Gregory Maxwell approached the podium to address the Franklin County Board of Supervisors. That evening, July 21, about 30 people came to tell the board where they stood on the matter of whether or not to move the Confederate statue from the Franklin County Courthouse grounds.
Maxwell, a smartphone technician and U.S. Navy veteran, read a proposal to the board “for you guys to create a diversity and inclusion committee.” Other communities have had success forming such committees to create “an environment of involvement, respect and connection.”
After Maxwell’s speech, Blackwater District Supervisor Ronnie Mitchell, who was very enthusiastic about the concept, tracked Maxwell down. “I grabbed him by the shirttail,” Mitchell said.
At the Aug. 18 meeting, Mitchell asked his fellow supervisors to support the committee idea. “No matter what happens with the statue, we’ve got to keep the conversation going,” he said. “I’m willing to take this on myself. I’ve got a group of people that I feel comfortable working with.”
Blue Ridge District Representative Tim Tatum, now the board’s vice chair, expressed support for the committee and ended up joining.
The diversity and inclusion committee is essentially a group of citizens that Mitchell and Tatum are consulting with about a wide variety of diversity-related issues. “Our goal is to try to unify our community,” said Mitchell, who was first elected to the board in 2019. “We need some healing, nationwide, locally.”
Because only two supervisors are taking part, the committee is not subject to the rules of public meetings. Under Virginia law, if three supervisors met it would be considered an official board meeting. Mitchell described it as a private committee.
At the Jan. 19 supervisors’ meeting, he shared the ideas the committee has begun to focus on after months of discussion.
“We’re focusing on community unity,” Mitchell said. “The last couple months have been wonderful. Our group is — what I would call blossoming.”
In the future, the board will need to discuss whether the committee remains private or becomes an official county body.
“What we’re talking about now is the lack of resources for certain citizens in the county,” Mitchell said.
The group has focused on three major issues, he said. “One is youth development. One is small business development. And we want to tackle substance abuse.”
The group imagines the creation of a community center, “somewhere where our youth can go where they can participate in activities, events. We’ve dabbled with the idea of partnering with Parks and Rec, maybe host some things at some of our parks in the county,” he said.
Addressing substance abuse could assist with reducing the county’s high rate of children in foster care and special education day placements, which put a strain on the county’s budget. “I think as leaders of this county, we should try to tackle that in any way that we can,” Mitchell said.
Providing resources for young entrepreneurs interested in founding a business could also be a mission of the center. “It’s still a work in progress.”
Tatum said he was impressed by suggestions committee members brought to reach out to county business leaders with the possibility of creating mentorships for youth. He suggested using the county website as a central resource if these proposed programs become reality. Though he emphasized that the county had no money to spare for funding such programs, he said the committee had not requested any.
The week before the supervisors’ meeting, members of the diversity and inclusion committee gathered on the second floor of Rocky Mount Burger Co., across from the Harvester Performance Center. The casual chat unfolded for at least an hour.
Of the committee’s eight members, five were present. Tatum was unable to attend, so Mitchell led the meeting. With representatives from The Roanoke Times and The Franklin News-Post present, he steered the conversations away from potentially controversial topics, such as the Confederate statue, which supervisors unanimously voted would stay put after a countywide referendum in November overwhelmingly came down on the side of leaving the monument alone.
Activists have criticized the board’s choice to put the matter to a referendum, as Black residents make up about 8% of the county’s population. Mitchell has said he wants that 8% to feel supported by the county, a prime motive for his efforts to form the committee.
Others in attendance included Maxwell, Rocky Mount Church of God senior pastor Robert Meredith and environmental consultant Danielle White. Darnell Moore, an activist and Franklin County Democratic Party board member, participated for a portion of the talks via cellphone speaker. All are county residents.
The group discussed ways this notion of a multipurpose community center could become reality and shared ideas as to who might be contacted to help make this goal possible.
Maxwell said the idea for the committee first came to him as he was contemplating the online petition to have the courthouse statue relocated that was created by his longtime friend Lekeith Tolliver.
“I was of the thought that, that’s nice, but what does it really do in the end?” Maxwell said. “There’s got to be more to it than that. I started brainstorming ideas, and things that could help Franklin County, help all of its residents come together, so we that can get rid of those biases and those stereotypes and those things that we think about each other that we don’t actually know.”
“My desire, being a pastor, is to be the voice to bring faith to the table,” Meredith said. “One of the things I think about is how it only makes us better to hear from people who feel and think differently than we do. It helps us grow. It helps us understand one another. I feel like I’ve learned from Greg, Darnell, Ronnie, Danielle and everyone at the table.”
A biblical perspective suits the committee’s mission, he said. “Jesus has died for everyone. It’s whosoever will, and the openness and the love is for people that are different from me.”
“This is an effort that’s near and dear to my heart, it always has been,” White said. “Recently I have spoken to friends of mine that have talked to me about their decision not to move back to Franklin County. Several of their reasons were they don’t feel that their children can grow up here and have equal opportunity or not be the subject of prejudice, and that broke my heart.”
Regardless of race, sexuality, or other potential differences, “I want to see people feel like they’re welcome here,” she said, “that this can be an all-inclusive place for everyone.”