The following post by VCIC President & CEO Jonathan C. Zur also appears in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I was out of town visiting family last weekend when the George Zimmerman verdict was reached. On Sunday morning, as my cousins and I were discussing the case and saying how sad it all was, their three-year-old daughter overheard us.
“What’s so sad?” she asked me.
After a few seconds during which my mind raced with questions about how to explain the case, whether or not to bring up race, what concepts she knows and how much time we had, I settled on the very generic: “A man hurt somebody, and he didn’t get in trouble for it.”
Seemingly satisfied, the three-year-old went back to coloring. I, on the other hand, couldn’t get the conversation out of my head.
I asked myself if the answer I gave her was too simplistic. Could she have handled a more difficult conversation, one that emphasized treating others fairly and equally? Would it be right to acknowledge to her that people have different experiences solely based on race? Will I have another opportunity to engage the “teachable moment” that I had just missed?
I also couldn’t help but wonder how the conversation might have been different if I were talking to a family member a few years older than her. Or if it were a person of a different race. Or a male. Or all of the above.
For I know that in countless households in this country, Black families couldn’t choose to avoid the much harder conversation last weekend. Some framed the verdict as a lesson on fairness and unfairness. Others talked about safety, providing tips for how to engage with strangers and the police. It was, for many, the continuation of lessons passed down from generation to generation about how to be (and survive being) Black in America.
The widely variant conversations happening in homes across our country parallel many of the discussions my colleagues and I have at Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities programs. For twenty summers, our signature high school experience, the Harold M. Marsh, Sr. Connections Institute, has provided particularly rich opportunities to engage teenagers in critical learning that motivates them to be inclusive leaders.
Lessons from the last twenty years offer guidance for how to lead teenagers in productive, action-oriented dialogues that make schools, businesses, and communities more inclusive.
While introducing challenging issues like race at Connections, participants brace for discomfort. The messages they have received about if and how to talk about difficult topics vary widely.
During the workshops, students cautiously identify the ways in which People of Color and White people have different experiences in society. Divisions are exposed in a way that allows them to understand and embrace one another more truthfully and authentically.
Many participants say things they never did before. They gain confidence in clarifying their values, as they simultaneously increase perspective on the varied experiences their peers have had. People talk about disparities in education, employment, government, healthcare, and the criminal justice system.
As we address other topics such as body image, gender, religion, and sexual orientation during the retreat, the conversations are similarly deep and the learning equally powerful. By the time students leave the program, they are provided with the skills to create more inclusive schools through the development of action plans.
Through the Connections Institute, teenagers learn many lessons. High among them is the importance of acknowledging the different experiences people have based on their identities, and how those experiences shape their perspectives and worldviews. For if my conversation with my three-year-old cousin is the extent of what she knows about difference, she will never understand what her Black and Latino and Asian and Multiracial peers were learning about the Zimmerman case from their families.
Far too often, we stay in those separate spaces, and as long as we do so, it becomes harder to take the actions that truly bridge divides in identity and experience.
It is only when multiple perspectives are heard, valued and understood that truly inclusive spaces can be created. There are no simple answers when it comes to the George Zimmerman verdict. Avoiding the topic or staying in our silos doesn’t change anything. But the potential for learning and growth is endless, if only we lean into the more difficult conversations.
I certainly will be having them with high school student leaders at the 20th anniversary Connections Institute next month — and the next time I visit my cousin’s house.