Two Black LGBTQ Candidates Seek Richmond City Council Seats

by | Oct 8, 2020 | QUEER RVA

We sat down with City Council candidates Tavarris Spinks and Joseph S.H. Rogers to talk about their ties to Richmond, plans for their respective districts, and how they want to switch up Richmond’s representative voice.

Tavarris Spinks, 2nd District 

Tavarris Spinks, a noted participant and activist in Richmond politics, is a fifth-generation Richmonder and VCU alumnus with strong connections to the 2nd District community. He’s running to fill Councilwoman Kim Gray’s seat. 

Spinks’ childhood in a lower-income community in Richmond has informed his experience as an activist, and so has his journey to become a first-generation college graduate and a prominent member of Richmond’s political scene over the past 17 years.

“You know, I grew up in subsidized housing, like Section 8 subsidized housing,” Spinks said. “For the first several years of my life, I remember having a relatively happy childhood. My parents worked very hard to make sure that I didn’t want for anything, but they also had help from family because so much of my family lives here.”

His grandmother still lives in his old neighborhood, Spinks said, and is able to stay in her home despite rising housing costs due to subsidies for people over 65. But that experience isn’t universal, Spinks said.

“The 2nd District, in Jackson Ward, historic Jackson Ward, used to be a thriving African American enclave. But now, folks are being pushed out by political and economic forces,” he said. “Keeping those neighborhoods together, allowing people, especially black folks, to stay in their homes, is super important.”

His worldview shifted, Spinks said, when he first exited the world of his childhood during a field trip in eighth grade and saw the parts of Richmond that had wealth and well-maintained infrastructure. 

“Once you get older, you start to see the wider world. You know, it took me a while to realize, ‘Oh, we are actually quite poor compared to [other families],’” Spinks said. “We went to the VMFA and that was my first time going. And, you know, riding through Monument Avenue, and then seeing that this is still the same city.”

Attending VCU and living in the Fan gave Spinks a chance to observe the disparities in neighborhoods of Richmond in his everyday life. 

“Running in the 2nd district — this is my home. You know, it’s a great part of town,” he said. “I want to see it get better, and I want to see all of Richmond get better. City Council doesn’t just vote on issues that affect one district.”

Spinks is passionate about developing and maintaining the infrastructure of the city, specifically the accessibility of sidewalks and walkways around construction sites. He lived in the Fan for 12 years, and said he now knows “what it’s like to live in a part of town that has more access to transit services, better roads.” He sees how these issues specifically affect people in the 2nd District. But he said that even more wealthy parts of the city like the Fan and Scott’s Addition still need help with sidewalks. 

Spinks’ advocacy for accessible sidewalks stems from his familiarity with activists in the disability community, he said. He’s observed “folks who are using mobility devices, like wheelchairs, or walkers in the street, facing vehicle traffic.” His sensitivity to this issue comes from his experience thinking about the groups most impacted by the city’s decisions. 

“When I think about a policy I meet, the first thing I think about is, ‘Who tends to be vulnerable? And who can lose in this type of policy?’” Spinks said. “And going from there, I then think, ‘Okay, what are the solutions to the problem that we’re trying to solve?’” 

Photo via Tavarris Spinks/Facebook

This sensitivity extends to the issues he’s observed and lived as a Black and gay man, he said. “Just to be clear, I’m not saying that you need to be gay to understand gay issues or represent gay constituents,” Spinks said. “But, it helps.” 

Living with those two identities is “a lot, frankly, and it’s a lot to navigate,” he said.

Spinks said that while he loves his district’s open-mindedness, he’s also aware that “just 30 minutes” from where he now lives and is running for office, just “trying to exist … I’d have a very different story to tell” about living as a Black man and a member of the LGBTQ community.

“[That’s] one of the reasons why I am politically active, because of knowing how much of my liberty and freedom immediately has an effect in legislation at all levels,” Spinks said. “It made me certainly aware of ‘Who’s in power, how that power is being used, and who is it being used for? And who is it being used against?’”

That issue of which groups have power over minorities has even followed Spinks into his political work, he said. While out canvassing, he was stopped by police officers and asked what he was doing, with the suspicion that he was “up to something.”

“And I was ‘up to’ trying to get people to vote,” Spinks said. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had encounters with police, or interactions with police, that I think were unnecessary.”

Spinks is advocating for a “reimagining” of public safety and law enforcement, he said, and supports reforms that focus on the scope and budget of law enforcement. He said he believes  in returning to “core policing functions” and confronting “systemic dysfunction and racial bias within the department.” Spinks is also calling for the implementation of a citizen review board with subpoena power to oversee the Richmond Police Department. 

Often, Spinks said, law enforcement training doesn’t give officers the tools they need to handle many of the situations they’re asked to. 

“Let’s say we already lived in a place without police,” Spinks said. “And let’s imagine what it would look like for police to exist, and what their roles and functions would be, and their relationship with the people that they’re policing.”

Spinks is also reimagining what the City government’s transparency should look like, he said. He wants to “keep the government accountable and responsive to people.” Citizens shouldn’t have to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn about the inner workings of Richmond, Spinks said. Instead, he wants every file to be freely accessible on websites. 

