Has Anything Changed in the Year since Charlottesville?

Credit: The Atlantic during a vigil for Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen, Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, and Heather Heyer

One of LA’s most frustrating rituals is the pressure to move your car every few hours in fear of persecution by potentially fictional street cleaners. But this morning, that process became more reflective than reflexive as I parked behind a Grey Dodge Challenger in front of my apartment building in Koreatown.

That’s because a year ago, amidst white supremacist violence, and with that same car, James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally barreled down 4th Street in Charlottesville, Virginia. He missed me by inches, injured multiple, and killed Heather Heyer.

Credit: Ryan M. Kelly

So as my mind drifted away from parking and back to that moment, I realized a lot hasn’t changed this year:

Donald Trump is President, all signs still point towards eventual environmental catastrophe, political stalemate continues to grip much of the world, the west coast is grappling with its largest wildfire in history, and news of widespread sexual harassment captures our attention regularly.

But after wading through those thoughts, I recognized that a lot has changed:

The University of Virginia hired a new President, James Ryan. And although he’s a white male, which is nothing new for UVA, he has shown himself — both now and in his career — to be an active advocate for underrepresented minorities, a smart communicator, and charismatic leader.

Charlottesville has a new Mayor, Nikuyah Walker. Ms. Walker is Charlottesville’s first Black Female Mayor, and as the election came right on the wake of August 11th and 12th, her grassroots campaign took hold across the city as a symbol of perseverance and activism.

I moved across the country from my role supporting students in the Office of Diversity at UVA’s School of Engineering into a graduate program at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. I was drawn here both by Rossier’s mission to “achieve educational equity…and interrogate systems of power” and by Professor Shaun Harper, who last year in an LA Times Op Ed called on UVA to “explicitly and specifically denounce racism”.

USC gained a new interim president, after it’s previous — C. L. Max Nikias — resigned this week after much tumult involving Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, then Dean of USC Keck School of Medicine, and widespread reports of sexual harassment by Gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall. President Nikias left after being delivered a demand from 200 USC professors in May followed by a recent petition asking the board to move more swiftly.

The contrast between the stagnation we’re seeing in society, versus these dramatic local level shifts that I’ve personally observed in the last year is stark. But there’s hope buried within it all as well.

A recent letter from the UVA NAACP to President Jim Ryan demonstrates that hope when it states:

“…we promise that you — a white man with considerable authority — will not go unchallenged, nor will any professor, administrator, or classmate that fails to recognize, address, and rectify the basic issues of the University’s marginalized communities.”

Oppressed and marginalized groups challenging systems of power is nothing new — it’s the bedrock of social justice. But that letter and all those small-scale changes reveal a new kind of energy and willingness coming from a huge population. We’re working with those in power yet unafraid to challenge them, but more than that, there’s an ability to let the upper level nonsense continue above us so long as we see, feel, and enact change in our communities.

To me that’s positive, because as we look towards a hopeful “blue wave” this November, or community based environmental action, or burgeoning civil rights movements, it’s local level activism, high-sustained levels of energy, and grassroots effort that can catalyze those results.

We’ve seen consistent top-down incompetence from our national governments — I grew up in the UK, and we’re about to crash out of the European Union with no deal even though the (misguided) vote was two years ago — but are now witnessing exceptional local and micro-scale talent rising up into the national and international spotlight.

Look at high school students like Emma Gonzalez, Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, and David Hogg leading March for our Lives, and Rashida Tlaib, likely to be the first Muslim woman elected to congress, and the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas letter that laid the foundation for the Times Up movement in response to Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. These are all people, efforts, and movements that were born from the collective trauma that has haunted us for a long time, but has been ever-present since August 12th, November 9th , and February 14th.

So as I parked my car this morning, 2554 miles away from the last place I almost hit a grey Dodge Challenger, I re-experienced — and thus was able to re-examine — that collective trauma. And for the first time, it filled me with a sense that instead of weighing us down, it might be our powerful, even unstoppable force for good. But to see it, you may have to stop looking across the globe, and start with right next-door.