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Progressive Voice: One Small, Tangible Step Toward Equity

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Cheryl Moore

Like many people, I was deeply moved by the racial justice protests that marked the summer of 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t feel comfortable marching in large groups, but I knew there had to be a way for me to make a difference. What could I do, using the experience and resources that I already had?

The answer began to emerge as I was preparing for a meeting of the Mount Olivet Foundation, which has a more than 50-year history of providing grants and loans to students pursuing higher education. The foundation president and I discussed the tumultuous events of the summer, both expressing our wish to do something that would promote equity in our own community. Then we had an idea: maybe the foundation could establish scholarships exclusively for Black or Latinx students. Perhaps this could be a tangible way to address unequal access to post-secondary education that restricts career choices and earning power for many young people of color.

We then convened a group of board members to develop the scholarship parameters and begin raising funds for the Mount Olivet Foundation Equity Scholarship. This was a new venture because preference for receiving foundation grants had usually been given to applicants with financial need who had a connection to Mount Olivet UMC or to those committed to serving the United Methodist Church.

For the new scholarship, however, we planned to reach out into the wider community. We discussed the difference between “equality” — treating everyone the same way — and “equity” — recognizing that many young people of color often encounter unique obstacles to obtaining higher education and need different opportunities and resources.

With a goal of providing substantive support for students who demonstrated significant financial need, particularly if they were the first in their family to attend college, we came up with an award of $5,000 per year, renewable for four years. A generous foundation board member offered to match contributions up to $50,000. Donations arrived, and we soon had almost $100,000.

Dotty and Jim Dake, who for many years had supported the work of the Mount Olivet Foundation, were early donors. Jim said, “The murder of George Floyd jolted us out of our complacency, and our study of the effects of systemic racism in Arlington led us to want to do more.”

The foundation made its first award in June 2021 to a young Black woman from Arlington who now attends Northern Virginia Community College. The plan is to continue fundraising so the fund will become an endowment that will benefit her and other students well into the future. “We see the Mount Olivet Foundation’s equity scholarship as a small but tangible step toward racial justice in our community,” said Jim Dake.

With this action, we hope to begin to remedy some of the effects of racism and, more recently, of the pandemic. The loss of lives and livelihoods during the pandemic has been felt profoundly. Some Black and Latinx families have had to choose between paying for rent and food and writing a check for college tuition. Some students saw their grades decline when they were forced to balance their own academics with supporting the schooling of younger siblings, thereby missing opportunities for merit-based aid.

The media have shared statistics on how the pandemic has increased the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” According to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom, college enrollment of Black students has remained flat since 2010, after a substantial rise during the previous 10 years. The Washington Post reported that enrollment of Latinx students dropped 5.4% for the 2020 fall semester, which reversed a previous steady increase in the matriculation of Latinx students. The long-term effects are telling: putting off college can come at a big cost to students’ future earnings, which exacerbates inequity in our society.

More than 60 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared 11 a.m. on Sunday was “the most segregated hour in America,” Mount Olivet UMC and other faith communities are re-examining their historic roles and recognizing that they may have played a part in sustaining racism. Many church members are committed to transforming systems that have given white people advantages over their sisters and brothers of color. We hope this scholarship, as well as other racial equity initiatives at Mount Olivet, is a step in that direction.

Cheryl Moore is a longtime Arlington activist and volunteer who lives in the Westover neighborhood and is a member of Mount Olivet Methodist Church in Arlington.

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