Meet Elizabeth Wong, Action Alliance’s New Development Director!

1.png

A group of  approximately 20 people sit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building. Two of the members of the group hold a yellow banner with black print that says, “Housing Is A Right! Asian Americans for Equality”. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wong.

Born into a family of activists who have advocated for the rights of Asian-Americans, housing rights, and workers’ rights, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of equality, justice, and service. My childhood was shaped by civic engagement, political campaigns, and community outreach meetings. So, I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. Throughout my career, I’ve worked to advance social justice and to ensure the voices of those who are often ignored by our society and government are heard and not forgotten.

After college, I moved to Richmond and spent more than a dozen years working for the ACLU of Virginia, which became my work family. I started in communications and fund development and through the years also learned advocacy, finance, operations, and strategic planning skills. During that time, I had the pleasure of working with many talented individuals across the country who share a passion for fighting for the rights and freedoms of others. I also grew to understand that all our major social issues are interconnected—housing, healthcare, education, racial justice, economic justice, gender equity, and anti-violence work. I’m excited to be a part of an organization that sees the intersection and interplay of these areas and is committed to improving everyone’s lives.

I’m excited to be a part of an organization that sees the intersection and interplay of these areas and is committed to improving everyone’s lives.

What lights you up about fund development as a tool for social change?

2

Two people staff an information table at an outdoor event while two people approach the table for information. Behind the staff is a black banner with the ACLU logo in blue and white. Elizabeth Wong is one of the staff people at the table, and is standing and speaking to the people seeking information. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wong

Social change requires a vision for a better future and resources to work towards that vision. I enjoy fund development because it helps put all the pieces together. It’s about building connections with people and inspiring others with the work you do. Enthusiastic, passionate program staff come up with great ideas to work towards this vision of a society without violence and they need the resources to make it happen. In development and outreach, my part is to bring more friends to the movement and raise investments to implement those creative and effective programs.

Basically, I just love hearing people’s stories and encouraging them to see what’s possible in the future.

Who is your favorite artist right now?

I may have a family bias, but my favorite artist is my aunt, Tomie Arai. Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed her prints and murals. I especially love her pieces that combine photos of people and places with other textures. You can see life in each piece. Her art tells such important stories.

3

Photo of an art exhibit by Tomie Arai. Four circular tables are set with red plates and napkins in a large open art gallery with chairs set at each table. One feature wall is painted deep red with Asian artwork and writing in gold. On the front of each chair is a black and white photo of a person. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wong

If you were to be transported into a fictional world/universe, where would you go?

4

A cartoon image of an elephant lying on its belly, wearing glasses and reading an illustrated book. Sitting next to the elephant is a pink pig, also reading a book. A yellow bird sits atop the elephant’s head reading a book. 

As a parent to a new reader I’m currently in the land of Elephant and Piggie. I love the simplicity of it—just hanging out with a good friend.  The stories talk about loving friendship, learning to be there for each other, and making way for new friends. In a world that is chaotic and filled with negativity, it’s wonderful to be in a space filled with positivity, empathy, and compassion, even if just for a short while. (Side note: While I think being a Chinese-American woman during this time would be challenging and less than fun, I’ve always been enamored with the Gilded Age of New York City. I’m pretty sure I lived in 1880s Brooklyn in a past life and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge after it was first built.)

Featured image: photo of Elizabeth Wong, sitting with her hands clasped, smiling and listening to a group discussion. 

 


Elizabeth can be reached at ewong@vsdvalliance.org. Drop her a line and welcome her to the team!

2019 Catalyst Awards: Recognizing Leaders and Innovators in Our Work

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance will honor and celebrate thirteen individuals at the 2019 Catalyst Award Ceremony at Emory & Henry College on June 5 as part of a biennial statewide gathering of advocates and activists.

The Catalyst Awards encompass superior work across eight different categories, including both sexual and domestic violence work, and apply to program staff, community leaders, volunteers, and allied professionals. The group of honorees has been selected for their innovative and outstanding contributions to the field. We are delighted to honor these individuals for their exceptional and inspiring work on behalf of survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence and for their extraordinary contributions to the field of sexual and domestic violence.

A “catalyst” is one whose enthusiasm and energy precipitates significant positive change. The Catalyst Awards recognize individuals and/or organizations who have made superior contributions to improving services for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence and creating a Virginia free of violence.

Pioneer Award

Honors one who was among the first to fight the good fight in order to improve the lives of survivors and ultimately end sexual and/or domestic violence. This lifetime achievement is reserved for someone who has worked in the movement for 20 or more years. 

2019 Pioneer Award Honoree: Kelly McCoy, Radford

Kelly McCoy, a longtime advocate at the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley in Radford, started working in the movement 36 years ago. Laura Beth Weaver, Kelly’s nominator for the Pioneer Award, writes, “Kelly has worked multiple positions since coming to the WRC in 1983 as a 17-year old volunteer. She coaches and mentors young volunteers and staff in a way that helps grow our system of support for victims of sexual and domestic violence in the New River Valley. Her steady presence in the shelter, her wisdom with organizational decisions and direction, and her insistence on grace and hope are a catalyst for a greater grace and hope within our community.”


Pathfinder Award

Honors an individual or group who broadens the boundaries of traditional domestic and/or sexual violence work through creative outreach to an underserved population. The nominee demonstrates a commitment to positive change, exceptional activism, and innovation in identifying survivors and providing services in marginalized communities.

2019 Pathfinder Award Honoree: Alex Weathersby, Fredericksburg

Alex Weathersby, of the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault, is being honored for her work to make RCASA’s prevention program more trauma-informed, relevant to youth, and LGBTQ+ supportive. Alex’s anonymous nominator writes, “Alex has opened relationships with our area’s public schools, scout troops, four year university, and community college, along with a halfway house for previously incarcerated youth to spread prevention education efforts to a wider group of youth in our area and to allow them to participate in prevention education from multiple areas of their lives. Last year her prevention/education programs served 2,398 students in middle and high schools across five counties.”


Nexus Award

Honors an individual or agency that has created a high level of cooperation among members of the justice system and/or other systems within a local community. The nominee exemplifies the collaboration and unity of purpose in bringing together diverse individuals and disciplines to create a community that promotes safety for victims and accountability for perpetrators.

