Summer Violence a Wake-Up Call for Charlottesville

Sep 19, 2017

It’s been one month since a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville left three people dead and dozens more injured. The city has since attempted to piece itself back together, realizing that deeper issues are also at play. For a look towards the future, WMRA’s Jordy Yager spoke with educators and teens about their reality.

KIMANI ALEXANDER: I honestly thought this was a wake-up call for us.

Kimani Alexander was born and raised in Charlottesville. He’s 20 years old and works at a grocery store in the city, stocking shelves. The violence of August 12, he says, was horrible, but for the first time, he’s seeing a chance at real change.

ALEXANDER: We’re seeing people from the community come out. It’s good to see white people come out, more than black people to show support, because they have most of the voice. So, I think it’s a huge wake-up call. It’s an opportunity to tackle the problem and to address the problem, if we have any chance to address the problem.

Sitting in his family’s living room, with his mom on the front porch, I ask him, what is the problem?

ALEXANDER: We need equality. Ethnicity shouldn’t matter. It’s no equality. It’s no—it’s just—it’s hard to explain man.  

And it is hard to explain. But people are trying. In the two City Council meetings since August 12 (SOUND underneath) large crowds have pleaded with city government for more affordable housing, for racial equity in the foster care system, for greater police accountability with African Americans. Alexander and his peers say the city isn’t designed for their success, and August 12th was a window into that reality.

ALEXANDER: And I think white people around here are starting to see that, because it happened down here, you’re realizing it can happen to anyone, and I feel like white people need to be put in black people’s shoes. If you was black, would you really want a chance at your kid not coming home, or really, be scared to send them to school?  

Inside city schools, a similar conversation is happening. Dr. Eric Irizarry is the principal of Charlottesville High School, home to more than 1,200 kids. Days after August 12, and weeks before the first day of class, Irizarry and his team lined up mental health counselors for students and teachers.  

ERIC IRIZARRY: We had a plan for kids that were in trauma immediately, we knew they were going to be in trauma, we identified the students that were involved in the actual incidents—whether it was the vehicle attack or any of the other attacks that occurred throughout the city—and we made sure we touched base with them—how are you doing?  We’re here for you.

About two weeks in now, Irizarry said the healing’s begun. And students and teachers are beginning to look at the long-term effects, stepping up, asking what can they do? How can they get involved? It’s created an opportunity. A way to look deeper, he said.  

ERIC IRIZAIRY: I think one of the unintended consequences of the events of August 12 is that it sparked a dialogue. I think some folks were, their eyes were opened to some of the injustices that have happened in the past and some of those scars that haven’t healed. And I think sometimes the perception is everything is fine. And I think there are some citizens that would maybe argue that point. It’s a great city, but we do have issues that we need to address. We have some inequalities that we need to address. And our students are aware of that.

Last week, the city school board held its first meeting since August 12 and some of those inequalities were brought up. Former city councilor Dede Smith presented board members with some recent data, detailing how about 60 city families requested to change schools last year—about half white, half black. But their approvals were not as equitable.

DEDE SMITH: If you were one of 33 requests to transfer a white child, you had a 98 percent chance of approval. But if you were one of 27 requests to transfer a black child, your chances dropped to about 50 percent.  

Lamia West is a 16-year old senior at CHS. She’s also a high school representative on the city school board. At last week’s meeting, she nodded in agreement to the data. West has been in advanced classes since elementary. That’s where it starts, she said. You find your group and you stay with it. Transferring schools allows for those groups to be more diverse, and for more African Americans to be in more advanced classes.

LAMIA WEST: And as I sit in my more advanced classes, I am one of few African Americans that sit there with me. This is our chance to do better, this is a new era in which we can teach that everyone has equal opportunities—it’s not just set on paper but there’s proof, as everyone sits in this class and we see different types of faces, different types of skin, and we’re all learning together as a whole.  

Juandiego Wade is a career counselor, a lifelong educator, and chairman of the Charlottesville School Board. Last week he thanked Smith and West for raising the issues. Part of racism is certainly structural, he told me. But it’s also deeply personal. It involves interactions between individuals—interactions that need changing, one-by-one.

JUANDIEGO WADE: But it takes time. Unfortunately. It didn’t happen overnight, and the changes are not going to take place overnight.

On the first day of school this year, Wade welcomed kids outside an elementary school. One father dropped his son off at first grade, but the youngster was unsure of where to go. So Wade, who’s African American, reached out his hand and offered to show him. And the boy, who is white, took it.

WADE: And I walked him down to his classroom, and he was talking with me about how much he was looking forward to meeting his new teachers and his new friends. That he’s ready. He is ready to start school, to start his life, to start the next 12 or 13 years of education. If he’s ready, I’m ready.