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PHOTOS: Democrats and Republicans join forces at Capitol Classic

While Democrats and Republicans often are at odds at the state Capitol, members of the Senate and House of Delegates from both sides of the aisle fought for the same cause at the Stuart C. Siegel Center Tuesday evening.

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By Tyler Woodall and Nick Versaw – Capital News Service

Virginia government officials participated in the ninth annual Massey Capitol Classic Challenge on Tuesday night at Virginia Commonwealth University.

While Democrats and Republicans often are at odds at the state Capitol, members of the Senate and House of Delegates from both sides of the aisle fought for the same cause at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. Adding to the night’s light-hearted feel, the legislators were joined by former NBA center Ben Wallace, NASCAR driver Elliott Sadler and former VCU Ram and second round NBA draft pick Calvin Duncan.

The atmosphere was electric, as raucous choruses from VCU’s Peppas pep band and Henrico High School’s Marching Warriors echoed throughout the arena.

However, in the shadow of VCU’s 2011 Final Four banner, the action on the court was far from the level normally seen at The Stu.

Although the night was filled with air balls and turnovers, the sloppy play got the job done, as the night’s festivities helped raise more than $23,000 for VCU’s Massey Cancer Center. The largest donations came from Ben and Chandra Wallace, the CSX Corporation, the Sadler family and Capitol lobbyists.

The night’s festivities kicked off in front of a crowd of several hundred as the governor’s staff took on Capitol lobbyists. The lobbyists ultimately took home the bragging rights after winning 45-34.

Shortly after, the Senate won the night’s All-Star Shootout by a commanding 81-19 final score. However, the senators’ joy was short-lived as they were unable to bring that same lights-out shooting to the night’s premiere event.

The House, led by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, came out of the gates with the hot hand, taking a commanding 16-5 halftime lead. However, the first half’s action was less-than-stellar, and one announcer quipped, “That’s 15 minutes we’ll never get back.”

The second half was much of the same, with the exception of Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who came out of the huddle looking to carry his team back from the brink. However, Petersen’s efforts were not enough to carry his Senate colleagues past Sadler and Rasoul-led House.

At the final buzzer, the House came out with a commanding 31-17 victory, with Rasoul being named the game’s MVP.

Rasoul said he was happy to take home the honor in front of the friendly crowd and, for once, to join hands with his opponents across the aisle.

“It was great we got to have a good time and do it all for a good cause,” he said. “The one thing I love about this event is, it’s bipartisan. It’s House vs. Senate, and the more we can do in a bipartisan way, the more fun it is.”

Sadler, who helped Rasoul carry the House to victory Tuesday night, said he relished the opportunity to play at The Stu.

“I could’ve performed a little bit better, but the main thing is it’s for a great cause,” Sadler said. “I’ve been here to watch the Rams play, and it’s neat to be able to come here and play on this floor for such a good cause.”

After taking a moment to let it sink in, he added, “I think I’m undefeated on this floor right now, so that’s pretty cool.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Virginia official says staffers are leaving mental health facilities to work at Chick-fil-A

“Part of it is some of those people do get paid less than you might get in fast food or Target or Walmart or something. And it’s not as stressful,” Littel said, adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”

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At a meeting last week, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel made an eye-opening remark about the state’s understaffed and overstressed mental health facilities.

“We’re losing a lot of people to Chick-fil-A,” Littel told the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care. “And hopefully the budget will help with that.”

The staffing issues in Virginia’s mental-health facilities are no secret, but Littel’s comment stood out as a stark anecdote about the dire working conditions for some state employees helping with the crucial societal task of caring for the mentally ill.

In an interview Tuesday, Littel, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former executive with the Magellan health care company, said broader worker shortages have enabled the fast-food industry and others to offer more appealing jobs to state mental-health workers who have had to show up to relatively low-paying, difficult jobs “all through the pandemic.”

“Part of it is some of those people do get paid less than you might get in fast food or Target or Walmart or something. And it’s not as stressful,” Littel said, adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”

He said he was mostly referring to workers who may be in housekeeping or direct support staff roles and might make around $13 to $18 an hour. Recent Virginia job postings for Chick-fil-A, which advertises all workers get Sundays off when its restaurants are closed, offered similar pay, with some locations offering starting pay of $15 an hour.

According to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, average pay for entry-level direct care jobs currently ranges from a little under $12 an hour to about $17 an hour, which works out to roughly $24,700 to $35,500 per year.

