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Health district, others dropping "Jefferson" name

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Thomas Jefferson Health District

Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said the main reason the organization is changing its name to the Blue Ridge Health District is to be more inclusive for the community.

The Thomas Jefferson Health District wants to be more equitable and inclusive for everyone in the community.

That’s the main reason the district is changing its name to the Blue Ridge Health District starting in 2021, said Director Dr. Denise Bonds.

“I think your name is sort of your first policy statement,” she said. “It is what you project out to the community, and it should represent the values and mission of your organization.”

Bonds said the health district serves all of the community, and that everybody should be able to feel comfortable receiving services from the health departments. The district serves the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.

“While Thomas Jefferson was a really important historical figure, and wrote many important documents, and is certainly part of the history of Charlottesville and Albemarle, he also owned slaves, and there are individuals that live in our community who are descendants of those slaves, and we want those individuals to feel comfortable coming to the health department as well,” Bonds said.

The health district is one of several organizations in the area that have or are in the process of changing their names away from the “Jefferson” label, whether to be more inclusive or to better explain their service area or mission.

Recently, the membership of the Unitarian-Universalist church formerly known as Thomas Jefferson Memorial voted to drop the third president’s name. Albemarle and Charlottesville governments no longer have a paid holiday for Jefferson’s birthday. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors last month passed a resolution to add context to the Jefferson statue near the Rotunda to include his ownership of slaves.

Mike Sadler, president of Charlottesville Area Builders, is the third generation owner of the company. Over the summer, he decided to change the name away from Jefferson Area Builders.

“I think the company name was chosen because of Jefferson being from the area and we’re builders, Jeffersonian architecture,” he said. “It just made sense about 36 years ago, when we, unfortunately, weren’t paying as much attention to the big picture of Jefferson and some of these leaders of the past. We were just kind of looking at them with rose-colored glasses.”

He said as builders, they want to remain neutral, and don’t want someone to avoid the company because “they might think that our stance on race or anything else for that matter is different than what it is.”

“Jefferson had, you know, so many great accomplishments throughout his life,” Sadler said. “We just can’t continue to overlook his direct role in slavery. Then it wasn’t a relationship that he had with Sally Hemings. She was a child, and it was not consensual. One could say that he was a slave owner, potentially a pedophile and a rapist. When you kind of peel those layers back, that’s certainly not something that we would ever want to be associated with.”

According to historians at Monticello, when Hemings was 14, she traveled to France to be a domestic servant and maid in Jefferson’s household. When she was 16, after initially refusing, Hemings returned to Virginia and enslavement “in exchange for ‘extraordinary privileges’ for herself and freedom for her unborn children.”

Sadler said he got some “nasty” emails about the name change, but also has received supportive messages.

“I think the name change has really been good for us,” he said. “I stand by it, and I’m so glad that we did it.”

The United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area became the United Way of Greater Charlottesville last year. Caroline Emerson, vice president of community engagement, said she constantly had to explain what the “Thomas Jefferson Area” encompassed and where it was located.

“There was a lot of confusion,” she said. “A lot of people assumed that we were the United Way of Central Virginia, which is actually in Lynchburg, but they donated to that United Way thinking that it was us ... So we really just wanted to change our name to best explain who we are and what communities we serve.”

Jefferson Area CHIP (Children’s Health Improvement Program) also changed its name in 2019 to Child Health Partnership. Executive Director Jon Nafziger said the nonprofit’s primary motivation for the change was to give a clearer sense of its mission and what it does.

“There was a desire to get away from ‘Jefferson Area,’ but the bigger part, frankly, was ‘CHIP,’ because there are some other CHIPs around and people confused us with housing or health insurance,” he said.

Child Health Partnership was the organization’s name when the agency started in 1991, Nafziger said.

“I think the geographic names, particularly in our area, are challenging because ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Piedmont’ and ‘Central Virginia’ are all used for different areas,” he said. “Those get used in some cases for Richmond, in some cases for Lynchburg and some cases for the Shenandoah Valley. So the geographic piece I think is still complicated in terms of communicating where you’re actually working.”

Emerson, with United Way, pointed to the local planning district as to why ‘Thomas Jefferson’ was chosen as part of the organization’s fifth name since its founding in 1943.

To work on regional issues, Virginia was divided into planning districts in 1968, and Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson currently make up Region 10. Talks about the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission began in 1969. The name was established sometime in early 1970 and is on the organization’s charter document. The organization was officially established 1972.

Multiple regional organizations have had direct involvement with the TJPDC, including JAUNT (formerly Jefferson Area United Transportation), the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development (formerly the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development), the Piedmont Housing Alliance (formerly the Thomas Jefferson Housing Improvement Commission) and the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless.

Chip Boyles, executive director of the TJPDC, said he’s not sure why ‘Thomas Jefferson’ was added to the planning district’s name. It’s one of two Virginia planning districts named after a person; the other is named after George Washington.

Discussion on changing the name came up in 2017 after the white nationalist Unite the Right rally, but Boyles said it didn’t go anywhere.

“We’re anticipating that it will be a topic for discussion at the coming commission meetings,” he said. “... I imagine it’s going to come up with our commission in probably November or December to talk about.”

He said the PDC likely will do a comprehensive look at the entirety of its name.

“I don’t want to end up like the Washington Football Team — we got rid of the name, we just didn’t replace it,” Boyles said.

The organization also will look at the possibility of changing its name away from a “planning district commission” to other options — “regional council” or “regional commission.”

“‘Planning district commission’ is a very confusing name for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with what we do,” he said. “We get calls from people who want to get a permit to build a deck on their house.”

Bonds said the health district name change was brought up by staff members in the health department, and then the district had to receive approval from the state to start the process. Ultimately, “Blue Ridge” was the “overwhelming favorite.”

Two years ago, TJHD received a grant from the Kresge Foundation that allowed it to put together an equity committee and provided some resources for training.

“Now they’re beginning to look at some of our internal policies to make sure that they’re not biased against particular groups,” Bonds said. “Ultimately, we want to really review all of the policies and our history of the health department to really understand where our biases are, and to make sure that we’re not unintentionally disenfranchising any group that we should be serving, and that we’re a welcoming environment for both staff of all different backgrounds and for the community, as well.”

The health district still has work to do before the new name kicks in, such as updating agreements with organizations to provide immunizations. And providers need time to change many things associated with the district’s name.

“We’re really excited to be moving forward with this new name, and we hope that the community will come and visit us, probably after we get through COVID,” Bonds said. “It really represents what we want to be to the community, which is an organization that serves all of the members of our area.”


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