Hundreds of people marched peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus in August in the wake of violence in the city. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In the days after violence erupted in August when white nationalists and white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia, messages flooded in to the school’s student council president from student leaders across the country.

Sarah Kenny, a senior from Vienna, Va., got cards and emails and calls from them asking how they could help. Some held candlelight vigils, as U-Va. did, to counter torchlight hate. Students at Northern Kentucky University, near the hometown of the man accused of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting white supremacy in Charlottesville that weekend, made a banner with handprints and signatures and gave it to Kenny.

“They felt an extra sense of shock and bewilderment,” and wanted to show they rejected bigotry, Kenny said. 

On Sunday evening, she called on political leaders to do more to combat hate, with a statement that was signed by more than 75 student government presidents across the country.

“People are so pessimistic and disenchanted with our structures of governance,” she said Sunday afternoon, three months after the weekend of clashes. “If we don’t believe in it, who’s going to? 

“People are looking around saying, ‘Where are the people who are going to put principles above politics? Equity, inclusion, basic respect for people who are different than you are — those are pretty big things to be at stake.”

She wants student leaders who are soon to graduate, at such a tumultuous time nationally, to feel as though they have a collective and powerful voice. 

“We have the ability to make a change,” she said. “I want us to remember this.”

— Susan Svrluga

We, the student body presidents of colleges and universities across the United States, are joining forces this evening to share a message with our nation.

Exactly three months ago, white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville to incite violence and intimidation. Fueled by hate, they threatened and enacted harm in the city of Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia, leaving a stain of vitriol that cannot soon be forgotten. We will not let this tragedy and the circumstances that created it fade into a past that we can remove ourselves from.

As we prepare to graduate from the academic institutions that have crafted our characters and molded our minds, we reflect on the significance of coming of age in a period of such substantial tumult.

As young adults with the privilege of remarkable educations and opportunities ahead of us, we should be as idealistic about our ability to change the world for good as we ever will be.

This past year has undoubtedly hardened many of our lofty conceptions. We have witnessed hate and hostility settling in institutions nationwide that are suffering a crisis of leadership and a collapse of courage.

However, this year has not destroyed our belief in the potential of this country.

Rather, it has emboldened many of us to contribute to a culture of accountability.

As future leaders in this nation’s workforce, we present our unyielding and uncompromising commitments to fight for equity and justice in all that we do.

In his evergreen text, “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy reminds us that “in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.”

From our daily interactions in the governance chambers of our universities to the halls of Congress of the United States, leadership in this country is ultimately accountable to an informed citizenry.

We leave you with this message in closing: Institutions of higher education in the United States were designed to undergird democracy, supplying its systems with principled public servants and informed, engaged citizens.

As such, we demand more from the current leaders of our democracy.

We request and we require your full dedication to this collective work of fighting white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and all others forms of hate, even and especially when such action might prove challenging.

This work does not belong to the people who were targeted alone; this work must belong to the people of privilege who will use their power to transcend politics as usual, take risks, and fight for justice and equity.

As we remember the events of the 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, let us lean into pain and embrace the imperative work of bringing about a vision of America that we can more fully believe in.

 


Sarah Kenny (Photo by Richard Dizon)