Henrico sets ‘conversation’ series to discuss race, culture issues in county

 

BY DAMIAN HONDARES
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

The Henrico County Board of Supervisors will hold a meeting on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the county’s efforts to treat citizens fairly, regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background.

Brandon Hinton, the deputy county manager for community services, said that the meeting — which is expected to be the first in the “Henrico Conversations” series — was a recognition that the county is changing.

“We’re changing in every way,” Hinton said. “Our black population has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000, and our Hispanic and Asian populations have increased about 200 percent. We have refugee families coming from war-torn countries. There are 84 different languages spoken by the students in our school system. So we have to navigate service delivery to a changing population.”

Hinton said that the meeting had been inspired by Zulfi Khan, a self-described “active citizen,” and the work he had done in gathering the community after the election.

In December, Khan held a gathering of the local Muslim community. He invited the members of local governments and police chiefs from Chesterfield, Richmond and Henrico, many of whom attended.

“The purpose of that gathering was to interact with the community and to give the community the confidence that the local government has goodness in its heart,” Khan said.

After the meeting, he was contacted by John Vithoulkas, the county manager, who wanted to hold a similar event for the general public. Khan contacted members of the local Hispanic, Muslim and Jewish communities, among others, inviting them to gather for a county-wide meeting.

Patricia O’Bannon, the chairwoman of the board of supervisors, who represents Tuckahoe District, said that she realized the need for a community-wide meeting after the presidential election.

“After Donald Trump’s election, people who live in Tuckahoe and elsewhere contacted me and asked if they were going to be deported,” O’Bannon said. “I told them that they shouldn’t be upset and that things aren’t going to change if you’re here legally and you’re not breaking the law, but obviously there were concerns about how things were going to be handled differently.”

She said that she wanted an opportunity to meet with the community to clear up concerns and dispel fears that she viewed as rumors.

“This is an outreach to the people in the county who, for whatever reason, feel threatened,” O’Bannon said. “And we are also going to introduce them to the police department and explain what the police department does. A lot of these people are refugees who are not used to thinking of the police department as the good guys.”

Frank Thornton, the vice chairman of the board of supervisors, who represents Fairfield District, said that he hoped the meeting would promote a healthy dialogue about sensitive issues.

“Affluent communities don’t discuss those issues as much,” Thornton said. “Sometimes they don’t think they have as much of a problem in a certain area.”

But Thornton said that issues such as poverty were certainly prevalent in the county. He said that a person could drive several blocks and see dramatic economic differences.

Thornton said the meeting would only begin a larger dialogue about a variety of issues that are on residents’ minds. That dialogue, he said, would be continued throughout the series.

“I hope that as a result of the dialogue, citizens will feel more like the citizens that they want to be, that they’ll be more engaged in their community,” Thornton said. “And we might not feel comfortable getting into those issues like race and class, but eventually we’ll have to get into them. So we’re going to sit down and discuss and identify the problems and then think about solutions.”

Khan said the meeting would serve an important purpose that required something more than legislative work.

“Sometimes in our political process, we feel that we will get people elected and then that will resolve things,” Khan said. “But we never get to the level where we can change hearts and minds.”

Khan, who rejected any claims that he was in charge of the meeting, said that he was just doing his part as an active citizen to bring the community together.

“I have looked at everything going on and I blame myself,” he said. “I’ve been living here for 20 years, and I might have known about certain prejudices. Why didn’t I do something about that? That’s what I am doing now. I need to play my part.”

The meeting will be held on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. in the Administration Building at the Henrico County Government Center on Parham and Hungary Springs roads.

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