Mayor Levar Stoney recently declared Richmond a “City of Compassion.” This global movement is led locally by Mollie Reinhart, creator of the Befriend Movement and member of Richmond’s newly-established Human Services Cabinet.
Last month, Mayor Levar Stoney declared Richmond to be a “City Of Compassion.” In doing so, he made the city part of a growing, worldwide movement to treat all people with respect and dignity, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic status. But the declaration, which caught many around the city by surprise, was actually years in the making, and involved some key behind-the-scenes players in local civic activity.
In 2017, Mollie Reinhart was a familiar name at the Office of Community Wealth in Richmond. With her youngest off to college, Reinhart was looking for ways to get more involved in the city. She met Reggie Gordon, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Richmond, through volunteer work.
“We had some conversations about once a month, and [were] really just sharing ideas,” Reinhart said.
In 2017, the Mayor’s office received a letter from Ciji, a Richmond mother who narrowly missed the deadline for the city’s Christmas gift exchange program. Reinhart, by then a familiar name at the Office of Community Wealth building, agreed to help.
“When I called her, I couldn’t get the sound of her voice out of my mind,” Reinhart said. “She was so robotic and sad, and while we were talking I was just like, ‘I wanna get to know her more.’” Accompanied by her friend Lisa, Reinhart met Ciji at her home in Creighton Court. They drove to Walmart, where Ciji could pick out some presents for her son.
“It was a little bit awkward, but once we started sharing stories about our children and her son… that’s what started our getting to know each other a little bit more.”
Reinhart and Ciji stayed in touch. They often ate at the McDonalds on Nine Mile Road, sometimes accompanied by friends, just to talk. “I learned so many things through her lens on the city,” Reinhart said. “She taught me a lot of things about my phone. I didn’t know how it worked — you know, texting and everything.”
Moved by Reinhart’s endeavors, Gordon published an op-ed with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in August 2019, entitled “Richmond is Ripe for a Compassion Movement.” In it, Gordon told the story the burgeoning friendship between Reinhart and Ciji, and argued that, despite Richmond’s abundance of nonprofits and corporations committed to helping people, solutions would be most likely to emerge from friendships like theirs — “genuine, productive, trusting, and open relationships between our citizens.”
“I was trying to announce to broader Richmond that if we just listen to the stories of our neighbors, and believe that they’re telling us the truth as they see it, then it will help us to find solutions to some problems that have probably felt intractable,” Gordon said of the op-ed.
At the time of its publication, Gordon already knew about the Charter for Compassion, a movement conceived in the early 2000s by a former nun (you might say an un-nun) named Karen Armstrong. In her work, she studies the commonalities between religions, and came to the conclusion that the “do unto others” principle is universal. In other words, compassion is universal, and there is no limit to what a world of individuals practicing compassion can accomplish.
The first step in the Charter’s four-step model is to address local discomforts. Gordon pointed out Richmond’s great economic divide, which not only impacts life expectancy, but also social disconnect. He referenced his 20-year career in nonprofit and human services, saying, “Historical, racial, and economic segregation in Richmond makes it rare for us to have prolonged, consistent interaction with someone from a different social network.”
“Here’s how it connects to policy change,” Gordon told me. “If you don’t know anybody that needs affordable housing, you might [say], ‘I don’t want that in my neighborhood because it will mess up my property values.’ But, if you have a friend, or two, or several, who have always said to you, ‘Hey, you know, I’m workin’ three jobs and I just can’t find a place that I can afford for $750 a month,’ that’s different. Then, you would say, ‘I have a couple of friends that would really benefit from this place and it’d be cool if they lived down the street from me.’ It’s as simple as that.”
At the end of his op-ed, Gordon included an unusual invitation: anyone ready to come closer to someone from another social network could contact the Human Services Information Concierge, Patty Parks.
