Published April 9, 2018

About the Organization

Wendy McCaig

Embrace Richmond was founded by Wendy McCaig in Richmond in 2005.  Initially conceived of as a social service organization providing furniture for families who had experienced homelessness, the mission of Embrace shifted from relief to leadership development after a client expressed a desire to give something back in return for the help she’d received. Embrace Richmond began community development efforts in the Hillside Court community in 2009 focused on identifying and supporting resident leaders.  A few years later there were 9 resident-led initiatives mobilizing dozens of Hillside residents through community action teams.

In 2012, McCaig began working in Richmond’s historically African American Brookland Park community: 5 neighborhoods, including North Central, Battery Park, Providence Park, Northern Barton Heights and Ginter Park Terrace. A resident of Brookland Park herself, McCaig hoped to empower members of her community to make change, using an “asset mapping” process that engages residents in identifying goals, skills, and talents that can be used to strengthen community. The result has helped neighborhood leaders establish numerous initiatives including food security projects, block clubs, family strengthening groups, and youth development projects in Brookland Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

Learning that much of the history of the Brookland Park community and the stories of its residents were not known by its younger members, McCaig refocused Embrace Richmond’s efforts on creating inter-generational relationships, training community leaders, and building the community from within, engaging residents to work together to help bring about lasting transformation.

More recently, as young, predominantly European American families have begun to move into Brookland Park, the process of gentrification has created tension along racial lines, and residents on both sides of the divide have expressed a desire to create a shared vision of the future for their community.

About the Project

The Unsung Heroes Project builds on the strengths and contributions of the African American founders of the Brookland Park neighborhood who fought to establish a thriving and cohesive community despite segregation and turbulent racial dynamics in the mid-1950s and into the 1960s.

Through partnerships with community-based arts and culture organizations and local high schools (John Marshall and Community High), the multi-generational project will engage more than 750 residents in uncovering, understanding, hearing and sharing the stories that have shaped their neighborhood.

Local youth gathered oral histories from community members who lived in the neighborhood through desegregation and the civil rights era. The students bring these stories to life using creative writing, storytelling, songwriting, and dramatic performance in a process known as “Transformative Language Arts.”  With complete creative freedom of expression, they have produced songs, stories, and recorded interviews with the guidance of experienced professionals from the community. The project encourages young people to explore what these stories mean to them and how the issues of the past resonate with their experience today.

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Many students discovered new aspects of their neighborhood in their interviews with older community members.  Video “snapshots” viewable on the Embrace Richmond website present small sections of these interviews, providing a sample of their richness.

An all-youth Musical Storytelling team worked with creative and sound engineering professionals to write and record an original song inspired by these oral histories.  The team will produce a music video intended to give the audience a better understanding of the challenges and joys experienced by Brookland Park residents.

Through Unsung Heroes Written Stories, senior adults and youth envisioned what it means to be a neighborhood hero through a six session workshop led by facilitator Terry Dolson from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, choosing one story to share publicly.

The overall goals of the Unsung Heroes Project are to increase community cohesion, establish a shared vision, and encourage mutual respect by bringing people with perceived differences together around their shared identity as members of the historic Brookland Park area.

An original community play featuring residents and students from Brookland Park, coached by Danita Green, will be held on Tuesday, May 22nd at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center. All are welcome and admission will be free. Further dispersion of these founding stories through social media and public radio will allow a broad audience to learn about the formerly unsung heroes among the older African American residents of Brookland Park, and will plant the seeds of storytelling in other Virginia communities.

Virginia Humanities Support

In December 2017, Virginia Humanities made a grant to Embrace Richmond to help support salaries for program staff and to assist with promotion. The Unsung Heroes Project is just one way Virginia Humanities is working in communities across the state to help Virginians share their stories.

To learn more about the Unsung Heroes Project, please visit EembraceRichmond.org 

To learn about our Grants Program visit VirginiaHumanities.org/grants

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.