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Charlottesville's Work on 'Changing the Narrative'

Jordy Yager

In the wake the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville this past summer, several groups of African American teenagers decided to take their futures, and their narratives, into their own hands.

This Friday, more than 100 teens from Charlottesville High School are planning to trek to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center for a day-long workshop on race.

“After the events of August 12th, a lot of the youth at CHS and Buford they wanted to do something to keep the momentum going, keep the conversation going beyond the summer,” said Zyahna Bryant, 17, a junior at CHS.

Bryant was the one, who two years ago, created the petition to remove the Jim Crow-era statue here of Robert E. Lee. She’s at the front of the local racial justice movement, and she helped organize the workshop, which will start with a viewing of the movie, I Am Not A Racist Am I?

“It’s going to be very helpful in shaping who you are, and understanding your own identity,” said Bryant. “And then from there, you can understand how you fit into this movement of racial justice, social justice. Once you know what your strengths are, and the things that effect you, you can then use that as a strength towards a bigger collective movement.”

But the movie’s just a launch pad. For the rest of the day, teens will hold their own Dialogue on Race, a city-led initiative aimed at addressing hard realities of race and racism. Over the last month, teens on the Charlottesville Youth Council, including Bryant, got taught how to facilitate the discussions themselves.

“Okay, so what you want to do is get them to talk…” said Gretchen Ellis.

The Youth Council advises city councilors on things like school safety or racial disparities in classes. Last year they asked for a full-time adult supervisor to help advocate for young people across the city. And they got it.

Daniel Fairley II is the Youth Opportunity Coordinator for the city.  And over the last three months, he’s has opened conversations with about a dozen organizations for potential partnerships. He also helps lead the Youth Council meetings, but one of his primary focuses has been the Alliance for Black Male Achievement or BMA.

The focus on black men is something Fairley calls… “targeted universalism, where if you have a population that is most vulnerable, and you help that population, it then helps out people all throughout the world and all throughout the rest of the city,” he said. “So, if you think about curb cuts for instance…”

Using success in a variety of ways, and so making sure that we're allowing our students to see that there's a different narrative then what they've been fed through the media.

Curb cuts are the dips in the sidewalk that transition up and down from the street. Initially they were for people with disabilities. But they turned out to help everyone: parents with strollers, bikers, kids. Similarly, by focusing on black men, Fairley says family structures will get stronger, along with the city’s economy, and racial disparities could decrease.

“What we want to do is give black men every opportunity that we can for them to succeed,” said Fairley.

But that’s a multi-generational process, and some of the barriers are more pervasive than just lining up good paying jobs. And so with a $10,000 grant from the Bama Works Fund, Fairley’s partnered with Light House Studios, a local non-profit that helps teens make films.

Together, a group of young black boys this summer will get paid to make at least 6 short documentaries, focusing each on a local black man who embodies success.

“Using success in a variety of ways, and so making sure that we’re allowing our students to see that there’s a different narrative then what they’ve been fed through the media,” said Fairley.

This is commonly called “changing the narrative,” and focuses on dispelling the stereotypes propelled by white-owned media, that black men are failures or criminals or lazy. These false narratives create cycles of cynicism and self-degradation. Joe Vena is the program director for Light House.

“For these students to be addressing that, the fact that they are young men themselves who face the danger and the poison around this narrative, for them to get the chance to tell the story is very exciting for us,” said Vena.

The filming is expected to begin this July, and Vena hopes they can make a longer film that they can enter into festivals. For his part, Fairley says, he’ll be embarking on a year-long listening tour this fall, to hear from as many black middle and high school students as possible about what the city can provide for them.

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