In my position at ioby, I’m fortunate to see firsthand some of the work being done around the country to make our neighborhoods stronger, more equitable, and more kind. Seeing it often makes me feel optimistic about Americans’ ability to lead our own communities in the change we want to see. But sometimes we’re served a jarring reminder of just how deeply rooted the problems are that we face as Americans. And sometimes the ugliness can seem too much to bear.
I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, and attended UVA for college. I spent some of the best years of my life there. Those of you who know me know that I’m fascinated with Thomas Jefferson, the man who, despite his own failings, taught us how to define the United States with the words of democracy, liberty and equality. Unfortunately, saying the words “all men are created equal” is not the same as creating an equal society. Worse, repeating these words blinded us to the racist laws and culture that our country was built on, and which made it impossible for real equality to exist.
Last month’s violence in Charlottesville was hard to witness: bodies flying in the air, armed militia in the streets carrying Nazi flags, unhooded Klansmen surrounding peaceful Black Lives Matter counter-protestors, all roiling around the statue of Jefferson. The visual struck me: the static, pedestaled symbol of American democratic ideals, surrounded by the shocking symbols of American reality.
But why should I be shocked? This is a country, after all, with deeply white supremacist roots. Throughout our history, our high-minded ideals have meant nothing to those whose land, liberty, and lives have been violently taken from them. For those of us who felt shock, it was our privilege talking: the privilege to be able to tune in and out of the struggles of people of color whose systematic oppression make violence and injustice the norm of life in America.
I hoped that Charlottesville could be a wake-up call to many Americans. But without much time to recover, we were pounded with Harvey, DACA, and Irma. Similar to deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, the news cycles of violence often pummel us like huge crashing waves of unthinkable tragedy.
I have a lot of work to do to remember that these extreme events are just moments. In between these crises which get the attention of the privileged like me, there is a steady undercurrent of oppression that is more powerful and more deadly. As Americans, it’s the water we swim in: it floods our personal relationships, our policies, our institutions, our grand juries, our politics, our built environment. White supremacy is menacing because it’s not always easy to see, especially when you are white. Charlottesville made it plain for a moment, but to see the corrosive undercurrent flowing throughout our history and present requires serious attention. To reverse it will take a sustained effort from all of us, especially the privileged.
I’m proud that ioby is a platform for leaders of all kinds to take clear, tangible steps in their own communities. We have work to do. Those of us who have been historically oppressed have had the clearest view of the dark forces in our country for a long time. That’s why this work needs to start with listening to their experiences, and following their lead.
Erin Barnes is Co-Founder and Executive Director of ioby.