“People need to know why something’s not working, where the money’s going,” he said. “You need to do that, because it’s trust. So much of the City government has lost the trust of the people.”

Spinks has seen much change during his lifetime in Richmond — but he calls it growth, for the most part.

“I want to be a part of helping to guide that growth, and making sure that folks don’t get left behind,” Spinks said. “We should build a better city for everyone.”

Photo via Joseph S.H. Rogers/Facebook

Joseph S.H. Rogers, 7th District

Running for the city council seat in a district against a 12-year incumbent inherently involves “running on a platform of change,” said Joseph S. H. Rogers. While he’s a new candidate for the 7th district, which has been represented for the past 12 years by Cynthia Newbille, Rogers has old ties to Richmond.

As a historian and museum educator, Rogers tends to frame most things with historical context. One example is his family’s connection to Richmond — which is brief, but significant — through Rogers’ ancestor, James Apostle Fields, in the 19th century. “The routes that my family take through the city of Richmond is very interesting,” Rogers said.

Fields was an enslaved man that made his way to freedom from Hanover to Richmond in 1863, where he stayed with his brother John. After almost being captured into slavery again, Fields made his way to Roanoke, Virginia. That’s where Rogers was born, and where his family has been based since the 1860s. 

“I think that we have a tendency in the modern age to believe that everything is new,” Rogers said. “And that we are coming up with radical solutions, innovative and radical solutions to problems, when a lot of those solutions have already been applied. They’ve happened in the past, they have examples that we can refer to from the past. But also in some of those places where those solutions have not yet existed, it’s good to have a historical lens.”

Rogers moved to Richmond in 2014, and he’s been politically active in the city since he became a resident. He said he’s been an advocate for a Marcus Alert and a civilian review board, and part of a lobbying effort on City Hall with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality since 2017 to “make those changes be taken seriously, as well,” he said. “And I realized that we’ve been, more or less, right. We’ve been right this entire time.”

His decision to run for city council in the 7th district stems from Rogers’ observations of “rallying calls” being made for political action after George Floyd’s death, he said. But his decision wasn’t “just about George Floyd.”

“Here in the City of Richmond, it was about statues, monuments, and Marcus-David Peters,” Rogers said. “And as I listened to everything that was happening, I realized that there was a lot of anger there. But there was a lot of love that was underlying these messages. There’s also just that need for people to feel heard, and for action to be taken. And I recognize that in myself — I had been at the forefront of those issues.”

Rogers’ desire to be part of that movement came from his struggle to bring issues of reform up to the City Council. He said the lack of response led him to think “maybe we need a different City Council.”

“[Or a] councilperson who will listen to the people, before the city is actually on fire,” Rogers said. 

Rogers said he wants to try to be “that voice that works with the people in the city who are voicing these concerns, before they get to a boiling point.”

In addition to calling for the removal of Confederate statues, one reform that Rogers’ is calling for is the defunding of the Richmond Police Department. His campaign is advocating for a citizen review board, and for the City to invest in building up services that will address the tasks that police are asked to do outside of solving crime “that’s stretched them thin,” like wellness checks or responding to mental health crises. Rogers wants to “divest from the policing model, invest in the community first model.”

“Defunding the police is not even talking about a decrease of civil servants,” Rogers said. “Just different civil servants involved in these areas.”

Rogers’ perspective as a historian is once again informing his ideas for policy. His understanding of the history of crime in the 1980s and ’90s, and the police response to that, has shaped his understanding of the current issues with police departments in the U.S.

“We were told that the way to address crime was to punish criminals,” Rogers said. “Ultimately, that led to increases in funding in police departments across the country. And it led to the demonizing of the ‘criminal,’ ultimately seeing them as other. The problem is that primarily the people who they were claiming are criminals were Black people. And so disproportionately Black people were affected by these policies.”

Being a Black man and a member of the Black community, Rogers said he recognises “that these are things that we need to uplift. These are people that we need to uplift.”

Being a member of Richmond’s LGBTQ community has also led him to recognize issues he plans to pursue while on City Council. 

“I identify as bisexual. That is part of my identity. So in the same way that I bring my being a Black man, also being a bisexual Black man is a part of that conversation as well,” Rogers said. “I also want to acknowledge [that] how I plan on helping the LGBTQ community isn’t just by being bi on the council.”

He said he has plans of “putting forward policy that addresses a wide state of things” that affect the LGBTQ community, such as the high rate of homelessness for the trans community. Richmond’s high rate of homelessness in the trans community and in the larger population is “no different” than other cities, Rogers said. 

Looking at Richmond’s past, Rogers said that the problem he’s seen isn’t that the city has changed, but that “we’ve seen the ways in which it hasn’t changed, and hasn’t done better.”

“It doesn’t look like change from the outside, perhaps because we live in this big world where everything else in the nation is changing so rapidly,” Rogers said. “But then, Richmond is still struggling in those same ways that we thought we were gonna be able to move away from.”

Top Photo via Tavarris Spinks/Facebook & Joseph S.H. Rogers/Facebook

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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