At VPP, we stand against racism. We stand in solidarity with the Black community and with communities of color to fulfill the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”
June is usually a time when many young people are thinking about graduation celebrations and summer plans. This year, however, there is more weighing on their hearts and minds. Now in our 12th week of quarantine, students and families are grappling with the sickness and death caused by COVID-19 as well as economic uncertainties, isolation, new ways of learning and the emotional stress that comes with these conditions.
Yet, that is not all. The heinous murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by the police is an all too familiar reminder of the structural racism that black and brown Americans experience every day of their lives. We are angry and scared about the hatred we are experiencing. These are feelings that many students in the Greater Washington region, one of the most diverse in the U.S., share and must grapple with as they mature and learn about the social complexities of our country.
As I consider how unsettling things may seem to young people in our community right now, I reflect on my own youth. I remember vividly the fear and insecurity I felt when the riots of 1968 broke out in cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Until April 4, 1968, I was focused on getting a summer job, graduating from high school the next year and going to the college of my choice. But on that day, the world looked very different and was never the same.
Getting home from Theodore Roosevelt High School that day was a harrowing experience. I had to cross Georgia Avenue where looting started almost immediately. Once the announcement was made and school was closed, everyone was confused, angry and concerned about their safety.
For the days and weeks afterward, I was afraid for myself, family, friends and neighbors as the looting continued, our city was under curfew, police patrolled our streets and the National Guard occupied my high school gym and football field.
At that time in my life, I had to face the social complexities of our country. I had to understand and learn how to live my life in this context. In the past week, these feelings have intensified. I keep telling myself we can never stop working to protect the civil rights and positive gains made in America over my lifetime.
The stressors on our young people today continue to be much heavier and the uncertainties of life are much greater than those I encountered growing up in Petworth, or imagined just 12 weeks ago.
At VPP, we cannot stop thinking about how the young people in our community are absorbing the information and feeling the stress, whether they are directly affected or experiencing the broader anxiety of our current climate. We know that the students VPP and our partners work with are, and will be, more vulnerable as these events and issues inflict added trauma to their lives.
At this time, VPP and our partners remain committed to ensuring that the young people in our region have the tools and support they need to be safe, succeed and thrive.
We will continue to invest in dismantling the structural racism and implicit biases that enforce the status quo. Every young person should have the opportunity to get a good education, health care and career training, allowing them to learn, graduate, and become healthy, successful adults.
I ask you to reflect, as I have, on the words of President Kennedy in a major speech on civil rights on June 11, 1963. “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents . . . The heart of the question is whether all Americans are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
This is a daunting time and there will be more trying days to come, but this work is critical to ensure a better life for today’s young people and it cannot be done alone. We need collective action. We will continue to work hard every day to ensure that every young person believes they can realize their dreams and that their community will protect and support them in becoming thriving adults. Together, we will continue our fight for children, youth and families—and we will succeed. We all have contributions to make in helping America fulfill its ideal of “liberty and justice for ALL”.
Carol Thompson Cole