2019 Nexus Award Honoree: Brad Pugh, Warren County Sheriff’s Office

Brad Pugh is an investigator with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. The Laurel Center’s Kelliann Harris, who nominated Brad, says, “Investigator Pugh is not only an advocate for justice in dealing with sexual assault crimes, but a pioneer in organizing and development in Sexual Assault Response Teams. Brad continues to expand his knowledge/skills in trauma-informed services, applying those techniques within the interviewing processes, and encouraging and relaying these trainings to other staff within his department and other community leaders. Whenever there is a task at hand, Brad does not steer away from it. He exemplifies all attributes of a leader to make change happen.”


Purple Ribbon Award

Honors one working specifically in the field of domestic violence for demonstrating exemplary commitment to restoring power and hope to victims who have experienced domestic violence through the provision of direct client services. The nominee excels in advocacy work by promoting empowerment which fosters healing.

2019 Purple Ribbon Award Honoree: Maria Altonen, Richmond

Maria Altonen has cultivated Project Empower in Richmond and transitioned it from a little-known entity into a unique crisis intervention, support, and advocacy team that serves Richmond’s large urban hospital. Utilizing their expansive knowledge of the Richmond area’s sexual and domestic violence agencies, offerings, limitations, and those who work in the field, Maria has developed Project Empower into the tremendous service it is today. Assisting hundreds of victim-survivors in 2018, they afforded those who had been at the most terrifying points in their lives to access shelter, legal assistance, transportation, food, housing, employment, medical and counseling, and the crucial awareness that they were not alone on their journey to recovery. Maria’s anonymous nominator says, “To enter a position in a department that was virtually unheard of and undefined, and create something that is now recognized by Commonwealth’s Attorneys, victim advocates, police officers, and most of the VCU Health system speaks volumes! Maria’s work is not just an asset in our community, but has literally saved lives.”


Teal Ribbon Award
Honors one working specifically in the field of sexual violence for demonstrating exemplary commitment to restoring power and hope to victims who have experienced sexual violence through the provision of direct client services. The nominee excels in advocacy work by promoting empowerment which fosters healing.

2019 Teal Ribbon Award Honoree: Terri Giller, Fredericksburg

Terri Giller is an art therapist who works with survivors of sexual violence at Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault in Fredericksburg. Through her nonjudgmental and supportive guidance, she gives survivors the tools to empower and express their own experiences on their terms. Terri’s anonymous nominator writes, “We have had former and current clients run up to our tables at events to tell us how much they loved working with her and how she has given them tools for coping, grounding, expressing, and processing their trauma. Terri also puts so much time into working with individuals and groups, without rushing people into engaging with the parts of themselves they aren’t ready to see. Terri has brought a highly specialized service into our area. Her work has brought many long-term benefits to our clients’ ability to connect and self-express. Many of her clients continue to engage in the arts community of our area after closing out their counseling.”


Blue Ribbon Award
Honors one working with children or adolescents who have witnessed or experienced domestic or sexual violence. The nominee is recognized for demonstrating exemplary commitment to restoring power and hope to young victims through direct client services. The nominee excels in advocacy work by promoting education and empowerment which fosters healing.

2019 Blue Ribbon Award Honoree: Andrew Ehrhard, Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office

Investigator Andrew Ehrhard is a staunch supporter of the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Lexington, trusting and relying on the expertise of allied professionals in the CAC, always conducting his work from a “child first” philosophy. A compassionate ally to children, Andrew makes himself accessible to young survivors and their families so they feel completely supported, rather than alone. Ellen Wheeler of Project Horizon, who nominated Andrew, says, “Andrew also participates in every volunteer training at Project Horizon to ensure that all volunteers are familiar with him and are trauma-informed within the Child Advocacy Center. Andrew is devoted to making the children as comfortable as possible, consistently putting the needs of the children he serves ahead of the investigation. Andrew is a pillar in Project Horizon’s Child Advocacy Center and without his spirit and dedication we could not provide children with trauma-informed investigations.”


Hope Award
Honors an individual or team who has made a significant contribution to the prevention of domestic and/or sexual violence. Nominees will have implemented prevention initiatives that inspire communities to create future generations of healthy, safe, and respectful relationships.

2019 Hope Award Honoree: Chad Lewis, Warsaw

Chad Lewis, a preventionist working at the Haven Shelter in Warsaw, was one of the first people to institute prevention programming within the rural community of the Northern Neck. He helped create a Trauma-Informed Leadership Team, implemented numerous free community trainings, started sex education in Westmoreland County, and implemented the Safe Dates curriculum in Richmond and Northumberland Counties. Dawn Brooks of the Haven, who nominated Chad, says, “Chad not only advocates for the people in the community who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing IPV and SV, but he is also an advocate for individuals within our workplace. He is always thinking about our mission and how we can best prevent not only our clients from dealing with hardship, but also the staff. He brings up the hard conversations with compassion and love and in hopes of changing society.”


Ann Crittenden “Unsung Hero” Award
Honors an individual who works diligently and quietly behind the scenes to do what needs to be done, providing daily support, coordination, or advocacy. The nominee may be an administrator, office staff, advocate and/or volunteer who eschews the limelight, yet shows up consistently, day after day, to keep us moving forward in our efforts to eradicate sexual and intimate partner violence. The award is named in memory of Ann Crittenden, a beloved, hard-working, and loyal member of the Action Alliance staff for over 20 years, who skillfully created the beautiful stained glass catalyst awards for years and passed away in 2017.

2019 Honorees: Act. Honor. Hope. Planning Committee: Betsy Williams, Jodi Leonard, Jennifer Bottoms, Michele Holleran, Zoe Best, Shannon Heady, Claire Sheppard

Betsy, Jodi, Jennifer, Michele, Zoe, Shannon, and Claire, an all-volunteer group of fundraising go-getters, have led the fundraising planning of the Action Alliance’s annual Act. Honor. Hope. Member Celebration Luncheon for the past several years. The Committee’s anonymous nominator writes, “The group has worked tirelessly and relentlessly to support the Action Alliance’s fundraising efforts. Each year their devotion to Act. Honor. Hope. has created an amazing and memorable event. They were instrumental in the awards luncheon selling out for the first time in 2018 and in fact, the 2018 gathering proved to be a record-setting financial success for Act. Honor. Hope. Every committee member sets the bar higher for themselves each year in order to honor the award recipients and establish Act. Honor. Hope. as a major fundraiser. This committee’s dedication and loyalty is evident as they continue to work assiduously behind the scenes to do what needs to be done.”


