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SeroTunein Epidose 8: Having Skin in the Game

LISTEN TO EPIDOSE 9: Having Skin in the Game


SeroTuneIn is an audio experience about replacing negative thoughts with positive thinking and solutions to help adults and adolescents navigate through their thoughts, their aspirations, their frustrations, and their self-awareness. By combining music from local artists and affirmations from real individuals, the show aims to initiate positive moods among individuals to get their dose of motivation for the day. The goal of this show is to serve as a pick-me-up for someone who is having a bad day, and thus, to prevent him or her from dwelling on their situation, they can turn to this experience to get the inspiration they need.


This week’s episode we learn about Vinegar Hill: the infamous story of eminent domain that eradicated a thriving African-American community in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this episode, we talk to two changemakers, Yolunda Harrell, the CEO of New Hill Development Corporation, and Bernard Whitsett, a financial coach for Operation HOPE, to learn about the structural changes needed for black people in America and how they’re working to make them a reality.


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Artwork by Natalie R. Matthews

Music by Kurien Thomas and Hamza Mir

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Kurien: We all know the world has been shaken by social unrest...a pandemic followed by a global wave of protests. When you hear about the repercussions of growing social and economic disparities among our own people, anyone can feel like losing all hope.

Welcome to another epidose of SeroTunein, where we understand wellness by listening to changemakers and how they serve the broader community. I’m Kurien Thomas. Today on the show, how a group of people in Charlottesville, Virginia are trying to transform hopelessness into hopefulness.

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Bernard: Growing up in Charlottesville, which is really part of the South, there are really only two types of people... and those are black people and white people... and/or the Haves and the Have Nots.

I can remember as a child when we would go and get Sunday Easter clothes... Every year my mother would buy us new clothes for Easter. We would go to the store and we would be in the back of the store and they would bring things that she wanted them to bring for us to look at. You couldn't try them on, you could only look at them. That is etched in my memory as a’s like one of those things that made you realize that you were different.

We lived probably 8 8 minute walk from Vinegar Hill.


On the eve of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, African Americans constituted the majority of the population in Charlottesville, Virginia. Former slaves began settling there after the Civil War, hopeful that home ownership would guarantee progress for them and their families. The neighborhood of “Vinegar Hill”, falling between the downtown shopping district and the University of Virginia’s campus, became a focal point for African American residential and social life as well as an economic center for black-owned businesses.

Bernard: I can remember as a child walking to the barbershop… walking to school at Jefferson Elementary School... walking to the grocery store… all that was around the Vinegar Hill area.

Yolunda: When Vinegar Hill was probably at its peak, it had about 40 businesses along the business corridor and it had hundreds of homes. Not all of those businesses were black-owned, but a good majority of them were and at that time some of the covenants and deed restrictions said that black folks could only own black businesses in black neighborhoods, so this was where they could have those businesses. You also had a neighborhood that was surrounding that big business district where you had black homeownership. Then you had also in that area you had white folks that were landlords and pretty much slumlords in that area.

So, for years, Vinegar Hill along with other black communities had been requesting from the city to be able to get utility services just like the white communities were receiving in their neighborhood and they were being denied.

Kurien: In 1960, the City of Charlottesville called for policies of urban renewal. So, the city, the chamber, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, as well as the University of Virginia led the charge of essentially targeting all the black communities to be razed, or demolished, because they were seen as what they called were ‘blighted communities’.

Yolunda: Ultimately, what it translated to back then is that these are places that white people did not want around....It wasn't as though all of the homes in Vinegar Hill were horrible or deplorable homes— the ones that were in the slumlord areas were, and those were typically white-owned areas. However, those were the areas that were utilized to create the reasoning behind why this was necessary. What they went on to do was they decided we're going to put this to a vote. We're going to stick a poll tax on it.