“And it worked!” Gordon said. Parks arranged for people to gather at a public meeting room. When people came, they collected willing participants’ names for future reference when clients said they needed a friend. “It’s like matchmaking,” Gordon said, laughing.
Reinhart, who was involved in the planning of Gordon’s initial gathering and in many ways inspired it, remained interested in getting to know more community members. With Parks’ help, she scheduled additional gatherings at strategically accessible locations; the Broad Rock Library, West End Library, RVA Light Coffee Shop, and the Market at 25th Street, to name a few. Attendees, invited via email, grew in number from six to more than 20.
At one meeting, they had a speaker on trauma and resilience. At another, they brought in a chef to do a cooking demonstration. “Again, just a little springboard for some extra conversation,” she said.
It was out of these meetings that the Befriend movement blossomed, a collaborative effort between Reinhart, Gordon, and Parks. But it didn’t gain a substantial digital presence until early May of this year, when Mayor Stoney signed the “City of Compassion” proclamation.
The idea for the proclamation came during a Richmond Human Services Cabinet meeting, when Reinhart suggested that Richmond become involved with the Charter for Compassion. It was received positively, so she drafted a proclamation. Gordon, Parks, and writing consultant Deanna Lorianni reviewed it and proposed it to Mayor Stoney. Stoney, who has promoted compassionate acts ever since his “One Richmond” campaign in 2016, was happy to oblige.
In his City of Compassion launch video, Stoney said, “At the city, we have a mission to center compassion in everything we do.” Although he has not since addressed the proclamation, his decision to delay Phase One of post-quarantine reopening with the intention to protect the most vulnerable exemplifies its principles, as do programs like the Color of COVID roundtable, which took place on May 27 and addressed racial disparities in the pandemic’s effect on Richmond.
Since 2008, over 70 cities across the world have participated in the Charter for Compassion. Each is responsible for designing programming that responds to the city’s unique needs. In some ways, the Human Services Cabinet exists for this purpose.
Gordon initially formed the Cabinet at the beginning of COVID-19, with the intention of providing a way for local subject matter experts to exchange ideas quickly. The group meets bi-weekly via conference call to discuss their successes and challenges.
In prioritizing the group’s goals, Gordon looked to Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs: food, shelter, employment, education, safety, and so on. The compassion piece, Gordan said, is the overarching theme.
“We have been uncomfortable or scared to ask someone to tell us exactly how [they’re] living or what’s working or not working. I guess because we’re afraid of feeling like we’ll say the wrong thing,” said Gordon. “And that’s why I am so impressed with Mollie. Mollie Reinhart is… I hope she’s the new Richmond.”
Reinhart has a masters in Human Development Psychology, and spent her pre-children years doing nonprofit and hospice work. She isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with a grocery store clerk, and does so in a warm, cheerful voice.
Befriend, which she runs from home, is still evolving. “We’re gonna work to ensure that we treat everybody with dignity, equity, and respect. Where we are now, with those guiding principles, is to go deeper in conversation with people,” she said.
The Giving Wall and Feed More, local organizations that serve the community through small acts of kindness, directly inspired the Befriend movement. Their mission is simple but effective: give a little to a neighbor, and see how big a difference it makes.
“I think we can get there because we have hundreds and thousands of people who say, ‘I wanna help, I wanna be a part of the solution,’” Reinhart said. “It’s as simple as being a friend to a stranger.”
For Reinhart, this is all trial and error. “It’s a friendship, it’s not a mentorship or anything like that,” she explained. “I can’t say I’m the expert… I’m still learning as I go.”
Befriend and the Human Services Cabinet are represented on the RVA Strong website, a holistic resource for those looking for help or willing to offer it. There, you can view Mayor Stoney’s thoughts on compassion. Gordon is working on making Human Services Cabinet meeting reports available to the public so they can act as a standard reference point on how the city is responding to crisis. For now, you can email Parks for a copy at [email protected].
Photos by Nicholas Taylor, courtesy Befriend