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​Unity Cville hosts events promoting inclusion, diversity

Various local organizations and chapters unite in wake of Ku Klux Klan rally

<p>Over 400 community members filled the auditorium at the Jefferson School City Center.</p>

Over 400 community members filled the auditorium at the Jefferson School City Center.

Unity Cville, a group comprised of many local organizations, chapters and businesses, hosted a series of events Saturday to promote open, hate-free environments in light of the Ku Klux Klan rally held in Justice Park. The events ranged from an informational session on the history and context of white supremacist groups in the U.S. and Charlottesville to a community potluck lunch.

Jefferson School City Center and educational events

Educational and conversational programming was held at the Jefferson School City Center in the morning, where over 400 attendees filled the seats and standing room in the auditorium. There, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said talking about “our story of race through public spaces” has been difficult for the past year, but he thought Charlottesville has begun confronting its past and become more diverse.

“We have a rich history as the birthplace of democracy — democracy is not perfect, we are not perfect, but we have embraced that charge,” Signer said. “We will not be intimidated by our mission to perfect our democracy.”

Andrea Douglas, the director of the Jefferson School City Center, also said it was appropriate for the programming to be held at the school due to its focus on education and the Charlottesville community.

“We're gonna do what the city center does best — this is the place that educates Charlottesville, allows Charlottesville to engage with its humanity,” Douglas said. “When we all walk out of here, we will have all gained something.”

One of the educational programs, “KKK to the Alt Right — A History,” featured two researchers — Andrew Mahler, a Charlottesville community member, and Ben Doherty, head of library instruction and a research librarian at the University Law School — who presented a history and analysis of white supremacist organizations in the U.S. According to Mahler, the alt-right has taken on a more clean-cut appearance in an effort to appeal to younger generations.

“They're looking to recruit young white men who may be looking to learn more about their identity,” Mahler said. “They're trying to message to people defend your white identity, fight back or die.”

Doherty said white supremacist organizations’, specifically the KKK’s, use of propaganda in branding themselves aims to portray the organizations as less violent and terroristic as they are.

“They're very much trying to portray the image of a social welfare organization, of social uplift,” Doherty said. “They’re constantly trying to use this message of ‘join us or die.’”

Before moving into breakout groups, Unity Cville held another program, “Charlottesville, Who Are We?,” featuring leaders from activist groups Sin Barreras, Cville Pride and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. The representatives briefly described their respective groups’ efforts to provide support for marginalized communities in the Charlottesville and Albemarle County areas, such as running youth programs and drawing attention to issues such as racism and discrimination.

“We really just try to be a friend to [the Hispanic] community,” Edgar Lara, the Sin Barreras representative, said. “We hope to be a place to bring more people together.”

The event moved into four breakout sessions — Black Lives Matter, the city’s Office of Human Rights and Stress Management in both English and Spanish. The Black Lives Matter breakout session was the most heavily attended, needing to move from its smaller room to the auditorium where about 275 attendees filled the seats.

The Q&A style breakout session featured prominent members of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter chapter answering audience questions and concerns. When asked to clarify the difference between the phrases “black lives matter” and “all lives matter,” Leon Armstrong, a local community member and actor, said the phrase comes from people who question the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If you say ‘all lives matter,’ look deep inside and think about why you say that,” Armstrong said.

One attendee asked the panel how white community members could contribute to Black Lives Matter without taking control of the movement. Rachel Holmes, one of the panelists, said much of the work white community members should do is individual and that they should “[unpack] internalized things in oneself and in one’s family and friends.”

“That’s putting some of the labor on the people who are oppressed,” Holmes said of asking black people to give instruction on activism.

Armstrong also said he planned to attend the KKK rally later that day to “face trauma.” The other panelists agreed in saying apathy was not the right way to respond to the planned rally.

“That’s pretty funny that your resistance is what you’ve been doing all along — nothing,” English Prof. Lisa Woolfork, a panelist member, said.

Coming together as a community in IX Art Park

The People’s Picnic and Community Celebration, held in IX Art Park, saw hundreds of community members join together for a potluck-style event with music and arts and crafts. Children and families glued pom-pom balls onto posterboard to make art while others hula-hooped and spoke with representatives from the City of Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights.

“This is just about celebrating our unity and diversity in the community,” John Kluge, a commissioner on the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission and co-founder of the Alight Fund, said in an interview. “What our involvement is is to help support community activities that promote human rights and civil rights and to be an active advocate as best we can and for those really important things.”

Mary Miller, a nurse at the University Medical Center, and her daughter Lucy Miller, a Commerce graduate student, attended the picnic.

“I just want to be out with like-minded people and to show our support for inclusiveness and just to feel the positive energy that love conquers all,” Miller said of her attendance at the picnic.

Lucy said it was “heartwarming” to see the community response to the incoming KKK rally.

“I’m sorry that they chose Charlottesville to be their touchstone place because Charlottesville has always been a welcoming — maybe it hasn’t always been — but of late it’s been a welcoming, inclusive community and it makes me sick to think that this organization even exists in this day and age,” Mary Miller said.

Miller also said considering the controversy of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park, she did not want to be "presumptuous" as to how others felt towards it. 

“I find it very difficult and I hesitate to comment on it because as a white person that has benefitted from white privilege my entire life, I can’t even begin to know what it would feel like to have a history of oppression,” Mary Miller said.

Community response and looking forward

According to Douglas, there was good feedback both qualitatively and quantitatively. The number of attendees far exceeded the 300 chairs available at the Jefferson School, and attendees continuously thanked Douglas for the programming.

“I think that if you judge from the response of how avidly people were paying attention, I think it’s been a great response,” Douglas said in an interview. “This is something that people needed so that they could find a place.”

Although Unity Cville’s Saturday events were a direct response to the KKK rally on the same day, Douglas said although she is unsure of what exactly the Jefferson School will do, more events and programming will be planned in response to the “Unite the Right” rally planned for Aug. 12.

“That’s what we do best, is cause people to come together to learn things and be in dialogue with each other,” Douglas said. “I think that the best opportunity we can offer is that opportunity.”

Kluge said the Commision on Human Rights also plans to restart its dialogue on race by offering training sessions for community members who want to serve as facilitators.

“I think it will be a really meaningful opportunity for different community members to engage in dialogue that will not just advance our understanding of our past, but our understanding of where we are today and where we as a community want to go tomorrow,” Kluge said.

Correction: This article previously misidentified Ben Doherty as a University Law School student. The article has been updated to include his title as the head of library instruction and a research librarian at the Law School.