An Open Letter to Governor Northam

By Rich Harwood

Dear Governor:

Having to cancel the first stop of your “racial reconciliation tour” at Virginia Union University is a sign of just how difficult your road ahead is. What will you do from here? You face a fundamental choice. Is your reconciliation tour about your own political survival, or can you become an instrument of society?

Choosing the latter requires a ruthless humility that recognizes that your own role is limited. Racial reconciliation cannot be led by a single leader; nor orchestrated by an elected official. It will come through a whole host of big and small actions, emerging only over time, that include overlapping conversations, popular culture and music, the writing of new books and the illumination of painful history.

So you must ask: What is my contribution in this moment? What can I do? What does it mean for me to be an instrument of society? Based on over 30 years of experience in working on contentious issues in communities across the country, including issues of race in such places as Flint, MI, Mississippi Delta, Detroit, and many others, here are five critical steps I urge you to take.

  1. Start with your own story and voice. Ironically, the most powerful, authentic asset you have is your own story about growing up in Virginia as a white male. What was this like for you? Where did race come into play? What were you thinking and feeling? What did you struggle with? Where did prejudice, discrimination, even hate come into your life? A reconciliation tour starts with your own reckoning, where you become a reflection of some of the very issues Virginia must wrestle with. Your greatest power is your greatest vulnerability. You must speak up in a deeply personal way.

  2. Keep your public conversations small. The VUU conversation backfired, not unlike Richmond’s first commission meeting on confederate statutes. Your role now is to help forge a more thoughtful conversation. This will only happen in small group settings, where people can speak their truth and feel understood, and where you can have genuine interactions with them. Then you can discuss what is emerging from each session to help all Virginia become part of a larger conversation.

  3. Make room for deep sorrow. We can't ask people to engage in “civility” in these conversations, because that can just mean lower your voice, don't get emotional. But the history of race is incredibly emotional. People feel loss. They feel anger. They feel a sense of rage. This has been coming for 400 years. You must pry open the room for people to express their profound sorrow, and you must help us all bear witness to it.

  4. Focus on what people can create together. Addressing the problems of race will take a societal response. In Virginia, some actions can be taken by you and the legislature; others by the faith community, non-profits and people in their daily lives. Your job is to help people discover their shared aspirations for building a more just, hopeful society and the steps we can start to take now. Talk without action will never be enough.

  5. Build your efforts to ripple out over time. If anyone thinks this conversation is going to ramp up really quickly, and seeks to scale it really fast, that's a big mistake. It won’t work. The better approach is slow and steady. Start small, focus first on those who are willing to come together, let these efforts ripple out over time, and build our capability to do this. Don’t bite off more than you can do; that will only deepen cynicism.

There may be those who say that you have made it past the worst of this crisis, and that you should just hunker down and ride out the last of it. Perhaps that’s possible. But is that good enough? Can you live with that? Will that help you fulfill your own personal calling, and more importantly gain a sense of redemption from Virginians?

I urge you to choose the path of becoming an instrument of society.

A modified version of this letter appeared in The Virginian-Pilot. Click here to read this piece online.