Healing Social Poverty in Richmond, VA

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In the heart of Richmond, VA, looms Gilpin Court, a housing project 783 units large. I grew up in a suburb west of Richmond. If I was planning to drive into the city for an evening, I remember my parents saying things like, “Well just make sure you don’t end up near Gilpin Court!” or “You can’t go there; that’s too close to Gilpin Court.” As Edwin Slipek Jr. writes in his article, “The Lost Neighborhood,” many have called it the “city’s most isolated and desperate neighborhood.”

Gilpin Court is the largest housing project in the city, located in North Jackson Ward. According to Slipek:

  • “80 percent of [Gilipin Court’s] households fall below the poverty line of $15,000”
  • “65 percent of its adult population didn’t finish high school”
  • “fewer than 1 percent of the population has a college degree”

Ironically, Gilpin Court was built in 1943 as a solution to the poverty of the area. It replaced previous dilapidated housing and was supposed to jump-start the economy. This is an example of an attempt at fighting poverty that was not only unsuccessful but detrimental to the community. Slipek writes,

In other places [in Richmond], the combined stew of people, nature, commerce, recreation, architecture, and cultural and educational institutions melds and flows with at least some natural synergy.

But, apart from Gilpin Court, there are only thirty-four houses and a highrise building for seniors in North Jackson Ward. There is a strip of decrepit businesses and houses that have long since been vacated. By filling the entire area with subsidized housing, Gilpin Court chased out all possibility of a thriving economy. Neighborhoods need this mixing and “melding” of institutions as described by Slipek to thrive.

What can we do for neighborhoods like North Jackson Ward? Top-down, macro solutions, such as subsidized housing projects, only worsen the problem. Let’s consider another approach—one marked by assistance at the individual level that addresses more than just the material aspects of poverty.

Strategies to Elevate through Education and Mentorship

Strategies to Elevate People (STEP) Richmond exists to serve the people living in Gilpin Court. Their mission is to “develop strategies to meet the needs of the urban poor in Richmond.” STEP works with the church, as an arm of the church, to serve the poor. They emphasize that each person is a significant part of the body of Christ and realize the need for relationships to promote flourishing. And, they stress education and work as means to help the poor use their gifts and talents to contribute to sustainable change in their community.

To achieve their mission, they have a variety of programs, including a reading program and summer enrichment programs. These programs help further the students’ education, and volunteers serve as mentors.

Restoring Dignity and Infusing Hope

STEP’s Victory Reading Program is an after-school program in which volunteers help students complete their homework and practice their reading skills; students also have a time for snack and do a devotion with volunteers. This seems so simple, but education and mentorship can have a transformative impact on students.

In Gilpin Court, 96 percent of the tenants are single-mother households, and there are 550 children under the age of five. The children are not always supervised or guided. Having men and women in their lives that aren’t their parents, who care for them and mentor them, can help them feel valued, respected, and give them a sense of direction. For this reason, mentorship relationships are essential for poor youth and teens.

Statistics from the National Mentoring Partnership (NMP) show us that mentorship is effective because it targets all aspects of poverty. By bringing together a mentor and mentee, a relationship is formed, and the mentor is more aware of how best to walk alongside the mentee.

This is an essential step in the process of helping a youth or teen grow in their sense of worth, sense of dignity, and their idea of self-reliance. The mentor, through this relationship, better understands the mentee’s gifts and talents and can help cultivate these gifts.

As a result, you see a higher drive for the future. The mentee is statistically more likely to go to college and engage in extracurricular activities. Another statistic from the NMP report shows us that mentees are more likely to be engaged in leadership roles and volunteering in the community.

Improving Educational Outcomes

Beyond mentorship, the Victory Reading Program provides a safe space for the students after school. It helps students do their homework and sharpens their reading skills. Education is also essential for development. In Changing Poverty, Changing Policies, Brian Jacob and Jens Ludwig write:

One of the best ways to avoid being poor as an adult is to obtain a good education. People who have higher levels of academic achievement and more years of schooling earn more than those with lower levels of human capital.

Poor students need a good education to rise out of cyclical poverty. Yet, public schools in poor neighborhoods have few resources and are notorious for an environment that is not conducive to learning. The reading program is a way for students to get extra one-on-one attention and practice their skills in small groups with a supportive leader. Programs like this can be a way that students’ education is supplemented.

Higher levels of education can also help prevent violent crime and high prison rates. One study reports,

College education is important in predicting homicide rates among all three racial groups [assessed in the study], with the proportion of these populations with a college education exhibiting a significant inverse association with the homicide rate.

Engaging in mentorship and tutoring gives poor children a hand up, equipping them to fight for their own flourishing as they strive to break the cycle of poverty in their communities.

Editor’s note: Learn about more programs like STEP Richmond that are effectively helping the poor in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

Photo credit: “204-206 W. Baker Street Mural, Gilpin Court, Richmond, VA”  by Taber Andrew Bain (CC by 2.0)


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