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2019-3-19

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Advocate Draws From Personal Experience as Example to Youth

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — James Braxton went outside only once in the four months he spent in jail, and he ate ice chips instead of drinking water. He says he didn’t want to get used to a routine; that would have meant he was staying there.

It was in 2005 when he got a call from a friend after being fired from his job at a call center for fighting with a coworker. Braxton needed money, and accompanying a friend on a personal retaliation mission was a way to get it.

But things didn’t go according to plan. He ended up driving their car through Newport News, pursued by up to a dozen squad cars. Braxton and the three young men in the car with him were charged with possession of a firearm and larceny.

“I was almost laughing because I couldn’t believe it; I was almost in a state of shock. It didn’t really hit me until we got to jail and we’re there for hours in processing,” Braxton said. “It had already hit the news what was happening, so guys in there are treating us like, ‘Dang, y’all about to go down.’”

Braxton’s story didn’t begin with a failed robbery attempt, and it didn’t end when he left Hampton City Jail. His early years are similar to those of some of the youth he advocates for today.

He joined RISE for Youth — a statewide campaign advocating for youth justice reform — two years ago after more than a decade of working to better himself and navigate past traumas. He is now the group’s strategic engagement director.

Shortly after Braxton’s parents divorced when he was 9, his mother, Mattie Brisbane, was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the major traumas of his childhood was thinking his mother was going to die, Braxton said.

“That was a trying time,” Braxton said. “I felt like God spared her because in the times when I needed someone the most, she’s always been there. She’s always been there, always believed in me and always supported me.”

Despite his tendency to act out in school and high levels of frustration, Brisbane said she always saw “greatness” in her son.

“Even as a toddler, he was very smart, very curious, but he was bold,” Brisbane said. “One day I went to turn on the light, and the light wouldn’t come on. A couple of things electrical didn’t work and I started looking around — he cut electrical wires because he wanted to make his own TV.”

In his early high school years, Braxton said he was “one foot in the streets and one foot out.” The area where he lived at the time — Lincoln Park, a public housing site in Hampton that was demolished in 2016 — was known for crime, drugs and violence, he said.

“By default, I just got sucked into some of the activity that was happening,” Braxton said. “I gravitated toward it. It’s where I felt welcome, it’s where I felt like I belonged.”

As a 17- and 18-year-old, Braxton acted as a stepfather to his 23-year-old girlfriend’s child. The experience was toxic, he said, and the stress interfered further with his education.

“I’m thinking about how I’m going to get out of school to get to the WIC office to get this baby some milk,” Braxton said. “I’m now taking on that responsibility as an 11th grader in high school working two jobs living a whole grown person’s life. There was nobody I could talk to about that.”

When he was a senior in high school, the stress led Braxton to attempt suicide by taking a bottle of painkillers.

“I remember waking up in the hospital and just feeling broken and the weakest I had ever felt in my life,” he said. “I vowed to never be that weak again.”

It might have improved his situation, Braxton said, if he had had a mentor — someone he could relate to.

“That would have allowed me to feel open enough to have those conversations,” Braxton said. “And then from that, [have] some real, tangible, solid answers for housing and for food and for transportation in places where I don’t have to be system-involved to access them.”

By “system,” he means the welfare system or the criminal justice system. Most young people can’t access resources for necessities like food, housing and transportation until they’re “system-involved,” Braxton said.

An alternative would be local organizations working with the local government to address those issues, he said.

Braxton experienced what he considers a similar lack of assistance after he was released from jail in 2005. He got out when his $80,000 bond was reduced to $20,000, an amount his family was able to pay.

At the time, he spent all day, every day applying for jobs — it was “application after application,” he said. The opportunity that Braxton says changed his life was when he was hired as a pediatric dental assistant.

“But it had nothing to do with the [criminal justice] system, and the system had the opportunity to do that,” Braxton said. “That has to change.”

To Braxton, that job is the reason a judge decided to give him a second chance at the end of two years of criminal proceedings in 2007. The office staff and the doctor that hired him came with him to the sentencing.

“The judge was like, ‘I don’t see this often; I don’t see young men coming in with these kinds of charges and they’re doing the positive things you’re doing and making this kind of impact,’” Braxton said.

Braxton had taken an Alford plea — in which the defendant pleads guilty without admitting to the act — to his gun charge. After three years of probation, the judge dropped the larceny charge.

Braxton worked in property management for several years before he felt he needed to make a change and connect himself to his “purpose.”

He now advocates for improvements in the criminal justice system. In January, Braxton was part of a rally at the state Capitol that urged the General Assembly to reinstate discretionary parole, which allows prisons to release certain offenders before they have completed their sentences. During the 2019 legislative session, several bills were proposed to reinstate parole; none of them passed.

Braxton said he hopes “to be an example and mentor, especially to young African-American boys that don’t have examples of fathers or leaders in their home or in their environment.”