The Catalyst Awards ceremony will be held on Wednesday June 5, 2019 at Emory & Henry College in Emory, VA as part of the “Cultivate” 2019 Biennial Retreat/Conference. Visit here to learn more and to register by May 20 for the Catalyst Award Dinner and/or the 2019 Cultivate Retreat.

Action Alliance Statement on Governor Northam’s Veto of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Bills

The VA Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance applauds Governor Ralph Northam’s decision to veto two bills that passed this year’s General Assembly session that supported mandatory minimum sentencing for particular crimes. One of those bills, House Bill 2042, would have created a 60 day mandatory minimum sentence for a second conviction of assault and battery of a family or household member within a 10 year period. While we applaud legislators’ instincts to take crimes of domestic violence seriously and to seek victim safety, we do not believe that mandatory minimums are a real solution that protects victims of domestic violenceIn fact, mandatory minimums are a costly and simplistic tool that serve to remove judicial discretion and disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities while providing little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders of domestic violence.

“…mandatory minimums are a costly and simplistic tool that serve to remove judicial discretion and disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities while providing little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders of domestic violence.”

Loss of judicial discretion in sentencing, that takes all of the facts presented in a particular case into account, is one of the strongest arguments against the use of mandatory minimums. The criminal charge of assault and battery against a family or household member does not necessarily take into account a pattern of ongoing behavior that includes a broad range of crimes and offenses designed to exert power and control over an individual. Many victims do fight back in self-defense. Creating a mandatory minimum sentence can land victims of domestic violence in jail and serve to reinforce the control of the abuser.  Many judges understand this and often craft solutions to hold a victim accountable for committing a crime of assault and battery yet allow for options that recognize the broader circumstances, such as referring a victim, who has committed violence in an act of self-defense, to a domestic violence program.

We believe that working to address and change practices and procedures at the community level – such as effective enforcement of protective orders, appropriate law enforcement response to crimes of domestic violence, appropriate charging and prosecution of crimes, and a coordinated community response to this violence – is the work that recognizes the complexities of domestic violence, understands the impacts of trauma on families, and addresses real community solutions to this devastating issue.

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance opposes mandatory minimum sentences as a strategy to address domestic violence in the Commonwealth. Putting our resources towards real solutions like strengthening coordination of systems, creating trauma-informed, healing-centered communities, providing services to both victims and offenders that help to strengthen families, and removing guns from convicted abusers and respondents in protective order cases are all strategies that bring about real safety for victims.

In a Perfect World…Reflections on how we should respond to sexual assault allegations made against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax

Early last month, Dr. Vanessa Tyson came forward to share her story of sexual assault at the hands of Virginia Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Days after Dr. Tyson’s statement, Ms. Meredith Watson came forward with a statement that Mr. Fairfax raped her in a “premeditated and aggressive” assault in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke University.

Between this and the racist images in Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook, the Action Alliance staff, governing body, and members have engaged in hard conversations about our elected leaders and how to respond to revelations of harm they may have committed in the past.

We’ve asked one another  questions like, “What would true accountability look like for each person? What would healing and repair look like for the people most directly affected? How do intersecting oppressions of race and class inform what we do next?”

We published several statements on these questions: a statement about Governor Northam’s yearbook photo, a statement about Lt. Governor Fairfax, followed by a longer call to action that centers the work of building a culture of consent in Virginia.

Building on these important discussions, we’ve asked several Action Alliance members, partners, and supporters to offer their perspectives on what should happen in the wake of the sexual violence allegations made against Lt Governor Fairfax. To frame the conversation, we requested their responses to two questions:

  1. In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?
  2. What is missing from this conversation?

Here’s a small sampling of the voices and perspectives captured by this dialogue.

Our contributors:

Fatima M. Smith, Speaker & Consultant at FMS Speaks, LLC, member of the Action Alliance Training Institute Faculty and Governing Body.

Mike Milnor, Trainer with Justice3D, an organization that educates on issues related to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases, and has partnered with the Action Alliance on a variety of educational initiatives.

Raven Dickerson, Chief Programs Officer for Domestic Violence Services at Shelter House, Inc., a community-based program in Northern Virginia that provides housing and advocacy for people who are homeless and/or affected by domestic violence, and member of the Action Alliance Governing Body.


Question 1: In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?

Fatima M. Smith: Action Alliance and many advocates, including myself, have stated that what should happen in response to Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson is the community starting from a place of belief. This issue is complex because it deals with a black male in power as the perpetrator and a black woman as the victim/survivor. The story is unfolding in the midst of blackface scandals and #muteRKelly and it is another painful reminder that the violence that black women experience is not important. I want society to rally around these black women and say, “we believe you, I see you and I appreciate you sharing your story. ” Let us not get distracted by politics and remember at the core this is about (two) survivors coming forward to share their experience with sexual violence. Instead of asking, “why did it take so long to come forward,” we should be asking, “why does it take us (as a society) so long to believe survivors?” We continuously fail black women in this country when we make the conscious decision to not to believe, not to fight for justice. We see this in the less talked about cases of missing black girls in DC, the school to prison pipeline for black girls, and the police killings of black women.

Mike Milnor: In a perfect world, every sexual assault survivor would feel confident in the response to their situation when deciding whether to report immediately. We however know that is not the case. The point to be made here is that Dr. Tyson is totally normal when it comes to her not disclosing to anyone for years about her assault. She was “triggered” to come out to the Washington Post by her abuser running for public office. When one understands trauma and its effects on the brain this is completely normal. It is difficult to go back and say what “should” have happened in this case. What we can do is go forward with a trauma-informed investigation that begins with a trauma-informed in depth interview of Dr. Tyson. Then if she wishes, an in-depth investigation into what can be corroborated, such as any witnesses she came into contact with immediately after the event, should follow.

