The non-profit organization Together We Remember held a panel of speakers comprised of Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, Reverend Patricia Jones Turner from the White Feather Historical Project — a program built around workshops that discuss the history of people of color — Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin from the Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville and David Estrin, the founder and CEO of TWR. The diverse group engaged in a dialogue with about 15 attendees on preventing identity-based violence in Charlottesville Thursday in McLeod Hall.
TWR was originally founded as a coalition at Duke University in 2013, and in 2017 it was established as a non-profit that holds vigils around the globe. The organization helps promote the “Never Again” movement to promise to educate others about genocide to ensure it never happens again — by commemorating past tragedies and educating the next generation on how to combat hatred and violence. TWR has held vigils at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Baltimore City, and the University of Southern California, where students and attendants made pledges on what and who they must remember to build a better future.
Kate Keller — one of the organizers for TWR — also said that their online presence and #TogetherWeRemember on Twitter helped expand the organization’s impact. Most of the vigils, including the one in Charlottesville, are live-streamed on Facebook so it can reach a wider audience. Moreover, Keller said that recently Twitter had donated $100,000 to TWR “to amplify the stories and to try to shift the narrative on social media from one of hate and negativity to one of hope and positivity.”
This is the second TWR vigil that has been held in Charlottesville since April 2018. Estrin said these events are held every April during genocide awareness month and that TWR will be hosting over 40 similar events over the course of the month worldwide. The discussion held in Charlottesville occurred almost two years after the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12 2017, when a Unite the Right rally turned deadly as white supremacists and counter-protestors clashed in the streets, resulting in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Estrin mentioned briefly that this year’s dialogue about redefining Charlottesville held special relevance due to the release of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign announcement, which largely focused on the events of Aug. 11 and 12, but Estrin did not say more on this subject. The main point of the event was to bring people together and create a shared-identity with community members to help residents move forwards.
The evening began with a name-reading ceremony of those who had been victims of genocide, mass shootings and lynchings. Afterwards, the panel discussed the “future of Charlottesville’s past” and how the community could take steps to put the idea of “Never Again” into practice and redefine Charlottesville’s story.
Turner said that “in order to move forward, we have to look back,” and explained that people had to acknowledge the dark history of Charlottesville, like the demolition of the black neighborhood Vinegar Hill in 1965 when the city of Charlottesville destroyed the homes and businesses of a thriving African American community to use the land for parking lots.
“We need to hear the hard things that are said... and accept…[them] as truth,” Turner said. “If we want to change the truth and alter it because we don’t want to hear about it, things are going to remain the same.”
This sentiment was echoed by Estrin, who said that the importance of events like this was giving a voice to those who had been silenced by history.
“The raw material of awakening is in these stories,” Estrin said. “It’s like this dormant flame that is waiting to be fed more oxygen that then provides more light into our society.”
Schmelkin’s redefinition of Charlottesville focused on telling the truth about the events of Aug. 11-12.
“The story of Charlottesville is not actually that it’s a liberal college town with lots of progressive values,” she said. “The rally organizers were graduates of the University of Virginia.”
However, Schmelkin said the narrative for Aug. 11 and 12 needs to address other aspects besides the role that local Charlottesville residents played in the Unite the Right rally.
“I think nationally, people need to acknowledge that a lot of people did come from out of town,” Schmelkin said. “And I think locally and nationally, people need to know the very brave stories of people who stood up that day on Aug. 12 against hate and continue to do so.”
Ruth Henderson — a local Charlottesville resident and one of the attendees of the event — openly discussed her experiences with racism when audience members were encouraged to share what their visions for Charlottesville looked like. She discussed how when she began working, white people would receive higher wages and more promotions than the black people, even though they all did the same work. Henderson said that she was taught about racial inequality at a young age from her father, who told her to keep her head down and not look at white people in the eyes.
“I remember a lot — I remember the fear that was instilled in not just my family, but all families,” Henderson said. “Fear was the greatest thing that held us back.”
However, she emphasized that in order to foster change, people have to overcome this fear.
“Together we must speak up for all wrongdoings,” Henderson said. “Speak up.”
The impact of stories and their power to facilitate change was one of the factors that brought media specialist Anne Ernst from Charlottesville High School to the event.
“I’m just trying to listen to as many stories as I can and trying to understand how I can help students and young people reconcile and be able to tell their own stories as well and empower them,” Ernst said.
For others, redefining Charlottesville and helping the town progress forwards was about finding common humanity with others.
Ilker Boz, who just moved to Charlottesville last May, said that he is a member of a Turkish organization that tries to bring people together, which is what brought him to the panel.
“People need to get together with the idea of initiating dialogue between cultures and religions,” Boz said.
Attendee and community member Noor Khalidi also said that events such as these serve a role in harnessing change by connecting people and finding common ground between them.
“It’s important to me to take part in these types of conversations and see how I can make myself and my experience and my willingness to engage to benefit the community, benefit future generations, benefit our generation, and to make sure that violence and division and polarization are reduced and that we recognize our common humanity,” Khalidi said.
Bro’s vision for redefining Charlottesville and its future entails a town filled with people who are able to relate and sympathize with each other.
“How often do you look someone in the eye and connect with them on a humankind level?” Bro said. “Just try to be a human being with other human beings … I think if we do that, never again will we be treating people as less than human.”
For Schmelkin, “Never Again” was how the community should foster change. “[Never again] is a prayer and a call to action that we would never let this happen again to our people or to any people … never again means shutting [hated] down.”
Although Schmelkin envisioned this phrase as a way to enforce progressive change, Turner seemed less sure on whether the phrase could carry such an impact.
“To me, ‘Never Again’ is like I hope, I wish, I dream, because right now, it’s happening,” Turner said. “When we say never again, it’s a prayer. I pray that this never happens again.”
Henderson seemed to reflect Turner’s doubt on how people could ensure that atrocities across the globe stop happening altogether.
“Where do we start?” Henderson said. “I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if we’re doing what is needed to be done.”
TWR seems like a good place to start enacting change by bringing together diverse panels with community members to talk about both the reality of the past and their visions for the future, but thinking about how a small group of people could overcome centuries of systematic racism and hateful mindsets can seem overwhelming. However, Bro advocated that each individual has the power to make a change if everyone takes it one step at a time.
“If we all throw a pebble out there and each one makes a ripple, but if you put enough ripples together, you get a wave, and if you put enough waves together, you get a tsunami,” Bro said. “And we’re looking for a tsunami of change.”