Broader worker shortages, Littel said, have prompted the fast-food industry to get more aggressive on raising pay and sign-on bonuses. He said he couldn’t venture a guess at the number of state employees who have left for fast-food jobs.

“I’m just sort of referencing the anecdotes I hear from people,” he said, specifying he was making an “illustrative point” that wasn’t meant as a shot at Chick-fil-A.

Littel said he’s hopeful the upcoming state budget compromise will include significant new investments that will allow for better pay and conditions for the mental health workforce.

“The people that work in the system are all heroes,” he said. “For people to choose that as a specialty and commit to that, that’s really important. They’re not what’s wrong with the system.”

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Local Asian American Society of Central Virginia to host author and artist of new book

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

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The Asian American Society of Central Virginia (AASoCV) will host a local author and artist this weekend to present their new book, Portraits of Immigrant Voices, at its 24th annual Asian America Celebration tomorrow.

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

Alfonso Pérez Acosta painted the original portraits while Joe Kutchera wrote the personal histories. The author’s proceeds will benefit Afghan and Asian refugees who have settled in Virginia in a fund set up and managed by The Asian American Society of Central Virginia, a non-profit charitable 501(c)(3) organization.

The event is free and open to the general public. The pair will present the book on stage at 2pm and immediately following, AASoCV will host a book signing at 2:30pm. The book will be on sale for $40 at the event.

The 24th Annual Asian American Celebration features cultural performances, food, hands-on activities, exhibition booths, and merchandise from the Asian American communities in Central Virginia. This year’s theme is “weddings and our heritage.” The Celebration will take place at the Greater Richmond Convention Center at 403 North Third Street, Richmond VA 23219 from 11am to 7pm.

Learn more here.

The introduction to the book follows below:

Stories of Gratitude, Progress, and Manifesting Dreams

By Joe Kutchera

During the fall of 2020, following the George Floyd protests along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, I saw an African American woman wearing a t-shirt with this message in bold letters.

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.

As a (white) writer, I was stunned at how one sentence could leave me speechless and make me feel such a wide range of emotions. At first, I felt infinitesimally small, humbled by the brutal African American history behind that sentence, reflecting the violence and intimidation that Black Americans experienced during slavery and Jim Crow, which kept them from America’s prosperity. And seconds later, the sentence made me feel incredibly hopeful as it communicated that great progress and change is indeed possible, measured through a multi-generational lens, taking into account the sacrifice and suffering of previous generations. The formerly wild dream of freedom and opportunity is now, we hope, finally possible for African Americans today, though we still have a long way to go to ensure equitable outcomes for all Americans.

Many Americans may know Richmond, Virginia (RVA) for its history as the capital of the Confederacy with its Civil War Museum and the now-removed statues of Robert E. Lee and Confederate generals along Monument Avenue. The ugly history of slavery and the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ permeate so much of the city, but a more complex and hopeful picture of its citizens is emerging.

In decades past, a majority of RVA’s population has been Black, with Whites representing most of the remainder of its population. Yet, a more multicultural, and even international population, is growing out of RVA’s Black and White history. The 2020 Census shows that RVA’s African American population fell below 50%, while its White population increased as a result of gentrification. Blacks appear to have left Richmond City for the suburbs (Henrico and Chesterfield Counties), where the Black population increased. Yet, the Asian and Hispanic/Latino population grew by double digits in Richmond City, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, and the people who selected “some other race” and “two or more races” grew by triple digits. This reflects an increase in children of interracial couples, immigrants from Africa (distinct from African Americans), as well as ‘mestizos,’ or people of mixed races, from Latin America. However small those populations might be now, the growth rates indicate that RVA, like the rest of the country, is becoming much more diverse.

With this in mind, I am grateful to be working with the Asian American Society of Central Virginia in sponsoring the publication of this book. AASoCV represents 18 diverse Asian communities that have stood up against racism and xenophobia, as described by AASoCV’s chair, Julie Laghi, in the foreword. AASoCV provides a perfect example of how people from vastly different language groups can come together to build community and cultural bridges, thereby promoting tolerance and diversity.

AASoCV has enabled me and the team involved behind this book to take this project to the next level, furthering our mission to share immigrant stories and reflect on how they embody the American dream. Tida Tep, the daughter of Pim Bhut, featured on page 70, joins us to visually bring these stories into the printed medium.