 Meredith Watson’s case is also consistent with trauma. She however did immediately disclose to friends and dorm mates and named her abuser. As with Dr. Tyson’s case, a full, trauma -informed investigation beginning with a trauma informed in-depth interview with Ms. Watson is the best practice.

Raven Dickerson: In a perfect world, and I believe in the world we have now, Lt. Governor Fairfax would step down so that the experiences, needs, and voices of survivors can be lifted up into the spotlight that he, and the mention of him, is holding.


Question 2: What is missing from the current conversation?

Fatima M. Smith: I would like to have a conversation about why society is quick to attribute things like sexual maturity and/or hypersexuality to black girls/women who are victims of sexual violence. An examination of why we do not value black women’s lives as a society…this would include a discussion unpacking the impacts of white supremacy which create the jezebel trope and the strong black women trope and how they intersect and create one’s ability to disregard a black woman’s experience.

Mike Milnor: What is missing from this is the opportunity to have a full, non-confrontational conversation with Mr. Fairfax concerning the statements of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson. Mr. Fairfax should be offered the same opportunity as the reporting women, to have his statement taken and then investigated and/or corroborated if possible. Once all statements have been given and fully investigated then we stand in the best position to evaluate what steps should be taken.

Raven Dickerson: We are lacking intentional conversation about how survivors healing, health, and well-being are prioritized in seeking accountability. When we are pursuing accountability for someone who has caused harm, especially someone who is a public figure with institutional power, our narratives are absorbed with all the possibilities of how we can process them through our complex systems of judicial judgment and power. We often forget that another world is possible in which we center healing as the purpose of accountability rather than due process and the continuation of harm.  Another world is possible for our survivors, for those who harm, and for all of us.

Thank you to Fatima, Raven, and Mike for their thoughtful contributions to this conversation.


Talking about sexual violence may raise painful memories for you, a friend, or a loved one. If you or someone you know would like to speak with  a trained advocate and find support, here are two Virginia-based resources available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year:

Statewide Hotline at 1.800.838.8238 | Text:  804.793.9999  | Chat

LGBTQ Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Helpline at 1.866.356.6998  |  Text: 804.793.9999  | Chat


Featured image: https://content.gmu.edu/sites/common/files/rotator-image/Justin_Fairfax.jpg

Cultivate: The 2019 Biennial Statewide Retreat for Advocates and Preventionists

“Cultivate” is defined as to foster the growth of a craft and improve skills through labor and care. For us, our craft is the work to end violence and oppression. This work happens in many places such as advocacy, prevention, policy, and other spheres we find ourselves.  To better serve survivors and our communities, we must take the time to develop new skills, challenge ourselves, and refine our practice. We must take the time to cultivate ourselves, which is why we have chosen it as the theme and our focus for the 2019 Biennial Retreat.

garden2To cultivate means to nurture and help grow. Just as gardeners or farmers tend to their plants and crops, we must tend to ourselves and care for ourselves. Just like you make sure a plant has the right amount of sunlight, the right amount of water, and the right soil, you also need to ensure you are receiving what you need.

Cultivate can mean taking a pause.  This work can stretch and challenge us. We see trauma and oppression face-to-face and its effects on ourselves, our clients, and communities. The retreat will provide space for self and community care in cultural performances, a self-care room, and other events meant to help recharge our minds and bodies.

adrienne maree brown speaks to how we grow as a collective in her book Emergent Strategy, “There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.” We hope as we come together for a few days of learning and expanding ourselves that we also have times of moving together and experience real collaboration among one another.

There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.                                   –adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

Like previous Biennial Retreats, each person will be able to choose a track of workshops they want to participate in, and we’ve brought the spirit of cultivation into each of these spaces. For example, the prevention track is called “Cultivate Resilience” as a nod to the preventionists’ efforts in building resilience in individuals and communities to prevent sexual and intimate partner violence. Other tracks include “Cultivate Your Craft,” a 201 advocacy track, and “Cultivate Leadership,” a specialized track for leadership in your organization or agency such as executive directors or managers. The “Cultivate Community” track offers workshops on relationship building and community connection. Finally, there’s “Cultivate Wholeness,” a track focused on self and community care.

Many of us here at the Action Alliance are excited to help make the theme of “Cultivate” come to life.  We believe it is filled with connections, symbolism, and practices relevant to our statewide community of sexual and domestic violence agencies. This retreat will be a time for individuals to nurture their practice, grow in their expertise, and for our community as a whole to come and rejuvenate ourselves in the work to eliminate violence and oppression.

garden3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


CULTIVATE-SM w date location

Cultivate: 2019 Biennial Retreat | June 5-7, 2019

Emory & Henry College

Click here to learn more about workshops, scholarships, and registration. 

 


Robin Sawyer is a VCU student and MSW Intern at the Action Alliance.

Trauma is an underground river: On Charlottesville, Healing, and Transformative Justice

TRIGGER WARNING: Charlottesville attack, white supremacist violence, physical harm

…….

…….

Almost two years later, I still think about Charlottesville nearly every day. I hear the sickening thud thud thud thud thud of the car hitting people in rapid succession. I see projectiles in the air that my mind could only register at the time as bricks, not what they actually were: shoes knocked off feet from force of impact. I feel the shock of my body hitting the pavement as I tried to run. I remember the fleeting sense that this was where I was going to die. Trampled.

When I consider the arc of trauma in my life, Charlottesville looms large. Most days, it sits on my right shoulder; a dull ache and stiffness from being injured that day. On better days, it slumbers just beneath the surface. I’m not sure it was the hardest thing I’ve ever survived, but it was one of the most terrifying.

Charlottesville is for me both a shared trauma and a private one. I share the experience with the others who were there, and in a different way with the millions of people whose hearts squeezed tight when they bore witness to the horror through captured images. My love is the only person also there on that day with whom I’ve processed what happened. Only she knows how often those pictures hover in my mind’s eye and make my heart squeeze again.

Trauma is an underground river. It winds through invisible passages below the surface, often snaking quietly. Sometimes, though, it roils.

Two weeks ago, my love and I watched BlackKKlansman together. We knew ahead of time that Spike Lee had inserted footage from Charlottesville at the end of his film to illustrate how little has changed since the 70s. We prepared ourselves. It had been nearly 2 years; I thought I was ready to see the footage again with some detachment. But of course, I wasn’t. As we watched the grey Dodge Charger slam into the crowd, nausea rose up in me. My heart drummed like a hummingbird’s wings as I tried to steady my breath. My heart beats just as fast now as write this.

