PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities is an organization that brings together schools, businesses and community groups to help them achieve success through inclusion. VCIC has been around for 85 years and its work continues to be important during the pandemic and everything 2020 throws at us.

“We’re working with banks, for example, that have said we want a two or three year engagement with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities to focus on culture change. We’re working with a number of school districts that are deeply committed to supporting their students and supporting their educators to reduce opportunity gaps and mitigate inequities that exist. We also have some who, I think, have said ‘Well that was very stressful back in June, July, and have now moved on to other issues,” says Jonathan Zur, President and CEO of VCIC.

So how do we keep the conversation about inclusion and anti-racism moving forward?

“Part of the challenge is we do bounce from crisis to crisis rather than see a sustained commitment to really create a more inclusive Commonwealth,” says Jonathan. “One of the things that we say all the time at VCIC is that inclusion requires attention, and if I’m not being intentionally inclusive in everything that I say and in everything that I do, I run the high likelihood of being unintentionally exclusive. So, a big part of this is about those of us who don’t have to think about these issues every day, who have the luxury of being able to turn that off, or not worry about that. We need to be intentional about this because it affects all of us whether we’re aware of it or not.”

Jonathan says the last year has shown where society really needs work.

“I think that one of the things we’ve seen is the pandemic and the protests and now the presidential election all are, I think, amplifying a real empathy gap that we have in society, an ability that folks have to shut down when the hear a perspective that’s different from their own or turn off, change the channel, or block someone on their social media. Instead what I think we need to do is listen deeply and really think about if something that I hear makes me uncomfortable, if something that I hear is different from my lived experience, rather than say, ‘Well they must be wrong.’ Or ‘They’re trying to make me feel bad,’ instead say, ‘How is it that my lived experience helps me see the world this way and this person who lives in my community, this person who goes to my school, this person that I work with has a different perspective?’ And it doesn’t mean that I’m right and they’re wrong or they’re right and I’m wrong, but it does mean that if we’re going to co-exist, if we’re going to live in the same community, work in the same place, go to the same school, we have to listen to each other. We have to understand each other and we have to figure out how we can both function in a more equitable and inclusive society.”

Jonathan believes there is a real opportunity this year for people to focus on impactful change.

“There are a lot of people who thought that we had gotten past some of these issues. There are a lot of folks who were naïve. I can think about it was a little more than 10 years ago there were a lot of people saying we were post racial, whatever that means, and here we are now where we have a lot of people saying, “I had no idea racism was still as big of an issue or as big of a concern.’ And so with that acknowledgement comes an opportunity for folks to do some self learning, to read, to expose themselves to different perspectives, to build authentic relationships and, I think, to examine deeply their surroundings. To think about ‘Why does my neighborhood look the way it does? Why does my child’s school look the way it does?’ Again, not in a sort of guilt, blame, shame, it’s not about saying how you’re wrong for thinking this, or how could you have not known this? Instead saying, ‘Let’s use this as an opportunity to be able to do better once we know better.'”

We will share more of our conversation with Jonathan Zur in the coming weeks. In the meantime, to learn more about the mission of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, or to donate to the cause, click here.

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