Community Participation in Racial Justice Efforts

As we reflected this week on the meaning of Martin Luther King’s example for our work, we took quite a bit of inspiration from one of the stories shared in the most recent newsletter from our partners at Everyday Democracy that we wanted to share with you. The story of this Virginia town’s struggle to confront racism is a glimpse into what it might look like for our field to deal more with questions of justice in our democracy. You can read the story and see the video below, or find the piece on EvDem’s website here.

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In 2006, racial tensions rose among Lynchburg, Va., residents as a result of the death of Clarence Beard Jr., a black man who died during a struggle with two white police officers. City leaders looked for a way to help residents grapple with issues of racism and racial equity in their increasingly diverse city. To make progress, they knew they needed to work together to address these racial tensions.

With the support from community, the city initiated the Community Dialogue on Race and Racism. To indicate their commitment to inclusion and systemic change, they recently renamed themselves “Many Voices – One Community” (MVOC). Their efforts have involved more than 2,000 people in dialogues, action forums, and task forces.

Many participants gained a new understanding of how racism and racial equity affect them on a daily basis: “I think what struck me most was…all the different ways that we could evade the issue of racism and not want to acknowledge our own involvement,” one participant commented. “I think it unsettles us in a good way. I think it’s both terrifying and at the same time, welcoming.”

The new understanding and new relationships that have formed continue to generate action. Action teams meet regularly to plan and implement ideas that emerge from the dialogue groups. Plans are in place to expand the program in the faith community, schools, and local businesses. Their efforts have led to:

  • A partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau to educate the public about the census and encourage people to be counted.
  • Improved diversity training in the Lynchburg Police Department, the Criminal Justice Academy, and the City of Lynchburg.
  • Efforts to bring more diversity to the workforce at the police department, and in local businesses and on boards and commissions in the city.
  • The creation of a non-profit organization, Beacon of Hope, that provides support for all students to have access to resources in order to reduce the achievement gap.
  • A Racial Support Group to help resolve institutional racial conflict.

With all of this, racial incidents and disparities have continued in the community. The leaders of MVOC know there is much work still to do.

So, in the fall of 2013, the dedicated MVOC organizers convened Lynchburg’s first Race, Poverty and Social Justice Conference. Plenaries and workshops provided participants with insights and tools for advancing justice in a variety of community arenas including policing, economic development, the arts and health care. In the conference opening, Everyday Democracy director Martha McCoy described a long-term vision of a just Lynchburg, noting “We need each other. We can’t do it alone. We can’t get to the beloved community by ourselves.”

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