“I think that’s where it starts,” he said, “not waiting for the state or not waiting for the government to provide answers to neighborhoods and communities.”

Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill

Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued the following statement after oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill:

“This case has cost Virginians four years of litigation, multiple elections under an unconstitutional map, and probably more than $10 million, mostly spent by House Republicans to defend racial gerrymandering. The trial Court issued 100 pages of factual findings explaining the ways that the plan ‘sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin’ and reduced the political power of African-Americans. That is wrong. We should all be concerned about this race-based violation of Virginians’ right to vote and should work to fix it as soon as possible. 

“Nothing I heard today changes my belief that it is time to put an end to this case, and to implement fair, constitutional districts.”

In June 2018, a three-judge panel found that eleven House of Delegates districts were unconstitutional. In July 2018, Attorney General Herring announced that the Commonwealth of Virginia would not appeal the decision, citing the seriousness of the constitutional violation, the likelihood of success, and the considerable time and millions in taxpayer money that had already been expended. 

The three-judge panel and Supreme Court have three times denied requests by the House of Delegates to delay implementation of a new redistricting plan that corrects the identified racial gerrymandering.

Virginia Electric Utilities Wiring Rural Areas for Broadband

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — If you want internet service in the rural hamlet of Honaker, in far Southwest Virginia, Cable Plus is the only game in town. With internet speeds of 3 megabits per second, customers can go online to check their email, surf social media and watch low-quality videos from streaming services, but not much else.

The cheapest Cable Plus internet package available to the 700 households in Honaker: $54 a month.

An hour away in Bristol, Virginia, residents have plenty of options to choose from for broadband. They can get high-speed service — with speeds of at least 25 Mbps — for as low as $45 a month.

The difference in internet services between urban and rural communities in Virginia is stark: Only 53 percent of rural Virginians have access to broadband internet. Urban areas have far better coverage — 96 percent, according to a 2016 study by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

That’s because internet providers profit more when their customer base is concentrated and easy to reach. In rural areas, it’s much more expensive per customer to provide high-speed internet.

Virginia lawmakers have taken steps to address geographic disparities in broadband coverage by passing a bill that will give the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the green light to provide broadband internet service to unserved areas.

HB 2691, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, will create a pilot program that allows the electric utilities to expand “middle mile” broadband coverage — the infrastructure that connects the networks and core routers on the internet to local internet service providers that serve businesses and consumers directly.

The bill will allow each utility to spend up to $60 million annually on the pilot program. The companies will be able to recover that money from ratepayers.

Dominion and Appalachian Power won’t be providing high-speed internet straight to residents’ homes and businesses, however. The final connection, called the “last mile,” will be left to third-party internet providers. The last mile brings service to the end user’s premises and is typically the most expensive component of broadband infrastructure.

Nate Frost, director of new technology and energy conservation at Dominion Energy, said the program is “unconventional” for electric utilities but could help solve rural Virginia’s broadband woes.

“There’s a unique opportunity to potentially leverage some of the business that we’re going to be doing anyway,” Frost said. “But getting to that point won’t be easy.”

Under the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power must modernize their systems, and part of that involves bringing broadband to electrical substations to support new “smart” infrastructure initiatives.

The pilot program allows the electric utilities to add extra fiber optic cables to rural substations in addition to the fiber they’re already putting in place. That additional broadband capacity will then be leased to third-party internet providers, which will provide last-mile connections to homes and businesses nearby.

O’Quinn’s bill is awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature to become law.

Evan Feinman, Northam’s chief broadband adviser, said earnings by electric utilities from leasing middle-mile infrastructure will result in lower electric bills over time and will save ratepayers an estimated $150 million over the next three years.

Those savings are based on Dominion’s 2018 Broadband Feasibility Report, in which the company outlined the potential for adding broadband capacity to rural areas.

“It’s one of those very rare win-wins where the electric companies, ratepayers and people in need of broadband service all benefit,” Feinman said.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously but drew opposition from a few Republicans in the House of Delegates. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, voted against it.

“We’ve made great progress toward achieving this goal over the last several years,” said Byron, who chairs the state Broadband Advisory Council. “I’m concerned that the approach enacted by HB 2691 might unintentionally divert or detract from our well-established and successful efforts.”

Over the last few years, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative has provided millions of dollars to broadband service providers to extend their service into rural areas. During its recent session, the General Assembly increased funding for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative for the 2020 fiscal year from $4 million to $19 million.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, also voted against O’Quinn’s bill, citing the increased costs to ratepayers.

“This is a perversion of the system where the State Corporation Commission has the authority to set reasonable rates and to return ratepayer money that exceeds reasonable rates,” LaRock said.

