An Interview with Lea Whitehurst-Gibson

September 30, 2021

The past year has brought with it many changes. In addition to the pandemic, we have experienced civil and racial unrest unlike any we’ve seen for decades. Lea Whitehurst-Gibson is Executive Director of Virginia Community Voice, an organization that’s part of RMHF’s Health Equity Action Leadership (HEAL) initiative. We sat down [virtually] with Lea to talk about her organization’s work in the community, how she and her team are bringing striving communities into conversations that impact them, and why it is time for all of us to think about funding and fundraising in new ways.  


Lea, we are excited to have Virginia Community Voice as a partner in the Health Equity Action Leadership (HEAL) cohort. What are you enjoying about the work of the HEAL Initiative and your relationship with your colleagues? 

There are many things HEAL is offering that are energizing me. For Virginia Community Voice, the connections with Peter Paul and Sacred Heart Center have been great. Those organizations have been around a lot longer than we have, and so learning from leaders like Damon Jiggetts and Tanya Gonzalez has been really helpful. And we’re doing things that are different from what both of them do, too. We are able to learn a lot from each other and what each of us has tried before. It’s a very synergistic space.

On a personal level, being able to connect with other leaders of color, and be very real about all that is happening in our communities, has been one of the biggest benefits for me. It’s very nice to be in a space where we’re all learning together and supporting each other. 


You have years of experience in community organizing aimed at strengthening Richmond’s diverse communities. Tell us about Virginia Community Voice and its vision for the Richmond community. 

At Virginia Community Voice, our vision is to see a Commonwealth of Virginia where decisions are made equitably. We know that’s a really big vision. We know it’s going to take a long time to get to that kind of equity in our state. But we believe that it can be done. 

The way we move toward our vision is by helping marginalized communities move toward their vision for their neighborhoods. We are focused on people who have been historically left out of the conversation, who have historically been pushed aside. Our goal is making sure that those people are at the center of solution-making for the things that have been problems in our communities for a really long time but have gone without any real change or solutions.


How are you working with Richmond’s communities to move toward the vision of an equitable Commonwealth? 

We have two programs that support our vision. Our first program is RVA Thrives, which was how we really got started in the community. It was the first thing we were doing before we officially became Virginia Community Voice. RVA Thrives spends time working with communities to make sure that when things are happening that impact them, they know about it. Through our Community Voice Process, we are listening to the community, connecting them around the things they really want to see done, and then working with them to craft equitable solutions to the problems they see. 

Our second program is Community Voice Blueprint, and it’s the model we use for community engagement. We wrote it, and anyone can go to our website and download the blueprint and use it for free. 


What sparked the development of the Community Voice Blueprint?

What we found was that it was hard to find a place where the processes for community engagement and organizing had been written down in a coherent, cohesive way. So that’s what our blueprint does. It acts as a guide for how to do community engagement effectively in the field. I think that’s one reason organizations outside of Richmond and Virginia are seeking us out and showing interest. The problems and issues of marginalization don’t stop at state lines. 

I think organizations also appreciate having a model rooted in practice. This past year has increased interest in diversity, equity and inclusion work. But what makes us a bit different from other DEI consultants is that our work is grounded in practice. It’s not just teaching a theoretical model, it’s a model we’re utilizing every single day in the work we’re doing. 


What role do businesses and institutions play in bringing about an equitable Virginia?

The second part of our mission is to prepare institutions to respond effectively to communities’ needs and visions for themselves. We do that through our Blueprint, and through our training and coaching programs. We know that organizational change and embedding equity into institutions takes time, and that’s why we offer both training and coaching. 

Our training helps organizations to understand why community engagement should be embedded into their processes, and why people who have been historically marginalized are part of the answer to getting to equity in our communities. But our organizational coaching is the place where we feel that the most change can happen within an organization. We work with leaders to identify and overcome impediments to equitable community engagement, so they can have a more equitable process internally, thus contributing to change externally as well. 


What types of organizations do you work with?

