A colorful mural has bloomed over the concrete pavement of IX Art Park in recent days. Emily Anness designed and painted the blue, orange and yellow mural, along with volunteers from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia and NewGen Peacebuilders, to display statistics about Charlottesville’s population, achievement gap in local schools and food and housing insecurity.
That data guided conversations around circular tables underneath a tent at the most recent Community Table event, and United Way of Thomas Jefferson Area’s director, Ravi Respeto, said she hopes it will continue to guide discussions and commitments to equity across the city in the future.
“Providing people with the data is empowering,” Respeto said.
The free event, called Community Table, is the third such dinner seminar that the local United Way has put on since the deadly white nationalist rally in 2017 and is an attempt to get a bunch of different people under one room — or tent, in this case — and share their personal experiences and hopes for Charlottesville. Thursday’s event featured a series of small group conversations facilitated by NewGen Peacebuilders volunteers, who are high school and college students trained to work on conflict resolution and education.
Price Thomas, the marketing director at Montpelier and a native of Charlottesville, has attended and volunteered at two previous events.
“We love Charlottesville, but everything that happened in August of a couple years ago heightened the need to do something or feel like we’re doing something positive,” Thomas said. “What we’re trying to do here is catalyze some conversations and do so in a way that feels authentic and honest.”
Making the world and Charlottesville better may entail some messy, hard conversations, he said, but holding those conversations within a safe setting helps people learn a vocabulary to discuss racism, trauma, inequity and diversity.
“We bring everyone together so they can do what everyone loves, which is eat, and then give them license and freedom to speak freely and have an open conversation about what you think the community is and what it can be and all the various ways it can or cannot cater to you,” he said.
Thomas has been surprised by the level of honesty at previous events, he said, but a willingness to talk openly is the only way people will consider new perspectives and ideas.
“Small actions can really make waves,” he said.
Respeto said that as United Way considered hosting another dinner, officials decided to put one on as a city of Charlottesville Unity Days event and as part of a lineup that attempts to celebrate healing and diversity education during the lead up to the anniversary of the deadly white nationalist rally of 2017.
“What better time to get together around unity?” she said, encouraging participants to come with an open mind and to plan to follow up with a fellow participant in the coming days to continue talking.
Jim Ryan, president of UVa, said he viewed the time after the white supremacist rallies as an opportunity for the university to mend fences and build relationships with surrounding localities.
“I had this inkling that, as often happens out of tragedy, there is possibility. I thought this might break a few things open that should be broken open and open up some conversations that are long overdue, including some relationships about the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and some surrounding counties,” he said.
He said he believed that a strong relationship between the university and surrounding localities was crucial to each institution’s success but that the relationship was not as strong as it could be. He cited the recent work of the Community Working Group — a panel of local officials and community leaders, to come up with top areas of concern that UVa should work on — and recent initiatives by the university to raise its minimum wage.
“It’s incredibly important that UVa comes in with humility about how we partner with you,” he said. “If we trust one another, and we feel like we have a part in this community, we may have disagreements about where we are and how we’re going to get somewhere, but we’ll understand that we are all in community.”
Patricia Schaefer, co-founder of NewGen Peacebuilders, said she often references her now-two years of work training peacebuilders in Charlottesville while traveling across the country and the world.
Creating peace is a concept much bigger and stronger than telling people to simply be nicer, Schaefer said; peacebuilders must make sure that a cross-section of the community, especially children, get to work on issues of jobs, health care, housing and education.
“I find myself saying, ‘You have to know what’s happening in Charlottesville,’” she recalled telling leaders in other towns. “Between youth peace education and hosting these events and a strategic plan to work on the issues, I want you to know, people perk up and they want to know what comes out of this gathering. I can’t wait to report on what comes out of this night and share you as a model for other cities.”