Over the past few years, there has been a stark change in the political landscape in large metropolitan areas across the United States. As millennials become a greater and more influential portion of the voting bloc, community leaders have become younger in age and more innovative in mind. Richmond, Virginia, is no exception. After electing 35-year-old Levar Stoney as one America’s newest millennial mayors, another young community and political leader is also set to come to power in 2017. As City Councilman-elect Andreas Addison from the First District of Richmond prepares to take his position at City Hall, Millennial Ascent was given the opportunity to it sit down with the civic innovator over a cup of coffee at the infamous Pop’s on Grace Market, just steps from where wheeling and dealing of the capital city occurs. The councilman-elect shared with us his vision of a vibrant economy, empowered citizens, and a rebirth of Richmond.
We asked Councilman-elect Addison if he considers himself a part of the aforementioned political revolution of young, millennial mayors and city councilmen and women across the country.
“I do, especially when you look at the national landscape and what you saw in Richmond with the turnout we had is the idea of taking on something new. The revolution you’re referring to, to me is a way of looking at change…It’s about collaboration and not having to show that you’re the subject matter expert…It’s coming and saying I don’t know everything, but I’m willing to learn.”
While digging further into how Addison’s personal philosophy has shaped the way in which he analyzes problems regarding governmental functioning and efficiency, the notion of transparency came to be paramount in the creation of the central foundation on which he has built his career. Within the last election cycle, the shift from ideological to character-driven campaigns, the coming-of-voting-age millennials are beginning to put more weight on a candidate’s willingness to listen and character authenticity with the electoral bloc.
Transparency in character is also something Addison saw in many of his colleagues when he made his move to Richmond to introduce his new way of thinking to local government. In 2012, he arrived at 900 East Broad Street as a self-made civic innovator. He had a passion to infiltrate local government and spend his time finding ways to cut wasteful spending, streamline government projects, and get back to work for the citizens using technology and initiatives to better address the needs of Richmonders.
“I met people like me in their late 20’s and early 30’s that had a passion for searching for ways to improve and change local government. We saw how new technology can change and streamline government…it’s a herculean feat.”
Millennials have struck an image on not only the political landscape, but on society as a whole. Addison claims this is identified in the economic markets with monumentally successful ventures like Google, Apple, and other startups that are revolutionizing not just a product, but the way of looking at and mending a problem. Many millennial entrepreneurs are proving that they can be heavy hitters in any market without regard of conventional practices that the older generation as grown accustomed to over their lives. For example, the successes of the multi-billion-dollar businesses like Facebook, AirBnB, and the innumerable amount of other tech and business firms that employ innovators, inventors, and leaders across America.
During his eight years at City Hall, Addison has used a similar tactic while working in public sector. His “we-do-not-wait-our-turn attitude” has shown the public that he shows signs of prospering in elected office. To ensure his devotion to making Richmond a destination city, he will hold city officials accountable.
“Government is we the people…we should see where our tax dollars are going.”
Transparency is more than releasing tax returns and digitizing government documents. Addison compares the City of Richmond to a business when he explains that investors in a privately-funded project demand to physically see the plan unfolding with positive production when they give their own resources to build an application. Therefore, the same logic should be applied to public works projects. In 2016, due to budget cuts and deficit spending, the City of Richmond was unable to maintain the resources needed for trash removal, grass cutting and landscaping, and most notably the degradation of the roads around the River City.
To combat this, one project that Addison headed was SeeClickFix, an mobile phone app-based service for reporting potholes, missed trash pick ups, and other issues attended to and maintained by the Department of Public Works. The download, available on the Apple’s App Store is utilized for the documentation of infrastructure inquiries and maintenance logging. Addison admits that while it is a great start, the revenue needed to fix the problems is another issue. Though, he sees a gleaming future for Richmond, a rebirth based on a foundation of community values.
“I see Richmond as a destination with food, parks, recreation, tourism. Our community has fought for our identity against the government. We need to partner with the community, we need to show that the government cares about their investment and that you are a value component to the community…you’re buying not just into your home, you’re buying into the community, you’re buying into the city, you’re buying into the quality of life, you’re buying into the schools, you’re buying into the access of all these great amenities.”
