Alexandria in Action with Heather Peeler: Honoring our past to understand our present

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Heather Peeler
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As the spring weather encourages us to explore Alexandria’s picturesque parks and streets, have you ever wondered who walked these lands before us?

Last week I attended a training session hosted by the Racial Equity Institute, that began by honoring the people who originally inhabited the land of the D.C. region. For more than 10,000 years, the Piscataway or Kinwaw Paskestikweya — roughly translated as “the people who live on the long river with the bend in it” — lived in a region that stretched from the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River, including Northern Virginia. Members of the Piscataway live in our region today. By beginning the training with remembrance and recognition, I felt more connected to the place where I live and work and to the people around me.

The Racial Equity Institute (racialequityinstitute.com) provides training and resources to help people understand and address racism in their organizations and communities. The two-day workshop presented a historical, cultural and policy analysis of the ways in which racism has influenced the present.

From the establishment of the Jamestown settlement to the enactment of land grant policies to implementation of the GI Bill, these and other seminal moments in U.S. history have shaped our communities. They have privileged some and disadvantaged others. As I sat with a deeper understanding of the past, I began to develop new insights about the issues and policies that we navigate today.

ACT for Alexandria is Alexandria’s community foundation. We envision Alexandria as a vibrant place for all, where anyone can live a life to his or her full potential. When thinking of how we might address racism so that we can achieve this vision, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the challenge.

In his inspiring and moving memoir, “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and social justice activist, says that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. He encourages us to “get proximate” to those who experience inequality, noting “if you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” We must join as collaborators and allies in raising our collective consciousness about racism and building deeper relationships with our neighbors.

To support our collective learning journey, ACT for Alexandria has launched a Racial Equity Capacity Building Initiative, featuring workshops, funding and community conversations. Throughout June, ACT will offer an Allyship Workshop designed to equip participants with tools to be active allies for racial justice. More information on the workshops can be found at www.actforalexandria.org. If you would like to be an ally for racial equity, I hope to see you at one of these workshops.

The writer is President and CEO of ACT for Alexandria.

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