Today, the Enrichmond Foundation, a local umbrella organization that helps channel charitable funds to area groups, announced that it has acquired Evergreen Cemetery. John Sydnor is executive director.
Its press release states: “Enrichmond is dedicated to making Evergreen’s sacred grounds public and accessible to all – most especially to family members of those interred. The acquisition also represents Enrichmond’s first step in bringing the ‘Four Cemeteries of Evergreen’ under one coordinated restoration effort. For the last year, Enrichmond has applied the same dedication and persistence to the acquisition of East End Cemetery and two Paupers’ cemeteries. More news on this endeavor will be forthcoming.”
It acknowledges, in a remarkable understatement, that “Enrichmond did not arrive here alone nor will we succeed on our own.”
The press release states that Enrichmond’s next chapter “will continue to include many of its amazing volunteers and committed organizations.”
Let’s hope so. I’m frankly more nervous about this transition than I thought I would be.
Update, June 5, 2017:
In an attempt to alleviate some of the concerns arising from Enrichmond’s announcement and its handling of the transfer, the organization posted a Q&A with director John Sydnor on June 1 regarding Evergreen Cemetery. I don’t feel much better.
Sydnor pitches the group as being about much more than the park groups traditionally associated with the organization. He suggests, “When you consider our experience and role as a community nonprofit, we are an ideal entity to manage the repair, preservation, and protection of the four ‘Cemeteries of Evergreen’ for the next generation.”
Leaving aside the questions above regarding Enrichmond’s experience, mission, funding, and leadership, I am never sure what folks mean when they mention “the four ‘Cemeteries of Evergreen.’” The term seems to have emerged with Veronica Davis’s work, incorporating the “Colored Paupers” cemeteries and East End. It was not original to the cemeteries’ founders, as far as I can tell, though there may be some justification for lumping these cemeteries together now.
Back to the issue of Enrichmond’s intended stewardship of Evergreen: Sydnor touts his organization’s intention to have paid employees working on the site, including a volunteer coordinator and a cemetery caretaker. To his credit, Sydnor addresses the elephant in the room head on: the role of the current volunteer groups. Unfortunately, his answer does not clear things up: Q: “Did you work with the volunteer coordinators at the cemeteries before the acquisition? Can you speak to how you might work with them moving forward?” A: “Yes, in fact, the Friends of East End and Friends of Evergreen groups are former Friends groups of ours, under our fiscal sponsorship. We worked with them for almost two years providing administrative support, help coordinating their volunteer efforts, securing State funds, and engaging in community partnerships. They have recently incorporated into their own, independent nonprofit groups and we commend them for taking that step!”
I think this answer overstates Enrichmond’s role in the work of those volunteer groups. The big question is why did those hardworking groups feel the need to incorporate into their own independent entities, rather than continue to work with Enrichmond?
Sydnor offers additional details of his organization’s plans: “We will continue working with the volunteers and volunteer organizations that have been in the cemeteries, but enhance their work with tools, equipment, training, storage, and supplies on site. Over the coming months, our Volunteer Coordinator and Evergreen Caregiver will work together to coordinate regularly scheduled professional maintenance, as well as multiple volunteer efforts. One of our early goals is to build a volunteer and maintenance barn with meeting and educational spaces, bathrooms, and showers.”
The Friends groups already have a fair amount of equipment, and they recently acquired storage units on site. Professional (and sensitive) maintenance of what’s been cleared would be welcome, however, as would bathrooms and educational spaces. I also applaud Sydnor’s announcement that the Chicora Foundation is engaged in a study of the cemetery. Chicora is top-notch for this sort of study.
Sydnor hints at the heavy, though, when he suggests “It’s essential for us to provide a coordinated effort of volunteer and professional maintenance to ensure that the property is correctly and safely restored.”
Let me re-state this plainly in my own words: volunteer groups, such as the current friends, will not be allowed onsite as in the past. Their access to the site and their activities will be regulated. Fair enough in theory, but when you think about what this does to a transformative leader like John Shuck, it is really depressing. I question the motivation of an organization that sets up a volunteer operation involving Evergreen without cooperating with John Shuck and his cohort.
Sydnor concludes, appropriately, by discussing the importance of the descendant community. Toward the goal of engagement, he says “The first opportunity we are scheduling will be our community input meeting with the Chicora Foundation. Depending on when they finish their work in Charleston, SC, they will be returning to Richmond for family and community input sometime near the end of July or early August. Please check our Facebook page for that date, place, and time.”
So we will all want to be there for the opportunity to press for an open process and management style that does not alienate the great gifts we have in the current crop of volunteer leaders.
What a sad state of affairs that Enrichmond has put us in the position of choosing sides here. The community’s history and its future deserve better.