Engaging Young People in Dialogues About Racism

African American Heritage  •  News

The Unseen Cville public art installation reinterpreted ordinary
spaces with quotations from the James Baldwin–inspired
collection The Fire This Time. Photo by Eze Amos
The Unseen Cville public art installation reinterpreted ordinary spaces with quotations from the James Baldwin–inspired collection The Fire This Time. Photo by Eze Amos

By Raennah Mitchell

In 2019, millennials are projected to surpass baby boomers as the largest living generation in America. And with a new wave of teen and young adult activists taking to the streets and making headlines—protesting issues ranging from gun violence to racial bias in police practices—young people are making their voices heard in ways that we’ve rarely seen since the civil rights and Vietnam-era protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Virginia Humanities is working within communities to stimulate productive conversations about racism and the history of race in the Commonwealth, especially among young people.

Young people of color are directly effected by systemic racism through inequities in education, the school-to-prison pipeline, and housing discrimination. But one such teen, with the support of her community, became a powerful catalyst for change. In March 2016, a then–fifteen-year-old high school freshman, Zyahna Bryant, took action to correct the dominant narrative represented in what was then Charlottesville’s Lee Park. Recognizing the power of storytelling through memorialization, she petitioned the City of Charlottesville to change the name of the park (now Market Street Park) and remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Bryant, who is African American, argued that the celebration of someone who fought to enslave her ancestors caused her and her peers to feel so uncomfortable that they avoided the park altogether, foregoing many public events held there that were intended for the whole community.

The student activist Zyahna Bryant joined a panel discussion about the history of racism in Charlottesville during Unmasking Cville at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Photo by Pat Jarrett
Justin Reid makes introductions before a panel discussion about the history of racism in Charlottesville during Unmasking Cville at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Photo by Pat Jarrett

Discussions about history, and the interpretation and representation of that history, are key components of our work at Virginia Humanities. Literature, culture, and the arts are all ways in which we examine and document our lives, what it means to be human, and how we relate to our fellow human beings. The humanities are central to discussions of culture and of how we express and see ourselves, as well as who we fail to see. At a time when the United States is faced with difficult questions about our history, the continuing effects of systemic racism, and what kind of future we want to create, the humanities create a space in which to have these difficult conversations.

Cole Hicks of United Painting Plus power washes a quotation into the sidewalk as part of the Unseen Cville public art installation in Charlottesville in March 2018. Photo by Eze Amos

To that end, Virginia Humanities is focusing ever more intentionally on engaging young people in dialogues about history, racism, and social justice. Through Things Unseen, Virginia Humanities partnered with students and faculty at the University of Virginia and community historians to reinterpret ordinary spaces by power washing thought-provoking quotes from the James Baldwin–inspired essay collection edited by Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time, onto sidewalks and streets in Charlottesville. Justin Reid, director of African American Programs at Virginia Humanities, says the project “allowed us to have an intergenerational conversation about collective memory and our built environment, and how race and class inform both.” It is through such contextualizing that the humanities can challenge dominant narratives.

“If we’re serious about promoting equity, then we have to critically examine who leads our events and which voices are amplified.” – Justin Reid

Likewise, through a three-part, anti-racism learning series called Unmasking Cville, facilitators Reid and Samantha Willis, co-creator of Unmasking RVA in Richmond, invited Charlottesville community members to join in dialogue about the area’s history of racism and implicit bias. Unmasking Cville specifically sought to create a platform for young people to discuss these issues by featuring panelists all under the age of forty, including Bryant. Reid says, “If we’re serious about promoting equity, then we have to critically examine who leads our events and which voices are amplified, [making] conscious decisions to disrupt and dismantle historical power structures.” Willis agrees, saying, “The best way to engage youth in these types of discussions is to simply ask them what they think, be prepared to listen, and then take action.” At Virginia Humanities we do that by bringing to light thoughtful and informed voices that are not often heard and by placing those voices in dialogue with other narratives and histories that provide additional context. The panel also included Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello; Mayor Nikuyah Walker of Charlottesville; and Jordy Yager, an independent Charlottesville journalist. The diverse backgrounds of the panelists added depth and breadth to the topics discussed, which included the lack of affordable housing and the historical and current displacement of black residents.

In addition to engaging young people directly, Virginia Humanities is providing resources to teachers, schools, and libraries through a new project called Changing the Narrative. The two-year project, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, will develop programs for inclusive storytelling in Arlington, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke. To kick off the project, Virginia Humanities hosted an institute in June 2018 for forty teachers and librarians with the goal of empowering them to be “change agents in their communities,” says Sue Perdue, project coordinator and director of digital strategy at Virginia Humanities. During the three-day institute, educators explored ways to engage their students in conversations about racism and racial bias, using tools including bookmaking, author residencies, virtual tours, and podcasting. As a result of the institute, Bradley Mock—who teaches eighth-grade civics and economics in Richmond—became interested in using virtual tours to teach students about gentrification in their city. “Teachers and students should not be afraid of these difficult conversations regarding race and our nation’s laws,” he says. “They can be used as a way to engage students and encourage them to become active participants for the change that they want to see.”

Virginia Humanities hopes to inspire just this kind of inquiry to help people think critically, grapple with complex problems, and find ways to better understand one another. Through such engagement, the humanities can assist communities working to create a more complete historical narrative and a more equitable future.

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