Since we started doing our trainings a year and a half ago, we have trained over 300 people across 150 different organizations. We work with organizations in industries from higher education to government to nonprofits, so the spectrum is pretty wide. Geographically, the organizations that seek out our training are all over the country. So we’re starting to see that people find value in our model, even outside of Virginia. And it makes sense because the model itself is really an old model. From the Civil Rights Movement to the Women’s Movement, community organizing has been a tool that marginalized communities have used to make their voices heard for generations. 


This past year has made so many types of engagement difficult. How has your community engagement work adapted in response to the pandemic? In response to racial unrest?

When the pandemic hit and many types of racial reckoning came to a head at the same time, we had lots of conversations among our staff about what our response should be. Our organization is run by women of color, and women in general. So we wanted our response to be meaningful, and to be backed up by something real. And that’s really how our racial equity training was born, and honestly, it’s my favorite training that we do. 

From a community engagement perspective, having to do our community organizing work in a virtual space has been the biggest challenge of the pandemic for us, because organizing is about deep connection and connecting the community to one another. We thought, whoa, what do we do now? We did bring our work into virtual spaces, but another thing that our staff and community advocates did was start checking in with their neighbors over the phone and through text. And if people needed masks or hand sanitizer or anything, we would drop it off in their mailboxes. If there were people who couldn’t connect digitally, we would drop off paper copies and agendas. So it wasn’t only us connecting with people in a virtual space or during a meeting. 

It was difficult to engage people this past year. Our community was very worried. But our goal as an organization is to bring people in and make sure they know their voice matters, and make sure they are at the center of solutions. And that’s a catalyst for engagement long-term, right? Ultimately, when people know they matter, they stay. And so what we found is that we didn’t really lose people during the pandemic. We actually gained quite a bit of engagement, especially from our Latino and Latina brothers and sisters. 


As an organization, Virginia Community Voice is also bringing inclusion and engagement to the world of philanthropy. How are you thinking differently about fundraising?

Historically, philanthropy has been dominated by older, wealthier, white men and the institutions they run, so we are committed to challenging the traditional ways we think about fundraising, even if it causes discomfort. To help do that, we have developed what we call our Courageous Fundraising Principles, which are our statements of how we steward resources more equitably, and an invitation to talk about the limits of philanthropy, and how racism, paternalism and white supremacy show up in fundraising today. We need a new mindset for fundraising that is holistic, community centered and rooted in abundance, not scarcity. The principles are about making investments in Virginia Community Voice more democratic and open to more people, especially BIPOC, and they are about trusting BIPOC, and women, to know what is needed in their communities and to use funds in ways that produce change. 


Why is it so critical that funders and investors support civic engagement, community organizing policy and advocacy efforts that are rooted in racial equity?

The IRS requires private foundations to distribute at least 5% of the fair market value of their assets each year. And when you look at the money being granted, less than 10% of that 5% is going to Black organizations run by Black and Brown people. We can do more. We can increase that percentage. 

But that takes trust, right? And trust can be a scary thing. It takes believing that the things we’re doing really are going to bring about change in our communities. That’s where those Courageous Fundraising Principles come into play. Our first Courageous Fundraising Principle is that we trust BIPOC people. There needs to be an understanding that we are the vessels that allow the work to go forward. Trusting us and believing that the things we do will lead to outcomes that we’ll all benefit from as a society, is a really important part of how change is going to happen. 



We are so grateful for Lea and the important work she and her team are doing in the community. 


Bio – Lea Whitehurst-Gibson

Lea Whitehurst-Gibson is the executive director of Virginia Community Voice, an organization that equips neighbors in marginalized communities to realize their vision for their neighborhoods, and prepares institutions to respond effectively. Lea is an experienced community organizer, and has held leadership roles in several non-profits, including Thriving Cities Group and Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities. Her current organization, Virginia Community Voice is an RMHF Health Equity Action Leadership (HEAL) grantee, HEArts, and Racial Equity grantee.