A similar-looking grey Dodge Charger picks up a student at our son’s high school on a regular basis. I’ve noticed it every Monday and Tuesday at 2:15pm in car line since the beginning of the semester. When its rumbling engine revs, it sickens me a little. The rational part of my brain knows it’s not the same car, but the primal part of my brain, the part designed to keep me alive, does not.

When the movie ended, my love and I rewound BlackKKlansman and watched the drone footage of the attack over and over again, pausing and searching the image for ourselves. Looking from that vantage point—a bird’s eye view—that blur there…was that us? Right there in the middle of the intersection? We must have rewound it at least 5 times, feeling grateful for the two cars that impeded his rampage and saved our lives, and sorrow for those who were caught between us and him.

We didn’t know at the time whether this was a single incident or the beginning of more attacks. We wanted to remain alive for our 3 amazing kids and the others we love, so we didn’t stay at the intersection after it happened. I still feel guilt for leaving the scene of the carnage. I wonder if the guy in the grey Dodge Charger feels his heart heavy with remorse looking back, or if he still feels justified in trying to murder as many of us as possible. I’d like to think that time for reflection has helped change his mind.

My father died a year before Charlottesville. I fell asleep many nights as my brain replayed how I held his hand after he died, my grief crystallizing as his body grew cold and stiff. It’s a memory weighted with gratitude but mostly deep sadness and loss. I wouldn’t try to summon the memory; it would just show up and take a stroll through my mind’s eye and my heart as I tried to drift off. After Charlottesville, my falling-asleep brain switched channels and started replaying Charlottesville over and over instead of my dead father. I felt relieved, in a way, for new images to fall asleep to. I wonder how morbid this would sound if I ever said it out loud.

My love and I recently honeymooned on the Yucatán Peninsula. It was magical. One day, we explored a cenote in the middle of the jungle. A cenote is a sinkhole that exposes groundwater underneath when the limestone rock above collapses. We swam through the underground cave, enveloped by a darkness so deep it felt palpable. It was other-worldly and yet not far from the 10-passenger Eurovan that brought us there. Creatures thrive there that are not meant to survive the light of day.

I wonder if a cenote is an apt metaphor for collective trauma: an interlocking network of unmapped underground rivers revealed only when the weight of the earth on top becomes too much to bear. Then again, maybe it’s a metaphor for grief.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what accountability and repair should look like in the wake of harm. I’m sure many others who live in Virginia have too, ever since the Governor’s yearbook was made public with racist images and the Lt. Governor was reported by two women to have sexually assaulted them. Both are serious harms, rooted in different kinds of interlocking, systemic oppressions. What should happen when harms like these come to light is not an easy question to answer.

I’ve worked in the movement to end gender-based violence since I was a student at Oberlin College. It’s the only profession I’ve ever known. In the 1990s, we fought hard for sexual violence and domestic violence to be taken seriously. Rape is a violation and should be a crime in all circumstances, no matter your relationship with the person who hurt you. If a man beat his wife, he should expect the full force of the community to come knocking at his door. Making something a crime affirmed that it was a serious matter and should be treated seriously. We said, “perpetrators need to be held accountable”, but often what we really were saying was “perpetrators should go to jail.” We began to conflate taking responsibility with punishment. We began to conflate accountability with incarceration.

I know now that we were mistaken.

We knew the criminal legal system could deliver neither accountability for perpetrators nor healing for survivors…or we should have known. Indigenous women and other women of color—in particular our Black sisters in the movement—cautioned us again and again not to choose this path, and we failed to listen.

Accountability is an active process that requires the person who has committed harm to take responsibility, acknowledge the impact, express remorse, and commit never to engage in the harm again. None of those things happen when someone is incarcerated. Incarceration punishes and isolates; it does not help us find our humanity–whether we are the ones on the inside of the bars or the outside. The system wasn’t built to help us heal.

IMG_6597Now, 25 years later, I and others in this work have started to reckon with this legacy: how and why did we manage to turn a movement that once held up liberation as our bright future into a profession that is so invested in and bound up with a system that puts people in cages[i]? How could we think more police, more prisons would bring freedom?

Almost everyone who commits violence has also survived it[ii]. How does it shift our perceptions when we stop thinking of someone as either a perpetrator or a survivor and embrace the complexity that most people who use violence are both/and? How would it change my perception of the driver of the grey Dodge Charger if I learned about the trauma he survived before he drove his car into a crowd of people? Knowing wouldn’t mitigate the harm, but perhaps it would shape a path forward beyond containment and retribution.

We’ve built a prison nation by incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. We treat people of color, poor people, people who are trying to migrate to save their families, and other historically oppressed communities as though they are disposable, and it diminishes our humanity. I often think about how my life would be different if I were seen only as the worst thing I’ve ever done, if I were never given the chance to grow and do better. What if everyone were given grace to fail and learn from it. What if we chose all of us[iii]?

I believe in redemption, change, and forgiveness, and I think and talk about it a lot with my friends and colleagues who strive for what we call a “radically hopeful future”: one in which we all thrive.

img_6595.pngBut if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really put those beliefs to the test. I may be able to think of the 20-year-old driver of the grey Dodge Charger as a wounded person, but can I also see him as someone capable of redemption? What would Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin, two people who were directly in his path, need from him, if anything, for healing and repair? What about the family of Heather Heyer, who died at the scene? Here we encounter one of the complexities of trauma, healing, and repair: each person’s experience and needs are different.

I recently read a piece written by a man who tried to kill a police officer when he was 17. Twenty years later, he and the officer met at the officer’s request. The man who wrote it is serving a life sentence for attempted murder. He apologized to the officer for the pain he caused him and his family, sobbing from the weight of his guilt and shame. He said the meeting was the best day of his life. I don’t know, but I imagine something lifted in the officer’s heart too. Perhaps the encounter was transformative for both of them.

We can and should ask more from people who commit harm, more than asking them to sit in a cell and live out their punishment. I wonder if we can think more deeply and with more complexity about justice, accountability, and healing in the aftermath of harm. Something beyond punishment and retribution. Something that strives to maintain the humanity and compassion that we’re all capable of giving and worthy of receiving. Something that could transform us collectively.

