Inside Out Richmond
Throughout this semester my students have looked at Richmond and at other urban environments to assess community planning and the considerations and compromises we all engage in when we choose to live as a group. It’s an interesting unit. Students are used to feeling like individuals, and they (like many of us) make the assumption that we do our best to live as separately as possible.
They’re not wrong. Even though the United Nations predicts that by 2050 in parts of the world 84% of the population will live in urban centers, it’s not at all clear that we live “together.” We’re more connected, yes, but there is also a lot of reason to believe accessibility gaps are incredibly pronounced.
One source for questioning the relationship of individuals to their communities that my students and I have used over the last two years is the work of JR. These images continues to be one of the most successful in inspiring student engagement and in magnifying learning outcomes. This year, when students heard JR’s request that a larger community internationally “stand up for what [they] care about by participating in a global art project” they requested that we participate as a class.
VCU is lucky; it is an urban university. Its students have little choice but to interact closely with Richmond as a city. This was, in fact, VCU’s original mission. VCU’s founding document, the Wayne Commission Report, states unequivocally “the conditions prevailing in our urban centers present many of our most critical national, state, and local problems … we are aware that our future depends in large part upon the wisdom with which we attack and solve the dilemmas of our cities” (Commonwealth 33-34). Rapid urbanization has made the role of urban universities much more central to state, national, and even global development. As the report predicted, social conditions correlate to education levels, and VCU was founded with the purpose of enriching the social and economic welfare of the state of Virginia and its capital.
As part of our progression from the fall to the spring semester, my students have decided to bring a version of the Inside Out Project to Richmond. VCU’s Center for Teaching Excellence generously stepped forward to support our project by providing funds for printing. This winter students began photographing Richmond residents, and we’ve been posting the images at a flickr site set up for this project. The images themselves are to be installed around the city temporarily and will be made available to interested participants as permanent portraits for their home or workspace at the conclusion of our project. It’s our hope that a few images might be preserved to remain on campus as part of the special collections archives or the art we include in campus buildings.
Questions of civic engagement are central to VCU’s and the University College’s core goals. The VCU “Quest for Distinction” document’s emphasis on urban engagement has reaffirmed VCU’s commitment to the city of Richmond and its inhabitants and sees VCU as closely connected to the urban renewal happening in Richmond today. The changes happening in Richmond are not coming quietly or without concern. We are aware of that, and we share the city’s concerns. Community engagement is not solely a university-wide commitment; I believe it is an imperative for faculty to begin to engage their students more deeply in their surroundings and question more rigorously who is of value in urban space.
Commonwealth of Virginia. Department of Purchases and Supply. “Report of the Commission to Plan for the Establishment of a Proposed State-Supported University in the Richmond Metropolitan Area.” VCU Libraries Digital Collections. Virginia Commonwealth University. 1967. Web. 15 Oct. 2011
JR. “Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out.” TED. March 2011. Web. Accessed Sept.-Oct. 2011.
Virginia Commonwealth University. “Quest for Distinction.” 20 May, 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.
Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision. United Nations, 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.