Column: In the aftermath of Charlottesville, we are the leaders we are looking for

Published August 17 2017

Over the last few days, I've heard from many friends, colleagues and neighbors: they're dismayed about Charlottesville, Va., about the escalating hate they see swirling around us, about not knowing what to do in response.

Everyone I've spoken to wants to help change the tenor of bigotry in our country and our local communities, but most do not know how. They are looking for leadership.

As the director of Community Tampa Bay, an anti-discrimination organization that empowers individuals to be advocates in their schools, workplaces and spheres of influence, I know this to be true: You are the leader you are looking for.

Each of us has the capacity to change, to act, to intervene and to advocate. Each of us has the power every day to recognize when our own biases arise; to interrupt stereotypes when we hear them; to believe peers and colleagues when they tell us they are experiencing discrimination; to speak up every time we hear or see an instance of prejudice, even when it is uncomfortable. Even when we may be met with disagreement in those moments.

We are the leaders we are looking for.

Each of us can make the choice to listen more than we speak. To educate ourselves about systemic oppression and why bigotry is still pervasive in our country today. To learn about local organizations — particularly those led by individuals of color — doing anti-bias work. To support those organizations and efforts and influence others to do the same.

We are the change we are looking for.

A few years ago, ANYTOWN, Community Tampa Bay's signature youth diversity and leadership program, served a young man who disclosed that he came from a white supremacist family. At the end of ANYTOWN, he disavowed white supremacy because of what he learned, because of the powerful cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships he developed there and because of the values he learned that challenged the toxic values he learned in his home. He could have easily been the leader of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, but he wasn't, because he learned that he could change. He learned that he could be a positive force for healing our communities rather than dividing them.

Each of us has the capacity for change; for action; for leadership. These times demand nothing less.

Jennifer Yeagley is executive director of Community Tampa Bay, an organization working toward a community free from all forms of discrimination. It provides opportunities for dialogue and cross-cultural interactions through customized training, education and other services that give individuals the tools to promote inclusion and equity in their schools, workplaces and our broader community.