Kurien: Poll taxes were essentially a voting fee that began in the 1890s as a legal way to keep African Americans from voting in southern states. Eligible voters were required to pay their poll tax before they could cast a ballot. In the case of Vinegar Hill, the city decided to make that poll tax high enough such that most black people are not going to be able to afford to pay it. It's like a check-the-box kind of situation. Sure, the city lets the community vote on it, but ultimately when you put that poll tax on there, you know that a certain portion of the community to be affected by it is not going to be able to afford it. So therefore, you have rigged the game to make sure that the vote goes your way.

Yolunda: As a result, eminent domain was declared…

They built public housing, and so what they did is they took the land, they razed all the homes — meaning they tore down the businesses...the majority of them. What they offered black people was to move into public housing. You know some people will say why couldn’t they just move someplace else? Well let's think about that. During that time period, there were also deed restrictions that said blacks and whites cannot sell to each other. It wasn't a matter that someone could just relocate to another area. If you could not live in that area, you could not live in that area. Also when you think about the fact that if you were in the middle paying a mortgage, and you had your property snatched from you, and you get pennies on the dollar for it? I mean that was just money lost. Your wealth was snatched from you, and then imagine it even further. What if you owned a business and live in the same community? You lost your business and you lost your home.

...So what they did is that it forced a lot of black people to move away because they saw this as a community that continuously at every turn was going to come and attack their wealth and their stability and their ability to grow and to be seen as equals in this community.

Kurien: That's one of the things that plagues the African-American community still. If African Americans were children then and they know what happened, and they know that not only did that land get taken, which was supposed to be for some type of public good... once it was taken, once they mowed it down, then it sat for 20 years untouched. Nothing was done. Nothing was done to make usable for any type of public good. Though, that all became owned by private entities and so it certainly did not serve the purpose for which the guys under which the land was taken. The value of this Vinegar Hill land today – just the percentage that was owned by African Americans – is estimated at $80-100 million.

Yolunda: At the end of the day, it wasn’t good intention. Their intentions were to drive black people out of the community….it certainly wasn’t good intentions for the black community. It was designed specifically to extract wealth and to demoralize, and to ultimately ensure that the resources that folks are competing over— that the black community was taken out of the equation. And so when you look at the fact that a lot of people were then moved into public housing then you create a generational poverty…

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Generational poverty is a very real thing facing Americans, especially African Americans.

According to data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), the typical black family has just 1/10th the wealth of the typical white one. In 1863, black Americans owned one-half of 1 percent of the national wealth. Today it’s just over 1.5 percent for roughly the same percentage of the overall population. The cause of that stagnation has largely been invisible, hidden by the assumption of progress after the end of slavery and the achievements of civil rights.

But even after slavery, the government has historically not allowed Black Americans to build their lives or their own wealth—it has legally denied them the right to vote, get an education, or own homes and businesses.

Yolunda: How do we fundamentally change that? How do we ship that? How do we create more opportunity and more avenues for individuals to be able to access that wealth? Well, that's extremely difficult when the cost of land in our area is so tremendously high...When you look at a lot of our assistance in Charlottesville, they’re geared towards the very poor individuals. So you got the folks that fall right outside of that, how do they get to the next level? How did they get to a place of ownership?

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Kurien: That’s where New Hill comes in...

Yolunda: We are a black-led organization that is specifically focused on the black community to say, “hey you got to figure out better ways to ensure that more people are able to enjoy this community in a way that does not break their back in order to be able to do that”.

Kurien: That’s Yolunda Harrell— She’s the CEO of New Hill, a Community Development Corporation focused on building financial resilience, economic opportunity and affordable housing in the Greater Charlottesville black community.

Yolunda: I have been involved with New Hill since its inception...New Hill Development Corporation came about because a group of American business leaders as well as entrepreneurs were brought together by two council members that were looking at the landscape of developers in Charlottesville and the lack of diversity. Anyone that was focusing on affordable housing, all of that was being led by white men. So, the question came to them was why is that? Why can't we have others that are focused on that are African-American to focus on this as well not just in a role within the organization, but leading the work.

