Student advocacy groups respond to efforts of President Ryan’s working group

The working group recently identified seven issues it sees as critical at U.Va. and in Charlottesville

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One of the largest initiatives of Ryan’s presidency so far is his formation of a community working group.

Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

The arrival of University President Jim Ryan on Grounds last August brought a number of initiatives to the University community, ranging from early morning runs throughout Grounds to a promise during his inauguration on Oct. 19 that in-state students from families with annual incomes under $80,000 would be able to attend the University tuition-free. 

But one of the largest initiatives of Ryan’s presidency so far is his formation of a community working group. Created in October 2018, the group functions to strengthen ties between the Charlottesville community and the University — ties that historically have been strained — and identify the most pressing issues facing the region. 

The 16-member working group, comprised of faculty members, community members and a Law student, has now identified seven main issues of focus — affordable housing, jobs and wages at the University, youth and education, law enforcement and criminal justice reform, public health care, transportation and institutional accountability at the University.

Juandiego Wade, Charlottesville School Board chair and working group co-chair, said that the working group drew from existing studies of needs in the Charlottesville area, as well as the varied experiences of the group members, to identify the issues. 

“We had a short window to pull together a lot of information,” Wade said. He added that the group generated the information from “the experienced background knowledge of the working group and the tons and tons of studies that have already been done.”

Wade did not cite any specific studies the group used to draw their information from during the interview but did call the studies unbiased and complete.

Vilas Annavarapu, a third-year College student and the chair of Asian Leaders Council — an advocacy group on Grounds that has primarily worked towards increased representation of Asian/Asian Pacific Americans in the University’s academic departments — said he appreciated the working group’s efforts to identify where the University needs to build bridges with the greater Charlottesville community.

“For a long time, U.Va. has utilized the Charlottesville community and has taken a lot of the resources Charlottesville has to offer without really giving back too much,” Annavarapu said. “That exploitative relationship really needs to be challenged.”

Annavarapu noted the identified need for affordable housing as one that is highly critical to address. Affordable housing has been on the radar of city officials for several years, with the greater Charlottesville area in need of over 4,000 affordable housing units in order to meet the demand posed by low-income residents. Recent efforts have been made in order to attempt to rectify the need, including a proposal of a $50 million bond to facilitate public housing and affordable housing development in the area. No recent progress has been made with this proposal.

Natalie Romero, a third-year College student and the student director of the Multicultural Student Center, said that community issues often overlap with issues minority students face at the University, also citing a lack of affordable off-Grounds housing options as a problem many of these students encounter.

“Many of the demands that students have definitely overlap with community demands because our demands stem from the inequalities that both locals and UVA students of color/ low-income students face,” Romero said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We have a hard time with housing because here it's so expensive, and then we know that UVA buys-out property and then displaces locals.”

The Living Wage Campaign is another student advocacy group that has been working for over 20 years to implement a living wage — $12.03 in Charlottesville for a single adult, or $16.84 for a family of four — for all University employees. Todd Le, a fourth-year Engineering student and social media chair of the group, said during an interview with The Cavalier Daily that the Living Wage Campaign was in agreement with the working group about the critical nature of the identified issues, especially those concerning jobs and wages. 

“The issues listed are definitely the ones we see as pressing and kind of paint a broader picture of the kind of struggles that a low-income person in Charlottesville faces beyond just wages and not having enough to pay rent,” Le said. 

Le said he hopes that the next steps of the working group and Ryan would be to generate solutions to the living wage problem at the University while being mindful of costs of living and inflation by the end of the school year. 

“We would want them to increase wages without letting people off, as well as develop ways to make sure that wage number is maintained with inflation and future changes in cost of living,” Le said. “We can’t predict what the future of living wage is, but we can build mechanisms into the way we build living wage to make sure it stays a living wage.” 

The working group has now asked the community to provide input on the seven issues via a survey on the working group’s website in order to help determine which areas should be prioritized in the next five years. The survey — which opened mid January — will remain live until the end of January and offers brief descriptions of the identified issues, as well as space for individuals to rank three issues they see as most important to address.

According to Wade, over 1,000 responses had been submitted within only a few days of the survey’s release, but Le said he felt the survey had not been well publicized to the University community. 

Le also acknowledged that although the survey’s instructions for individuals to rank their top three issues were necessary for prioritization, selecting only three felt “limiting.”

“It’s hard to say any one issue is more important than the other,” Le said. “There’s connections between each of them, and I feel like by addressing one, you will effectively need to address all of them.”

Annavarapu is hopeful that the survey will be a first step in helping the University become more cognizant of the impact it has on Charlottesville. 

“I would not say a survey by itself would fully elucidate those issues, but it’s probably a stepping stone to broader and more intentional and thoughtful outreach,” Annavarapu said. 

Romero believes that the working group has its own role to play in becoming more cognizant of the opinions of its students as well, expressing a need for clarity in its proceedings. 

“I hope the group operates under full transparency instead of keeping things within closed doors because then we don't feel like nothing is happening and I hope they give us updates on things that they are in the process of or have gotten done,” Romero said. “With transparency comes a sense of understanding.”

To Annavarapu, University students themselves should be invested in what kinds of issues run through the veins of Charlottesville and the University, and he believes that they play a substantive role in shaping what occurs throughout Charlottesville. 

“The responsibility of students at U.Va. to be invested in the needs of Charlottesville is big, and I don’t think that’s a link that’s been made to the degree that needs to be made,” Annavarapu said. “Regardless of what your involvements are … your existence sustains a type of relationship that the University has with the broader community.” 

Following the conclusion of the survey and the working group’s direct conversations with community members, findings will be analyzed and placed in a two to three page report for Ryan by the end of February. Wade said that at this point in time, the working group is unsure of what the report and the next steps will look like due to the group’s current emphasis on public engagement. The group was available Jan. 20 to 22 in various places throughout Charlottesville — including a City Council meeting, Carver Recreation Center and Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church — to receive community input. 

“We’ve been really focused on the public engagement part of it thus far,” Wade said. “We feel comfortable that once we get this information, we’ll know what to do with it.”

Wade said that the working group will likely continue to identify issues following the completion of the survey and report.

“This is not going to be the last shot to address these issues,” Wade said, later adding that “the University is committed to this for the long term, and it’s not kind of a flash in the pan. If there are some issues that we didn’t address, we want to know that.”

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