Text By: Dontrese Brown & Craig Martin
Photographs By: Kimberly Frost
In memory of Representative John Lewis and Arthur Ashe
Louisville to Richmond
Craig Martin, Co-Host The Good Road
Dontrese, we’re out there at the VMFA [Virginia Museum of Fine Art] on a very cold day with Kehinde Wiley behind us watching our every move. First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and who you are.
Dontrese Brown, Executive Coach, Public Speaker, Activist
Well, yeah, I don’t know how far we want to go back, but you know, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky…born and raised there in the inner city streets, made my way around a little bit. Undergraduate in Kentucky and master’s in Kentucky made my way to Savannah College of Art Design and got my master’s there. So my background is in creative branding, marketing strategy. And I’ve been in the corporate world for a while and decided that I wanted to do something a little bit more intentional. Like, I started to want my work to mean something and do something. And I took a job here. Ironically, for Capital One, you probably say, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem like it, you know, fits within doing intentional work within the community.’ But, I was hired to lead the creative for the banking side of the business, and financial literacy in inner city communities is always something I’ve been passionate about being someone that grew up in those communities. And, once I landed here in Richmond, I had no idea, you know, Richmond wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t like a destination place for me to go. I only knew one thing about it and that was Arthur Ashe. And so when I got here, I was like let me sink my boots in and really try to get involved with the community, See who’s doing what, the movers and shakers and the community influencers and leaders and I did since day one.
Once I stepped on the land here it’s just been, doing purposeful work. So I’m excited about what you and I can continue to do here…what we can collectively do as a city and a state in a region to make some movement.
Yeah. So when I moved in this neighborhood 20 years ago, it was and always had been the Boulevard, a street with no name. A lot of city streets in Richmond are like that. Tell me about the idea of changing the name and then how you made that happen. That blows me away.
It was totally a collective, collaborative event. One of my good friends is David Harris, who is Arthur Ashe’s nephew. My business partner. Hezekiah and David grew up together. And so David went to Hezekiah and said, ‘Hey, I need a T-shirt that says something about Arthur Ashe Boulevard.’ And, he [Hezakiah] say’s let’s bring Dontrese into this conversation.
So it’s my first time meeting David and we were talking about it. And I was like, we were like, This is more than a t- shirt. This is something that we can really take by the horns and show what can be accomplished when you are inclusive in the community by bringing them in. And so with that, I mean, it was like every Wednesday night in my dining room, it was me, Hezekiah, David and some other folks on our team, from 6:00 until literally two in the morning strategizing how we’re going to do this, who we’re going to involve making sure the right people were connected. Of course, you could feel some type of energy in the city, or at least I did, not being from here. That was inspiring to keep us on track with this. So, we started the initiative and within six months it was approved by City Council.
Wow, that’s unusual.
Yeah but, we had probably three or four town halls and that’s when you really start to feel this is something big, like the community was really inspired by it. And so it was voted and approved on February the 19th, 2019. We met with Mayor [Levar] Stoney and his team and he put a team together and we met probably every other Tuesday, just kind of strategizing what we’re going to do.
And Mayor Stoney was like, ‘OK. You got approval. So, what are you going to do?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘we’ll get back to you.’
We came up with a three day celebration of community events, social justice events, an unveiling event in partnership with the VMFA and the VMHC [Virginia Museum of History & Culture], which is right down there [pointing north from the VMFA] our keynote speaker who was the late, great John Lewis. It was just unbelievable. The energy within the city over those three days. It was ridiculous. I’ve never witnessed anything like that.
It’s super powerful and it represents his legacy [Arthur Ashe], represents something hugely important in this city.
We’re going to always be remembered for this boulevard and the domino effect that it started with everything. And that’s just such an amazing feeling to have when you think about it.
And the beauty of it to me is when revolution, I call it a revolution, happens and a progressive movement takes root in a city just mired down in some really bad history…when it takes root, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, you know, 10, 15 years, right? It all happened so quickly? It’s like a light switch is flipped. And, we’re on this progressive movement. I feel where we can do some things together black and white to make the city better and to be a leader around the world, right?
No question. I always would tell the team, ‘this is not an initiative. This is a movement.’ When we started to see how energized the city was, it was packed here. Hundreds and hundreds of people were here to celebrate the unveiling of Arthur Ashe Boulevard in front of the VMHC. You could feel it was a movement. One of my most exciting points is when Jamie Bosket, who is the CEO of the VMHC, was speaking last.
The tarps were pulled off and he was actually going to say something and invite people to continue to hang around and go into the museum. Once the tarps were pulled off the crowd was just,
like, they felt such empowerment. They just stormed down the stairs of the VMFA and walked into a building that would talk about the history of racism and segregation and slavery. You could just feel like there’s a change to come. There’s something happening here where all these community members just felt empowered to grace those stairs. Look at the signs and then entered into a museum where years ago they would not feel comfortable going into it.
You reference the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. This is right down there. Having been in there many times and seeing the slave shackles, it’s so poignant that all of this is right here.
Dontrese, as a resident, as a Richmond resident, thank you and thank you for making this boulevard into something that’s a legacy.