I wonder if we could truly stop seeing anyone as disposable, and begin to see all of us as worthy, no matter how badly we fail, how many we hurt. I wonder what would happen if we commit to choose all of us. I wonder how that might change us.

 

Kate McCord is the Movement Strategy & Communications Director for the Action Alliance and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate is working with other coalition leaders across the country to mobilize toward a future in which all of us have what we need to thrive. She first wrote about her experiences in #Charlottesville in a blog post dated August 15, 2017.

#charlottesville #transformativejustice #accountability #harm​​ #whitesupremacist #domesticterrorism


Featured image: Kate McCord

Notes:

[i] Credit to Dr. Mimi Kim for unveiling this concept. Also see Dr. Kim’s related, fascinating paper, Dancing the Carceral Creep: The Anti-Domestic Violence Movement and the Paradoxical Pursuit of Criminalization, 1973 – 1986.

[ii] Danielle Sered, Common Justice. See her powerful 1-minute video here, a longer talk about “Violence, Restoration, and Accountability” (starting at 11:50) here, and a great podcast, On Restorative Justice: What Justice Could Look Like, featuring Danielle Sered and Sonya Shah.

[iii] “We choose all of us” is a sentiment first shared by one of my teachers, Norma Wong. Inspired by Norma’s words, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence has created the beautiful “We Choose All Of Us” Campaign, a middle school and high school campaign to deepen our connections with one another and nurture transformative culture shifts.

TransformHarm.org is a resource hub about ending violence. It offers an introduction to transformative justice. Created by Mariame Kaba and designed by Joseph Lublink, the site includes selected articles, audio-visual resources, curricula, and more.


Join the work of the Action Alliance.

An Advocate’s Guide to the 2019 General Assembly Session  

It’s safe to say that Virginia’s 2019 General Assembly session will largely be remembered for the scandals that extended far beyond Capitol Square. Issues of race, sexual assault, and abortion access have put Virginia’s lawmakers and policy leaders at the center of ongoing nation-wide conversations on harm, healing, and those social and health policy issues that shape our communities. In case you missed it, the Action Alliance has released several statements, calling on advocates and social justice allies to address the injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia and to seize these public conversations on sexual violence and harm as opportunities to ground ourselves in a collective mission of building a culture of consent and disentangling our accountability processes from that of the criminal justice system.

Despite the political scandals having marred this session, lawmakers did pass notable measures on topics ranging from consent education to electoral access and environmental justice. The following is a run-down of some of those measures that impact the sexual and domestic violence field directly and others that promote the world that the Action Alliance and our member-agencies are committed to building together. Please note, for information on specific bills that the Action Alliance supported and opposed this session, see the 2019 General Assembly Report.

ANIMAL CRUELTY IN THE CONTEXT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Two bills were introduced this session that would have recognized violations related to animal cruelty carried out with the intent to threaten, intimidate, coerce, harass, or terrorize an intimate partner. These bills were incorporated into another bill – referred to by animal rights activists as “Tommie’s Law” – which creates a Class 6 felony penalty for cruelly or unnecessarily beating, maiming, mutilating, or killing an animal.

 

BAIL & CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

While a major focus of the 2018 session was reaching bipartisan consensus on modest increases to Virginia’s larceny threshold, criminal justice reform measures this year were largely put on the backburner. Measures to support data transparency with regards to Virginia’s pretrial detention/cash bail system were quickly defeated in both the House and Senate, in addition to broadening both discretionary parole for juvenile offenders and expungement for certain offenders. Meanwhile, the General Assembly moved to require the Department of Corrections begin reporting population statistics of those incarcerated in state correctional institutions, including making statistics available on offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing and Shared Allied Management Units.

 

CONSENT EDUCATION

Legislators approved measures to require Virginia’s high school family life education (FLE) curriculum to incorporate programs on the law and meaning of consent. Under current law, such elements are permissive in any high school FLE curriculum and those school districts that teach this content most effectively do so by partnering with their local sexual and domestic violence agencies.

 

CUSTODY & VISITATION

Every session, there are dozens of bills filed that would have negative impacts on child custody and visitation proceedings/outcomes for survivors who are parents. This year was no different. The Action Alliance spent a significant amount of energy working with allied advocacy agencies and bill patrons alike to prevent the introduction of a set of vague and inconsistent definitions of domestic abuse into the best interests of the child custody factors. Another measure introduced and thankfully defeated would have created an “equal or maximized parenting time” presumption clause in the best interests of the child custody factors – providing judges with the direction to consider maximizing parent-child time in cases “where appropriate”.

 

ELECTORAL ACCESS

While a large majority of this year’s measures to increase poll access, promote campaign transparency, and lift voting restrictions were dead on arrival, the legislature did pass no-excuse absentee voting. The passed legislation creates a seven-day window before an election in which voters can cast ballots in person without having to give an excuse. Enactment of this legislation will not go into effect until the 2020 election.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

The General Assembly backed bipartisan legislation to hold Dominion Energy accountable for cleaning up toxic coal ash (a byproduct of burning coal). The legislation will soon be signed by the governor and will require the complete excavation of more than 28 million tons of toxic coal ash that Dominion currently stores at Chesterfield Power Station, Chesapeake Energy Center, Possum Point Power Station, and Bremo Power Station. This will help to protect the clean water and the health of families that live near these coal ash ponds. For more on environmental justice measures introduced this session, see the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy’s recap here.

 

EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT RATIFICATION

Virginia did not become the 38th state to ratify the ERA. The Senate passed a ratification measure, but it was defeated in a House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee chaired by Delegate Margaret Ransone. A procedural move aimed at bringing the ratification measure to the House floor, championed by Delegate Hala Ayala, was both hotly debated and narrowly defeated late in the session.

ERA Rally

Action Alliance staff members attended an ERA rally in Richmond, February 2019.

FIREARMS ACCESS

This session – like in sessions past – nearly every significant measure seeking to reduce offender access to firearms, prevent intimate partner homicide, and keep communities safe was blocked by the House and Senate. Including several bills that would have expanded firearm prohibitions to permanent protective orders, applied penalties for non-compliance with firearm surrender/seizure processes, provided communities with guidance on firearm surrender/seizure when necessary, and established emergency risk protection orders in an effort to increase bystander capacity to recognize and respond to red flags for escalating and lethal violence in communities.