It’s not unprecedented for electric utilities to provide internet services in Virginia. Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which serves rural areas in 14 counties, announced its own broadband expansion in January 2018. The $110 million project aims to provide internet and phone service directly to consumers through a subsidiary company called Firefly Broadband.

Virginia has the fifth-highest rate of broadband adoption in the nation and ranks among the top 10 states in terms of its average peak internet connectivity speed, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through Northern Virginia.

But state officials have been concerned about the lack of broadband in rural areas, saying such connectivity is critical to economic development. Northam has made broadband expansion a priority, proposing that the state spend $250 million over the next 10 years to address the unequal distribution of internet service.

“Broadband internet is inarguably a necessity for participation in a 21st-century economy, and many Virginians have been left without quality access for far too long,” Northam said. “By ending this disconnect, we can better attract and support business and entrepreneurship, educate all Virginia students and expand access to cost-saving telehealth services.”

Occupational Health Services for Area Employers

Let’s build a healthy workforce, together.

South Hill—As you know, your team members are the single most important and valuable resource in your organization. A healthier team member is often a more productive team member. VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital Health and Wellness Services provides team member health services required and needed in today’s world of business and industry. We can help your business reach its goals for a healthier workforce.

A healthier workforce will decrease lost work time, provide more productive and motivated employees, reduce health care and worker’s compensation costs andreduce workplace injuries.

For more than 17 years, the professionals with VCU Health CMH Health & Wellness Services have been responsive to the health needs of the corporate community.  Currently they contract with numerous companies throughout the region to provide such services as:  pre-employment physicals, DOT physicals, rapid drug screens, lab based drug screens (urine, hair follicle), breath alcohol testing, immunizations, OSHA hearing conservation education and testing and much, much more. 

Learn more about how you can make your workforce healthier by visiting our website at vcu-cmh.org and downloading a brochure or calling (434) 774-2541.

Meet the professional staff of VCU Health CMH Occupational Health: (pictured from left to right)  Linda Crump, Office Service Specialist; Donna Overton, LPN, COHC, BAT, SAMI-DOT; Amy Hobbs, FNP-C; DeeAnna Forbes, LPN, COHC, BAT APS-DOT; Jessica Seamster, LPN, BAT, APS-DOT

Institute of Contemporary Art Hosts Queer Film Collective Dirty Looks

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- It has been eight years since the first showing of “Dirty Looks,” a queer film series that traces contemporary LGBTQ aesthetics through historical works.

Beginning in New York City, “Dirty Looks” has been shown in several U.S. cities and international settings, including screenings at The Museum of Modern Art and The Kitchen in New York and The Hammer in Los Angeles.

The film series’ winter tour features cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Richmond.

The Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is hosting a free showing of “Dirty Looks” starting at 6 p.m. on April 3.
For David Riley, a graduate curatorial assistant at the institute, the film series offers insight into queer culture and how it has shifted throughout history.

“We’re looking forward to hosting this event and hoping to hold more events like these,” Riley said.  

Each tour has a different film lineup. This tour includes films from Angie Stardust, Zina Zurner and other queer contemporaries.  

“When I’m picking films for the program, I love going through old film guides finding titles that are interesting and not well known,” said Nordeen, who launched the Dirty Looks Inc. collective in 2011 in New York City because there was a lack of consistent space for queer film and art.  

“I prefer finding filmmakers whose works haven’t been canonized yet.”

“Dirty Looks” attracted an audience from the start.

“The first showing we did we ran out of chairs, and it was in a blizzard,” Nordeen said. The collective’s goal is to build community by looking at queer history and to create a consistent space for queer films, he explained.

Three years ago, the collective expanded to include an on-location segment in which its films are shown in city spaces that were traditionally queer spaces.

“Art is made in life,” Nordeen said. “When we’re looking at queer art, it is communal.”

Although Nordeen expanded the collective from New York to Los Angeles, he said it is important to screen these films in other cities.

“You know, why not Richmond?” Nordeen said. “Places like New York City and Los Angeles -- they need me the least.”  

Nordeen and other members of the collective will host a panel discussion following the showing, and take questions from the audience.

“Wake Up Time”

From whom do we collect taxes
When our citizens move away
Yes and what incentive do we use
To encourage them to stay.
 
There is constant talk of tourism
And the Big Role it could play
Then we closed that gate on thousands
When the Pork Festival went astray.
 
Now it would be nice if you got what you wanted
Then we all would join in for a cheer
Yet may I suggest in the mean time
To do something for those that live here.
 
We need to go out of town for good shopping
And to get a good meal as well
Yes that is where I see the most of you
Though you know that I won’t tell.
 
You’re filling up the vacant stores
With things we do not need
Yet what about the recreation
That would be good indeed.
I’m certain there are ways and means
For the problems we have to solve
Still if we don’t take action now
More trouble it will involve.
 
                    Roy E. Schepp
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