Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
As we watch the events in Ferguson, Mo., unfold, I am thankful for the progress we have made in Arlington to create a more diverse and welcoming community. I am even more determined that we work together to foster civic engagement and leadership opportunities for African Americans and to honor the historic contributions of African Americans in Arlington and all Arlingtonians who have worked to eliminate discrimination and expand opportunity.
Since I was younger than I can remember, I have watched documentaries on the American civil rights movement. Growing up in the 1990s, my mother made sure I understood the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans in our country and also how far we had to go as a community and a country.
These early conversations and experiences shaped my philosophy about civic engagement. I have wanted to do everything I can to repay those who lost their lives and sacrificed so much for me to go to integrated schools, use the same bathrooms as everyone else, and live in any neighborhood I wanted to make my home.
Not long ago, things were very different.
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that American schools should be desegregated. In defiance of the Court, our state government in Richmond chose to work actively to prevent integrated schools.
In the midst of Virginia’s “massive resistance” efforts, the NAACP filed a suit on behalf of Arlington parents and students. Judge Albert V. Bryan ordered the Arlington schools to be desegregated. In 1959, four Black students entered Stratford Junior High School (now H.B. Woodlawn) with the protection of Arlington police officers, changing our history forever.
Since the 1950s, the struggle for full equality has changed. While our schools are legally desegregated, African Americans are still not fully represented in political leadership.
I founded Virginia Leadership Institute (VLI) in 2006 with the goal of increasing the number of African American elected officials in Virginia.
African Americans are 20 percent of the Virginia population and approximately 8 percent of the population in Arlington, yet only about 250 African Americans across the Commonwealth hold elected offices (county boards, constitutional officers, school boards, city councils, state legislature, Congress).
VLI believes that our elected and appointed officials should be diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like.
We believe that residents can be represented effectively by someone different than themselves, yet VLI also believes that one’s background, experiences and characteristics can provide different perspectives that are important as leaders seek to represent and discover solutions for growing and changing communities in Arlington, and throughout Virginia.
VLI, based in Arlington, focuses on teaching African Americans skills needed to win elections and govern successfully. VLI also provides personal leadership consultations to assist them on their life journeys.
In 2014, there are many who question why an organization would focus on helping one group of people get elected to office. Yet current events show us that diversity in leadership continues to be an important element of creating safe and healthy communities as well as addressing crises.
And we remember that we are only 60 years removed from the Brown decision that marked the beginning of the end of legal, state-supported racial discrimination. Under that Jim Crow system, African Americans were aggressively denied the opportunity to realize their full potential. It remains important to address the vestiges of that system.
In the last two years, VLI has recognized 20 African American leaders from across Virginia under the age of 40 who have made a significant impact on their communities, several who are from Arlington. They have expanded their skills, which will help them and us tackle the challenges of the new millennium. These leaders are moving Arlington, Virginia, and our country forward.
Today, VLI strives to fully integrate our elected offices and to do what Arlington has done well and our nation has strived to do throughout our history: provide more opportunities for all people to play their role in making ours a more perfect union.
For more information on the Virginia Leadership Institute, please visit www.virginialead.org.
Krysta Jones is the Founder and CEO of the Virginia Leadership Institute and has served as Chair of the Arlington County Commission on the Status of Women.