October 11, 2021

By Martha Ann Stallings (mstallin@vt.edu) and Andy Morikawa (andrjm7@vt.edu)

The eighth annual Dialogue on Race (DOR) Summer Summit convened Saturday, August 28th at an outdoor recreational facility. More than 150 community members gathered to mark DOR’s progress in combating racial injustice issues articulated 10 years ago by the African American community in Montgomery County. The organizing conference declared,

Racial problems persist in Montgomery County.  While many African Americans in the community are aware of these issues, they are not often discussed in the wider community. To bring these problems to light and begin to address them, we propose a dialogue on black-white race relations in the County. How, we have been asking ourselves, can we confront the many issues and concerns facing African Americans and peoples of color?  Some issues are outright obvious– like racial profiling with which we are all too familiar. Some are less obvious.  All are destructive and persistent. We have researched nationally and regionally for an approach to taking action. The best answer we have found is local. 

        The Dialogue on Race is a grassroots initiative to combat racism in five key issue areas: education, law enforcement, employment, African American presence in community governance, and the culture and practices of Jim Crow and white privilege. The DOR organizes around the five standing issue groups, comprised of citizens including chiefs of police, the county sheriff, county public school superintendent, teachers, university faculty, students and retirees. Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance has from the outset provided technical support and resources for the DOR steering group.  IPG Senior fellow, Andy Morikawa, is a founding steering member.

        Annually, the DOR convenes community summits, large scale community gatherings, one in the summer, one in the  winter.  At the summits, the issue groups report on progress and focus on emergent themes. This year’s theme was Student Voices: Reflecting on Race and Racism in Our Public Schools.

        Teacher Ryan Wade, the Equity Lead at Blacksburg Middle School, has been an active member of the DOR Education Issue Group for several years. He continues to be successful in helping others hear and learn from the stories of students of color, their experiences and needs. Stories of racism experienced in schools demonstrated the importance of DOR’s work advocating for and being committed to stand for the rights of Black students.

Dialogue on Race Summer Summit 2021
Students Bela Williams, left, and Kenya Bagwell speak at the Dialogue on Race Summer Summit. Photo Credit: Andy Morikawa.

        Students Bela Williams and Kenya Bagwell shared stores of the racism and prejudice they experience daily in public school settings. The 150 community members gathered at the 2021 Dialogue on Race Summer Summit listened attentively as they told their personal stories about the ways, big and small, covert and underhanded, that peers sent racist signals their way: like the confederate flag on the top of a wallet, just showing in a pants pocket. How shocking for Kenya, a young woman who had moved here recently, to be confronted by racist culture. And finally, deciding to stand up and speak out to her Equity Lead who helped take care of the problem. Bela advocated for opportunities and spaces in schools where students of color can meet to support and share with one another.