Three years have passed since the lives of nine Charlestonians were tragically taken in the name of hate. In the weeks following the Mother Emanuel shootings, the world praised our community for coming together. There is no doubt that a beautiful moment of healing occurred as thousands of us marched across the Ravenel Bridge, hand in hand, singing and grieving.
But three years later, we must acknowledge that walking across the bridge was just a small step in addressing racism — not the end of the journey.
Today, we all should be asking ourselves, “What can I do next?” The Mother Emanuel tragedy highlighted the racial issues that continue to exist in a city so often praised for its gentility. With the passing of each anniversary, we simply cannot let those issues remain unaddressed. As we move forward, we need to challenge ourselves to get to the root cause of racism and ask, “What can I do about it?” If you don’t know where to begin, here are a few suggestions.
At the YWCA of Greater Charleston, working to solve racial injustice has been a core part of our mission for decades; however, we recognized that we had more to learn. We recently introduced the Racial Equity Institute, an intensive two-day program that educates business leaders and grass-roots organizers on the origins of racism and how it shapes the outcomes of all institutions in the United States.
Following the YWCA’s first REI session last year, our inboxes were flooded by people who wanted to attend the next one. What originated as a plan to train 40 people evolved into a program that trained 240 people last year. The consistent message from participants was that they thought they knew what racism was before the course but understood it in a much deeper way afterward. Anyone can follow their lead — we’ve scheduled six REI sessions this year to help meet demand.
The YWCA hosts many other events focused on racial equality, as do several organizations in our community.
For example, The Sophia Institute has a Living Your Truth series that can help you join the conversation. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry has shined spotlights on the school-to-prison pipeline, policing practices and other important issues. Attending events and volunteering with these and other organizations is another way to learn from and build connections with people with whom you might not otherwise come into contact. Engaging with a diverse group of individuals can have a profound impact on your perception, especially when you’re working together toward a just cause.
There is an even easier step that you can take to better understand racial inequity: read. Books like the “The New Jim Crow,” “Raceology 101: Fundamentals for Understanding & Change” and “When the Rules Are Fair, But the Game Isn’t” can help you build knowledge and understanding. Even if you are the kind of person who, like us, paid close attention in history class, you may be surprised at how incomplete your picture is.
For a more challenging next step, look through your recent calls and text messages on your cellphone. This is your circle of real influence — the people you talk to and make time for. When we did this exercise the first time, we both realized our circle was not as diverse as we thought it was. If the people you talk to regularly look just like you, how good can you truly be at understanding diverse perspectives?
We can all do a better job of broadening our circle. Yes, that means getting out of your comfort zone. In a city as cordial as Charleston, we tend to avoid uncomfortable conversations. But it’s time for us all to get a little uncomfortable. When you have that opportunity, lead with questions rather than assumptions. It will help you build trusting relationships that can enrich your life and close some of the distances within our community.
Let’s continue our march across the bridge. There are ways large and small we can roll up our sleeves and continue to work toward transformative change. What will your next step be?
LaVanda Brown is executive director of the YWCA of Greater Charleston. Jenni Dunlap is a Parker Poe attorney who serves on the board of directors for the YWCA of Greater Charleston.