Navigating Through the Trauma of Racial Injustice

June 4, 2020

The killing of George Floyd and the aftermath of it that we are all bearing witness to across the nation is weighing heavily on the staff of CPE. It comes on the heels of seeing video footage of Ahmaud Arbery being shot down while jogging in Glenn County, Georgia. It happened just days after Christian Cooper’s encounter in Central Park with a woman who told him that she was calling the police to tell them that there was an African-American man threatening her life. It’s transpiring after Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and hundreds of others whose names we don’t know because their deaths weren’t captured on video. It has re-opened old wounds for some, created the need for more effective dialogue to transpire about racial inequality, and has deepened our passion to further our work in the D.C. community.

George Floyd’s killing and the protests that are occurring in response to it are rooted in the history of systemic racism that has significantly affected the black community. CPE currently supports 460 low-income Washington, D.C.-area students. Seventy-two percent of them identify as black and a majority of them reside in neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty levels and lowest college attainment rates in D.C. (Wards 5, 7, and 8). We see their faces and hear the names of these students when we look at what happened in Minneapolis.

In a recent Time article, historian and Director of the Mapping Prejudice Project, Kristen Delegard, stated, “Understanding how things got so tense in Minneapolis requires understanding the history of the city’s racial geography.” In Minneapolis, as in nearly every city in the U.S., the creation of segregated, under-resourced, aggressively policed neighborhoods did not happen by accident, it was by design. Delegard is referencing racial covenants that were established as legal clauses in property deeds barring the sale of homes to African Americans in the early 1900s. Those same covenants were also instituted in Washington, D.C. Although formally eradicated in the late 1940s, that class of structural racism is still affecting the black community generations later.

Gentrification has since replaced the system of racial covenants, pushing black families into pockets of neighborhoods that are geographically isolated, under-resourced, and highly policed. Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes the culture of policing in these neighborhoods in a recent New Yorker interview as one that acts more like an occupying military force than guardians who protect and build relationships with the community. This culture of promoting “law and order” through racial profiling policies like stop and frisk, has led to the mass incarceration of African Americans who are more than 5 times as likely as whites to be imprisoned. As the prison population increases, it has a significant negative impact on youth who will lack supportive adults in their lives to guide them. 

CPE recognizes the pain and sense of helplessness entrenched in the black community caused by racial inequities that span generations, decades, and centuries. We see that pain in the peaceful protests occurring in our city and across the world and we stand together in solidarity with hopes to change the narrative. We believe that our mission and these protests are irrevocably intertwined, as they are both reactions to the immense hurdles created by institutional racism and generations of bias against black communities in the criminal justice system.

As an organization, we, like you, are navigating through the trauma of George Floyd’s killing. We are sensitive to the mental and emotional effects this has on our students, staff, mentors, and the CPE community as a whole. We are in communication with our mentors, and have provided them with guidance on how to engage with their mentees throughout this challenging time. We have also provided them with resources that we believe will help them learn and amplify their and their mentees’ voices and experiences. The images of these traumatic events will forever be etched in our minds, and they undoubtedly magnify the need for the work we do. 

With many of CPE’s students concentrated in D.C.’s highest poverty areas, mentoring is a needed resource to help elevate their opportunities of attaining upward economic mobility. These same neighborhoods and families have been hit hardest by the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, which has made their uphill climb even steeper than it was a few months ago. We are working to change the narrative that has been written for them. Success for CPE is more than just helping students graduate high school and get through college. We strive to prepare them to be the catalyst for breaking cycles of poverty, realizing racial equity, closing the opportunity gap, and uplifting entire communities.