“It’s like a little hippie, mini-Austin kind of feel,” is how Carla Hallman describes her hometown—a town she still sees as defined by its inordinate amount of non-profit organizations, farmers’ markets and festivals.
“So to have people come to our town and just rip it apart was really hard for a lot of people, and it just came out of the blue, so it was just not something that we ever anticipated having to deal with.”
As President of the Junior League of Charlottesville, Carla realized that she had to send a compelling message on behalf of her members in response to the protests and violence that took place. Within days of the harrowing events, she offered this call to action: “We will not only condemn the vitriol experienced this weekend by voice, but in our hearts and actions, and show our community that we are here to provide trained volunteers. Now is the time to be ready to assist in reclaiming the Charlottesville that we know and hold dear.”
When I reflect on this extraordinary statement of leadership, two powerful yet opposing truths come to mind. One is that this is a remarkably divided time for our country. With neighbor pitted against neighbor over issue after issue, it’s clear we are experiencing a serious time of division.
The other powerful truth is that there are people and organizations working every day to unify our country, one community at a time. I am so proud that The Junior League is one of the organizations leading the way in this important effort.
In a country where different segments of the population are not talking with each other about important yet sensitive issues, community conversations are critical. As part of their community roundtable series, the Junior League of Birmingham is convening thought-leaders to share their insights and activate those critical conversations. One roundtable focused on confronting stereotypes of the LGBTQ population, a conversation that led LGBTQ members of the Birmingham community to feel more acknowledged and safer than they had in the past. For the Junior League of Abilene, they are using the power of the dinner table to break down the barriers of faith, ethnicity and profession to spur conversations on how to improve relations between police forces and African-Americans, among other matters.
Spearheading efforts to combat complex challenges in a community is another way our Leagues are bridging divides. For the Junior League of Duluth, the challenge is food insecurity. The League responded by raising over $100,000 to confront the issue, while leading an effort with the City of Duluth and other community partners to build a deep-water greenhouse on a site damaged by a flood in 2012. The greenhouse not only will revitalize the site, it will increase vegetable production while providing transitional employment opportunities, and feature an edible forest and outdoor classroom for those in the community. For the Junior League of Los Angeles, the challenge was bridging the gap between foster youth and access to post-secondary education. By connecting advocates and public officials with members of the Los Angeles community through its Civic Leadership Forum, they commenced a long-term process to help foster youth successfully transition from high school to college and, ultimately, a career path.
Then, of course, there is the sheer force of our example, or as Carla puts it, “the re-teaching of our persona.” That Carla is a black president of a predominantly white Junior League—one she acknowledges would not have had her as a member decades ago—proves that any community has the power to become a place of unity and a force for inclusion. And with their conscious work to bridge Charlottesville’s socio-economic divides, including exploring the idea of expanding access to Junior League membership through dues scholarships as well as mentoring in immigrant and low-income communities, they are sending a clear message: the only way to strengthen a community is by unifying it.
Tough conversations. Spearheading engagement. The force of our example. In an incredibly divided time for our country, this is the way forward.