 

HOUSING STABILITY

A package of bills aimed at reducing the likelihood of an eviction among low-income Virginians – the product of policy recommendations from the Virginia Housing Commission – has been cleared by the Virginia legislature and signed by the Governor. Virginia localities, including Richmond and the Hampton Roads area, have some of the highest eviction rates in the nation and the Governor has made expanding access to affordable housing a priority of his administration. These efforts certainly support survivors who often find themselves facing financial and housing instability as a direct result of the violence they’ve experienced.

 

IMMIGRANT ADVOCACY

The legislature blocked measures to grant immigrant communities access to driver-privilege cards, in-state tuition for DACA eligible students, and other legislation that would have supported connected and thriving communities. Most concerning is that the final state budget approved by the House and Senate eliminated funding for Census outreach in the Commonwealth, a move that will undermine a fair and accurate count of Virginians.

 

LYNCHING & VIRGINIA’S LEGACY OF RACIAL VIOLENCE

The House and Senate passed resolutions in which the General Assembly acknowledges “with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth” and calls for reconciliation among all Virginians. To this end, there were a number of impassioned floor speeches and testimonies provided by Delegates and Senators alike this session. In case you missed it, here is Delegate Jay Jones’ speech on the deep impact of racism in Virginia, promoting healing, and working to bridge racial divides and unify our Commonwealth.

 

PROTECTIVE ORDERS

Every session, there are dozens of proposed changes made to protective order (PO) statutes. In 2019, legislators agreed on several changes/updates to the process. One bill clarifies that if a court is lawfully closed and a full hearing for a preliminary protective order cannot be held within 15 days of the issuance, the hearing will be held on the next day that courts are open. Another change to current PO statutes requires any elementary or secondary school principle – who has an enrolled student for which a judge, court, or magistrate has issued a protective order for the protection of the child – to notify school personnel/educators who would have legitimate interest in such information that an order has been issued. This legislation also requires Virginia Board of Education to establish guidelines and develop model policies to aid school boards in the implementation of such notification. Finally, another bill requires that when a preliminary protective order is issued in an ex parte hearing where the petition for the order is not supported by an affidavit, the court issuing the order state the basis of the order including a summary of the allegations made and the court’s findings.

In the gallery

Action Alliance staff and members were recognized in the House Gallery this session during Legislative Advocacy Day in January.

REDISTRICTING

After several judicial interventions and over a year of pressure placed on Virginia’s lawmakers, a deal was struck to create a 16-member redistricting commission that would redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries, with a focus on correcting racial gerrymandering, after the 2020 census.

 

REPRODUCTIVE & SEXUAL HEALTH FOR SURVIVORS

Unfortunately, all of our priority bills (and those championed by our policy partners) were defeated this session. Including measures to expand the Family Medical Leave Act, repealing Virginia’s burdensome TRAP restrictions, as well as removing medically-unnecessary requirements currently placed upon Virginians seeking abortion care, enshrining access to birth control and bodily autonomy in our code, expanding ACA provisions for no-copay insurance coverage to include a broader host of reproductive health care services, and more.

 

SCHOOL SAFETY

A special committee on school/public safety convened shortly after last year’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL and produced a list of significant policy recommendations for Virginia’s legislators going into the 2019 session. Some of these recommendations, including changes to training for administrators and improving Virginia’s student-to-counselor ratio, passed the legislature.

 

SEXUAL ASSAULT RESPONSE & SERVICES

Three notable measures backed by the General Assembly this session will serve to provide sexual assault survivors with greater access to services and protection while supporting coordinated community responses to these issues. One bill directs the Virginia Crime Commission to study statewide access to forensic nurse examiners with a focus on recommendations for improving access statewide. Another bill removes Sexual Assault Response Teams and Multidisciplinary Child Sexual Abuse Teams from the list of those public entities subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. And finally, new legislation will prohibit employers from requiring employees to execute or renew any provision in a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement that has the purpose or effect of concealing claims of sexual assault.

 

TRAUMA TO PRISON PIPELINE

While advocates during the 2018 session were largely successful in setting the stage for significant advances with regards to dismantling the trauma to prison pipeline in Virginia, legislators struck down most reasonable policy advancements on these issues in 2019. Measures to protect students from being charged with “disorderly conduct,” which is a misdemeanor and can come with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail, were blocked this session.

For information on specific bills, including those that the Action Alliance supported and opposed this session, see our 2019 General Assembly Report.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. 

Building a Culture of Consent in Virginia

These past few weeks in Virginia politics have not been easy. It started with a manufactured scandal surrounding Delegate Kathy Tran’s bill that would have repealed harmful TRAP laws on abortion access, including 24-hour waiting periods, requirements to obtain multiple layers of physician consent, and requirements that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital. Soon after this, Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page surfaced featuring people in blackface and KKK attire. Just a few days later, Attorney General Mark Herring, who had joined in the chorus of statements urging for the resignation of Governor Northam, also admitted to donning blackface. And now, two survivors have bravely come forward to share their accounts of being sexually assaulted by Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax.

As these painful conversations continue to play out, the Action Alliance has released several statements, calling on advocates and social justice allies to address the injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia and to seize these public conversations on sexual violence and harm as opportunities to ground ourselves in a collective mission of building a culture of consent and disentangling our accountability processes from that of the criminal justice system.

As a statewide voice on issues of sexual and domestic violence, the Action Alliance works for a radically different future where survivors are met with compassion and respect and where public conversations on harm focus on reparation and healing and on the need to invest in sexual violence prevention.

Committing ourselves to sexual violence prevention and building a culture of consent

In the age of #MeToo, we as a society are finally grappling with what community accountability might look like for those who do harm and the importance of believing survivors. These are long overdue and critical conversations to have. However, what this age of reckoning and justice-seeking also calls on us to do is to explore the nuances of cultural norms that might nurture a future in which every person has the knowledge and skills necessary to practice informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent. This is the antidote to sexual violence and we believe every human is deserving of experiencing healthy and joyful sexuality, centered in pleasure.