After discussing different initiatives and the nature of attracting business to the City on the James and how to bolster economic growth and job creation, Addison said he has a new way of thinking about incentivizing business.
“Incentivizing business is hard for me sometimes, throwing money in areas cans sometimes be self-defeating. Your success is only limited by what you put in. I like what they’ve done in D.C. with the Main Street Initiative.”
Rather than giving companies tax incentives to relocate to Richmond, he wants Richmond to be the incentive itself. In Washington, D.C., the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP) initiative for investing in older buildings in Georgetown and other neighborhoods is essentially a build-promise grant. For instance, City Hall could allot $75,000 to a company to spend on remodeling an old building or vacant warehouse for a promise to invest more and open a business. The revival of neighborhoods across Richmond increased the value of relocating to do business in areas like Scott’s Addition, Shockoe Bottom, and Manchester. This is also attractive to millennial startups as Richmond heralds a vibrant, colorful atmosphere assisted by the ease of starting a business in the commonwealth.
Business may be booming, but there is large portion of the city that is underemployed or unemployed. Nearly 25 percent of Richmonders live in poverty. The city has not fully bounced back from the Great Recession, but Addison asserts that attempts to alleviate poverty have failed due to the lack of authenticity in the programs funded to help poor citizens. Since the Great Society, the effort set up by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s to tackle poverty have largely failed.
“Urban centers have had money thrown at them for years and we expect them to get out of it [poverty]. We tackle the issue by decentralizing poverty itself. We need to reinvest in our children and families by giving them better and easier access to resources like job training, training in schools for technical skills, and preparing people for the 21st century workforce.”
While growing up in rural Shenandoah County, Addison, who was a recipient of free and reduced public school lunches as a child, had personal experiences with how government welfare has both helped and hurt the less affluent in America.
“For me I was in a rural setting. I was a minority surrounded by farmers, successful business owners, doctors, lawyers, tradesman. I saw what was possible for me, a reinvestment in their children, a reinvestment with their brothers and sisters and we see the potential of what collaboration in the community means.”
He explained that welfare recipients are often thrown into one category. The needs of a family among the farmlands of the Shenandoah Valley are vastly different from those of an impoverished child growing up in the south side of the City of Richmond. Addison says the community needs to become involved with the government in equity building in economically blighted areas.
Addison said he was encouraged by the progress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Boston, Massachusetts, and seeing this turning point for Richmond and the county as whole. He worked on a project with Dr. Atyia Martin, Chief Resilience Officer for the City Boston, who has also faced the issues of resolving urban inequality and jump starting equity building in our nation’s large cities.
“If you don’t have a plan one missed step can fail you; not just money but access to resources in the community. The issue is that giving out welfare [money] creates automatic failures – the journey out of poverty is tough. You don’t change the welfare system by changing the qualifications, let’s figure out a way yo get you out. After you leaving public housing were do you go? How we do that is what I’m focused on, what are the steps out of poverty – let me help you help yourself.”
The main fact for Addison is that someone cannot expect a problem to fix itself. The underlying reasons for why poverty exists is sometimes multi-generational in inner-city areas. Richmond has pocket areas of poor citizens that have been created by the failures of the welfare system and not investing holistically in a community. He says that programs that teach people how to do laundry, make a family budget, how to interview for a job, and other things in life that nearly everyone takes for granted.
Councilman-elect Addison has shown the public that he is dedicated to using his experiences from his childhood in rural Virginia, his time working on government efficiency in Athens, Greece, and his love for the city to rebuild Richmond for a 21st century population. By utilizing the commonwealth’s transportation grid, natural resources, and infrastructure, he knows the capital city will become an even better city for its citizens.
“We won’t be comparing ourselves to Austin, we’re won’t be comparing ourselves to Portland, Richmond will become the Richmond that we want it to be.”
By Alex Lemieux