...then it transitioned into this opportunity that existed within the city in the Starr Hill Neighborhood in the form of the footprint of Vinegar Hill where the city owns 10 acres of land that is grossly underutilized...we need to do something with this. The city led the way of taking land, homes, and businesses from the African-American community of Charlottesville, this would be a great way for the city to begin to heal some of those wounds that it had inflicted on its community members in the past. Also, it would be a way for it to build wealth within the African-American community.

Kurien: So, how do people build wealth in a community?

Yolunda: We know that home ownership is a huge part of that, we also know that business ownership is a big part of that, we also know that individuals and their own personal income from their salaries is a big part of that as well. But we also wanted to look beyond just the wealth of financial, but also include the wealth of social, community, and belongingness...When you talk to a lot of African Americans or black people in general that live in Charlottesville, either the ones that are from Charlottesville or ones that are new to Charlottesville. One of the recurring things that you will hear is that we don't have a place to gather, we don't have social outlets, we don't have ways to connect with other individuals that are doing similar things that we’re doing or ways to collaborate. It's not that coworking spaces or social halls that are white-owned do not extend invitations for participation, but at the end of the day what we are looking for is our own space— where we are free to express ourselves in a manner that we feel like we are not being judged, or we’re being understood, and a space that was curated with us in mind.

Kurien: A space that was curated with black people in mind is what motivated Yolunda and her team to co-create with Charlottesville residents, the Starr Hill Small Area Plan, a vision to guide the future development of Charlottesville’s Starr Hill neighborhood that would create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable living space for the African-American community. How were they going to do that? To start off, financial inclusion and financial empowerment.

Yolunda: Ultimately we live in a capitalist society. We have to better manage our position in that and be able to understand the rules of that game, and be able to participate in it. Now, do we know that that system hasn’t always worked for us? Absolutely. Does it have racist systems within it? Absolutely. However, there are things that we can do that can allow us to be in a better position to thrive in it.

Bernard: Over the last few years we've been losing freedoms and a large percentage of it has to do with the increasing wealth of the ultra-wealthy. So, getting from one rung of the ladder to the next is just a huge leap now.

Kurien: That’s Bernard Whitsett. After having spent his career in investment banking, he serves as a financial coach for an organization called Operation HOPE, one of New Hill’s most powerful partners.

Bernard: I consider myself to be an advisor, consultant, but in essence, I'm a coach, I'm an encourager…

Kurien: Bernard works with New Hill clients to help educate people to take control of their finances, running credit and money management workshops for members of the community to learn about creating a budget, reducing and paying off debt, and clearing errors from their credit reports.

Bernard: We’re going out, we’re presenting workshops in the community to try to get people to think about how can they improve their can they budget... I not only talked about how can you reduce your expenses, but I try to get them to look at how can we bring in more income?

Kurien: Another way Bernard helps communities make investments beneficial for their future, such as homeownership. He helps guide clients on the journey to home ownership, from funding their first home to overcoming a variety of common barriers, including bad credit or a lack of down payment.

Yolunda: We wanted to focus on helping to create a better understanding around finances and money and the impact of your credit score on, not only just your ability to purchase or your buying power, but also on your career. Many businesses, companies, and organizations are running your credit to determine whether or not they're going to hire you. So, a lot of individuals don't realize that's going to be part of the equation, and so we don't want individuals to miss out on opportunity as a result of that.

Yolunda: The next thing we wanted to look at was economic development. How do we change the social fabric of Charlottesville so that you can see more public-facing black owned businesses, but not only public facing, but just want more black-owned businesses in general?