Our project initially began in an organic way. In August 2020, around the time that I saw the “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream” t-shirt, I received a call from Karla Almendarez-Ramos, who manages the City of Richmond’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Engagement (OIRE). She asked me if I would be interested in and available to write profiles of immigrants as a celebration for National Immigrants’ Day on October 28, 2020. Richmond-based Colombian artist, teacher and muralist, Alfonso Pérez Acosta, had pitched the idea to Karla after crafting his initial computer-drawn portraits.

I immediately told her yes, that I would love to work on the project. I have written about and reflected on the subject of immigrants’ journeys previously, both interviewing recent immigrants and researching my own ancestors immigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. My wife, Lulu, migrated from Mexico, to join me in Richmond in 2013. And previously, I had migrated to Mexico and the Czech Republic for work, during different chapters of my life. As a result, I also understand the immense challenges that immigrants face when moving to a new country.

National Immigrants’ Day has been celebrated since 1986, but mostly in places like New York City. We wanted to bring this celebration to Richmond, Virginia to highlight the diversity of its community and the variety of languages spoken (in addition to English). With the support of a grant from Virginia Humanities, we unveiled the portraits on October 28th, National Immigrants Day, on RVAStrong.org/portraits and published updates regularly through Thanksgiving, to honor our subject’s themes of gratitude. The exhibit’s social media campaign ran through December 18th, which the United Nations has named International Migrants Day as a testament to humanity’s “will to overcome adversity and live a better life.”

Many of the people we featured came as migrants initially, moving to the U.S. temporarily for work or educational opportunities. While others came as refugees, fleeing war and violence. And still others came here simply because they fell in love with an American! Yet, they all became immigrants when they decided to settle down permanently in the United States.

Each portrait features the subject’s name, country of origin, and language, written in both English and their respective language. To create the color behind each portrait, Alfonso blended all the colors from each subject’s flag of their home country to formulate that single, albeit blended color. For example, the red and white in the Swiss flag become pink behind Dominik Meier’s portrait (on page 62). I wrote personal histories to accompany each portrait to shed light on the challenges of migration and displacement, as well as explore the commonalities of learning to speak English and integrating into American culture. Their stories showcase the incredible creativity and ingenuity of these immigrants in overcoming numerous obstacles in their journey, some of whom have gone on to start companies and obtain graduate degrees.

In speaking with everyone we featured in this book, they have taught me how Richmond is a far more diverse and dynamic city than I ever realized. They truly appreciate America’s freedom, democracy, and the way that their neighbors have accepted them. As a result, I see Richmond and the United States through their eyes. In listening to their stories, I get the sense that they, too, have accomplished their dreams, and in some cases, even their ancestors’ wildest dreams.

“Virginia is for lovers. … But we need to keep that slogan alive,” says Mahmud Chowdhury, originally from Bangladesh (#19 in the series), referring to the state motto of Virginia. “Let’s continue to love each other, be our brother’s keeper and have each other’s back,” says Hannah Adesina, from Nigeria (#17 in the series). Immigrants are here “to demonstrate the best of ourselves, manifest our hopes and dreams,” says Brenda Aroche, from Guatemala (#13 in the series). And Ping Chu from China (#12 in the series) encourages us all in saying, “We need to build up a united country. This is the United States, right?”

The United States has an individualistic culture with an “I” oriented English language. Even though that is the case, the immigrants featured in this book have taught me that when we work together and support one another, WE can become our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

When Chinese New Year celebrations took place on February 1, 2022, the same day that Black History Month began, I learned that 2022 was the year of the tiger. I realized that 2022 couldn’t be a more perfect year for us to launch this book with a symbol of bravery, courage, and strength on our side.

Joe Kutchera is the author of four books and the founder of Latino Link Advisors where he develops digital marketing and content strategies, with an emphasis in reaching the U.S. Hispanic market.

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Suspension Bridge to Belle Isle Closed Today

The bridge should be completed by the weekend.

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The suspension pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle is temporarily closed due to concrete falling from Lee Bridge.

The closure took place Wednesday after city officials received reports of concrete pieces being found on the pedestrian bridge.

“It was concluded that the concrete pieces fell from an open joint of the Lee Bridge. Consequently, the pedestrian bridge located directly under the open joint had to be closed in an effort to protect the public,” a release said.

While the engineers say there is no serious danger they’re putting in a scaffolding protection system along some stretches of the bridge. The installation is taking place today (Thursday) and is expected to be done Friday.

Dominion RiverRock is this weekend and temperatures are in expected in the upper 90’s so usage of the bridge and Belle Isle will be at a season-high.

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