Wood word yes on a grey background

If healthy, violence-free relationships are our collective desire, then the conversation around harm can shift to focusing on how we might channel that desire into building a world in which these healthy, violence-free relationships and interactions are the norm. Here are just a few ideas for how we might call on our neighbors, families, communities, and policy leaders to invest in the prevention of sexual violence and build a culture of consent:

Provide opportunities for consent education and healthy sexuality to be taught early, often, and in multifaceted and developmentally appropriate ways in our families, schools, and communities.

Call on policy leaders to invest in sexual violence prevention and promote thriving communities in which healthy sexuality and healthy relationships are core values.

  • Ask policy leaders and stakeholders to provide schools with the resources they need to teach Family Life Education/Sex education effectively.
  • Review Virginia’s Family Life Education curricula and talk to teachers, administrators, and students about whether this education is consistent with over 30 years of research + best practices in behavior-change and health promotion.
  • Support every community in the Commonwealth having access to sexual violence prevention programming. Currently, only 6 communities in Virginia are funded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for this life-saving work.
  • Call on policy leaders to support funding for community-based Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies to build and sustain prevention programming. There are no dedicated state funds for the prevention of sexual violence in Virginia.
  • Ensure that policy leaders are investing in accessible healthcare, including preventative care, for all Virginians.
  • Pay attention to whether your policy leaders are crafting and supporting tax and employment policies – like broadening paid family/medical leave and earned income tax credits – that support healthy families.

Right now, violence, harassment, and oppression are all around us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Families and communities have the power to support transformative pivots in our culture. We can discuss these nuanced and difficult topics (like consent) with friends and neighbors, with our children, and with relatives. And we can commit ourselves to dismantling practices and norms that sustain a current culture of silence, shame, and avoidance on these topics giving way to a future in which wholeness, health, and consent are the new norms.

We at the Action Alliance have a compelling vision for a world where all of us thrive. We believe this better world is possible. We believe we are the ones we’ve been waiting for to make this future happen. We choose all of us to be a part of this future.

We seek a radically hopeful future where:

  • individuals are free and have what they need to reach their full potential;
  • relationships, families, and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful;
  • government, institutions and systems are rooted in equity and justice;
  • all decisions are grounded in whether they will benefit our future descendants, as well as our beautiful, sustaining earth.

With your help, this vision for a radically hopeful future – where sexual violence does not exist – really isn’t too distant.

For more information and resources on our work to prevent sexual violence in Virginia, check out TeachConsent.org, learn more about our statewide prevention projects, and support the Building Healthy Futures Fund.

Both images: Adobe Stock


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. He also likes memes and baby animals.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

Action Alliance Statement on Sexual Assault Allegations Made Against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax

As the public conversation on sexual assault allegations against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax continues to evolve, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance would like to share a few of the values that are central to the work of the Action Alliance and our statewide network of sexual and domestic violence survivor advocates and preventionists:

  • Choosing to come forward and share an experience of assault can be deeply re-traumatizing. In the movement to end sexual and domestic violence, we work every single day to create an environment in which survivor stories are met with belief, support, and compassion.

 

  • There is no place for character assassination in this conversation. We start from a place of dignity and worth for every human and remind ourselves of that value as we support finding clarity and justice for both parties.

 

  • We seek to nurture a future in which every person has the knowledge and skills necessary to practice informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent. This is the antidote to sexual violence and we believe every human is deserving of experiencing healthy and joyful sexuality, centered in pleasure.

 

  • We focus on the harm that has been done and how to repair it, rather than deeming people “good” or “bad”. This is one of the principles of restorative justice. Most people in the world have both been harmed and have committed harm. Thinking of people as either “good” or “bad” creates a false binary and is ineffective in creating the future we believe is possible. We must learn new ways of holding each other accountable that foster growth and connection.

Featured image: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Action Alliance Statement on Governor Northam’s Yearbook Photo

As a statewide coalition fighting for racial and gender justice, we are deeply disturbed by the racist photos revealed in Governor Ralph Northam’s college yearbook and the Governor’s own admission of donning blackface, a racist and dehumanizing behavior. While abhorrent, we must acknowledge that individual acts of overt and covert racism do not happen in a vacuum. They are planted and fostered by broader—and often less visible—ideologies and structures that are driven by and support white supremacy.

Given the structural and insidious nature of racism, it is imperative that the Governor’s actions be viewed through a wider lens beyond his past behavior and his current explanations. If we remain solely focused on one man’s problematic behavior, we limit solutions to consequences for one man and miss opportunities for expansive change.

The injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia has created structural inequalities which affect the lives of Virginians every day. Many of these mechanisms are carried out by the state. Harms include voter disenfranchisement, a cash bail system which criminalizes poverty, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, maternal mortality among Black mothers, high rates of intimate partner homicides against Black women, and mass incarceration and surveillance of communities of color, to name a few.

We can and must do better. In keeping with our values of equality and justice, the Action Alliance operates from a racial justice lens. We seek to undermine and dismantle the racist legacy of our beloved Commonwealth and re-imagine a world where the humanity and dignity of all people are recognized and embraced. In order to create a world where relationships, families and communities are healthy, equitable, and joyful, we must think and work broadly to address the underlying factors that drive domination and violence.­­

In this moment, we have all been given an opportunity to listen, reflect and mobilize to address structural racism in Virginia with renewed vigor. The Action Alliance believes that pathways to justice and healing must include listening to individuals and communities most affected, addressing harm with a focus on accountability and reparations, and always working toward wholeness and restoration. This moment calls us to reflect on big questions, such as:

  • What options exist to hold ourselves and each other accountable, for our words and behaviors, past and present, while remaining in community?
  • What can we all, including the Virginia Democratic and Republican parties, do to demonstrate a true commitment to accountability and reparations for historical racism, now and in the years ahead?
  • How can we shape government, institutions and systems so they are rooted in equity and justice?

The answers to these questions will offer us a path forward.

The Action Alliance calls upon our policy leaders to listen to and work with Black communities across Virginia to determine next steps in the hard process of reparations for the harms that have been committed against communities of color, steps that would put Virginia on a powerful path toward wholeness and liberation.


Featured image: AP Photo/Steve Helber