Yolunda: One of the things that is challenging within Charlottesville is that there's a lot of people with bright ideas, but rents are so high... that a lot of businesses are not able to get off the ground... and then there's the other issue of capital...You have microlenders... the next thing thing becomes like the banks or becomes other investors… and so the banks, oftentimes, they don't want to make those loans that are under $100,000... a lot of them have not been interested in making those smaller loans...So, part of our work is to create a way for us to be able to gain more capital, working with philanthropist in our community, working in looking at whatever grant we can pool funds together, so that we can then be able to invest in businesses that really have the potential to really lift and expand... often times within the black community, you may see us having service-oriented businesses...nothing wrong with those businesses, I love those businesses...they’re needed... however, that doesn't mean that that was all that business owner ever dreamed about. That's as far as their capital went. Because they don't have rich family members with a lot of extra money laying around to be able to donate. And, they also don't have safety nets, so that if a business doesn't go as planned that they have the safety net again provided by family or friends that will help them. So our goal is to say, not only do we want to be able to get the money, but we want the educational pieces are there, the resources are there for that business to start, but also for that business to grow and for the business to sustain.

Kurien: How do you work with people to make it seem like these things aren’t impossible?

Bernard: <Success Story 1>

Yolunda: Visual symbols are extremely important. Let's say...we’ll just take a little girl for instance. If she never sees a woman doing things that she wants to do, then she may grow up with this idea that women can't do that. The same thing happens if you don't see other black people doing things that are very intentional and purposeful with a level of success, then you may tend to feel like that the only people that can be successful in doing that are people who don't look like us. So, we wanted to be extremely intentional because there's so many successful black people not just from a job perspective, but from a mental, emotional, a health perspective.

Kurien: How has New Hill been empowering African American business community right now?

Yolunda: Our goal is to create a pipeline that still allows you to go mainstream. But let's start in an incubator, let's get you a smaller space that is shared by others where you can have retail space, coworking space, you can have your own kitchen, or access to a kitchen, where you can sell your wares. You can do it for much less than what you can do on your own if we do it together....

...So, now when you're ready to get that means free you know space you're you're you're ready to go. The other things that covid-19 has taught us is that we also need to be thinking about all the ways that we get our money... What does our online presence look like? What does e-commerce look like for your business?...How do they do business with you?...

We’re looking at this as we have got to be creative... we can also look at what are other assets out there that individuals can own besides a home that will give them passive income coming to their buy a home in a city where it's a lot more affordable based on your current level of income that you get from renting that particular unit out in a different city now helps to subsidize that your cost of living here in Charlottesville. This may be ultimately where you want to live, but it may not only be where you can afford to live...

Bernard: If people are making a decent wage, and they’re able to live in a decent place, there’s little reason to go out and try to steal something because all of your basic needs are being met...and in fact some of your wants are being met as well. So now when you’re having people that are making a decent wage, they’re now creating ownership, so they have skin in the, there’s going to be a totally different incentive on how to care for the property and how to look out for your neighbors…there’s going to be less a need for policing.

Kurien: How has this situation magnified the work that needs to be done?

Yolunda: So, this moment that so many are experiencing... I am happy that it is a wake-up moment for those who are asleep, and hopefully they don’t fall back to sleep and that they become really intentional about learning what it is that black people especially but then other members of color...what they go through in our country...and how are experiences are extremely different.


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Kurien: Regardless as to whether one considers themselves black or white, if they have skin of hue or melanin, they should not be a target in this society.

The issues of racism and social inequality that have been brought into the limelight through the horrible deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, the KKK rallies in Charlottesville, and countless other stories of racial injustice, all of this just magnifies the work that MUST be done to protect and empower the people in our society.

Thank you guys so much for listening, that wraps up another epidose of Serotunein. Once again, my guests today were Yolunda Harrell and Bernard Whitsett.

You can go check out New Hill Development Corporation’s work by heading to their website which is Be sure to support their cause, I put a link in their description where you can donate to them to support their work in creating opportunities of upward mobility for the Greater Arican-American community in Charlottesville.

SeroTunein is recorded, edited, and produced by myself. If you like this show, you can find the podcast online at, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and iTunes. Please be sure to subscribe to the podcast, and please be sure to rate it and leave a comment to share what you enjoyed or how I should improve. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. You can follow the show updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or on my website which is also linked.

Until next time, this is Kurien Thomas. As always, thanks for tuning in.

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