Social work students explore Richmond’s struggles with race, injustice

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Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work took a tour of Richmond last week to better understand the city — as well as social work — through a racial justice lens.

“I consider myself a radical social worker,” said Rebecca Keel, a master’s of social work student, speaking to her fellow students at Richmond’s slave burial ground. “The word ‘radical’ means ‘root cause.’ As social workers, we need to be thinking about the root causes of issues. Structural racism, social oppression and how that manifests in people’s lives – that’s what being a social worker is.”

As part of the daylong “Richmond [Re]Visited: An Orientation to Racial [In]Justice in RVA,” VCU social work students of all levels — undergraduates, master’s students and doctoral candidates — packed into four buses and traveled to sites in Richmond’s Greater Fulton and Shockoe Bottom neighborhoods, both of which have been marked by racial discrimination.

In Shockoe Bottom, the students visited the slave burial ground and Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, where they learned Richmond was early America’s second-largest slave market and heard the story of Gabriel, an enslaved man who planned a slave revolt in 1800 but was hanged once the plan was discovered.

“Shockoe Bottom is a place that we are coming to understand is as significant to the history of the country as St. John’s Church up the hill [from the slave burial grounds] where Patrick Henry gave the ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech,” said Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

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