Personality: Connie McGowan

Spotlight on organizer of RVA Community Unity

7/29/2016, 5:52 p.m.
Connie McGowan was devastated after the shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile ...

Connie McGowan was devastated after the shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.

She also was disturbed by the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas a day later by an Army veteran. But not for long.

Three days after the series of violence that rocked the nation July 5 through 7, Ms. McGowan organized RVA Community Unity “Shootout” in Richmond’s Byrd Park, a community event attended by about 1,200 people, including local police officers.

The purpose of the July 10 event was “to connect the community through fun and creative events that capture and promote communication, collaboration, love and unity among state and city elected officials, police, churches and businesses,” Ms. McGowan said.

Photographers and hobbyists were asked to take photos of people and families and share the pictures without charge. Music, food, dancing and frank discussions between the community and police were part of the free, four-hour event near Byrd Park’s Round House.

Ms. McGowan, 43, lives in Eastern Henrico County. She said she was prompted to organize the unity event after visiting the county’s new Varina Area Library to clear her head the day after the Dallas police shootings.

“My mind would not settle,” said Ms. McGowan, a part-time nurse who owns Precise Events & Photography. “I was angry, upset and fearful. That could have been one of my family members. I have five brothers that live in the South, and two have criminal backgrounds and aren’t able to find regular employment, so they do hustle to survive. The emotions I felt were similar to if (Sterling and Castile) had been one of them.”

Gradually, she said, her creative side engaged and she thought about staging a Black Lives Matter photography shoot or some type of demonstration. Thirty minutes later, the idea to organize the unity day was born and Ms. McGowan shared her idea on social media. Positive responses followed, with friends offering to help.

The result left her feeling “hopeful and inspired, but also extremely exhausted,” she said.

Ms. McGowan is planning a similar back-to-school pep rally at the end of August for students, parents, city officials and law enforcement representatives.

Once more she will call on the community to help by serving as sponsors, volunteers and to provide food and other donations to ensure that the event is free.

Ms. McGowan believes the Byrd Park event helped people to gain a better understanding of police and also gave officers a chance to get to know the community.

“As a community, we need to connect more with our neighborhood officers rather than just during National Night Out,” the annual event being held Tuesday, Aug. 2.

At the same time, Ms. McGowan believes that Richmonders and people from surrounding counties want to cooperate and trust law enforcement officials to prevent situations that occurred in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas from happening here.

“We want to develop a rapport through constant communication and effective education of police practices which could help reduce fear on both sides,” she said.  “We want to know that we are being protected and not profiled because of the way we look or judged because of past history. We also know that police officers are not all created equal, so we do not want to stereotype every police officer because of what we read and see in the media.”