Christopher Hurlbert

Director, Operational Excellence Growth Operations

Like many Americans, I was shocked and saddened when I learned of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers in June 2020. I asked myself why Derek Chauvin, who pinned George’s neck to the ground for nearly nine minutes and subsequntly killing him, did not respond to George’s pleads for help. I asked myself why the three other police officers didn’t step in to stop Chauvin’s maniacal actions. I asked myself why so many Black men and women, like George, have been murdered in America in recent years – and throughout our nation’s history. The answer, quite simply, is systemic racism.

I always knew about the term “systemic racism” but I had never bothered to research it, because, sadly, it didn’t negatively impact me. I am a White male in a society that values White males, and I possess massive amounts of privilege. In realizing this, I felt even more sad and frustrated, and I knew that I needed to do something to help.

Be the change you wish to see in the world

So I asked myself, What can I do to make real change?” I’m not an elected leader and I don’t have political connections, and those two things are critical to gain influence and create top-down impact. So instead of pursuing sweeping change at the national level, I decided to focus on somewhere I knew well and could gain influence: my small, rural, predominately White hometown of Luray, Virginia.

One of the ways systemic racism is maintained is through constant subliminal reminders of one’s oppression and/or privilege, and in Luray, there are two Confederate Monuments. To some, the monuments represent southern history, vibrance, and culture. But, that perspective is one derived from White privilege, because to many others, myself included, the monuments represent hundreds of years of racism and oppression, and are beacons of White supremacy.

These statues were created during reconstruction and the Jim Crow era to show people of color that the whites were in control, regardless of new laws and their supposed equality. They remained standing through the civil rights movement, when Black people were finally given the right to vote, and when Jim Crow was abolished. They are still standing today, during a moment when America is as divided as it's ever been on the basis of race.

I knew these monuments needed to come down. But, how could I make progress on this objective, when most citizens in Luray are uneducated to the reality of the statues? The majority of the population has no interest in getting educated on the facts, as they are the benefactors of the systemic racism and white privilege that the statues maintain.

Small, focused efforts have massive ripple effects

I decided that my first action would be to submit a “citizen comment” to the Luray Town Council describing my point of view on the statues. My letter was read at the June 2020 Town Council meeting, and it inspired one member of the Town Council, Leah Pence, to start digging deeper by investigating statue ownership. As it turns out, no one knew who officially owned the statues. I connected with Leah to share my perspective, and got in touch with a few local news channels that agreed to interview me to spread my point of view  to their respective audiences.

Raising awareness was a critical step in the journey, but I knew I couldn’t do this alone. So, I connected with some of my high school friends who shared my perspective and were just as inspired as I was to create change. We launched a petition to rally support for statue relocation and started a Facebook group to start building a community of like-minded citizens. We maintained a consistent and relentless voice on the Town’s Facebook page, and debated many locals who didn’t support our point of view.The result of these actions was that a spotlight was  cast on the reality of systemic racism in the Town of Luray.

As momentum started to build, the Mayor of Luray, Barry Presgraves, made a racist remark on a Facebook post. Leah Pence, our champion on the Town Council, immediately called for the Mayor’s resignation, and there was a peaceful protest in Luray held by citizens demanding the same thing.

Despite this negativity and overt racism, I was inspired to see many members of the Black community – who are marginalized in the town, and who have historically lacked a voice in town affairs – stepping up to condemn the mayor’s words, without showing fear of reprisal. They spoke honestly and freely about the situation and shared a consistent point of view, which was that they wanted things to change.

Sustaining and building momentum

We haven’t won this battle; we’re just starting. The Confederate Monuments still stand tall, but our actions have created awareness that has inspired others to step up to the challenge. The Luray Town Council will soon pass a Resolution of Equality that’s designed to steer the Town’s decisions and actions moving forward. They’re enlisting a citizen task force to provide recommendations about what specific actions need to be taken to make Luray a more equal society for all its citizens.

We intend to rebrand our Facebook group to be called Equity in Action, with a simple mission: to create equity for racial minority groups.

We’ve connected with a local pastor, Audre King, who’s the principal voice of the Black community in Luray, to learn more about the challenges the community faces, and how we can partner with him and the community to create solutions now, and in the future. We plan to partner with the local community college, the local chamber of commerce, the local religious centers, and others, to establish Equity in Action as a community effort.

There’s lots to do to dismantle systemic racism in America, but what I’ve learned through this experience is that it takes one small action, backed with the right intentions, to create meaningful progress and eventual change.

I hope this story inspires you to think about how you might be able to create impact in your community. It doesn’t take years of experience in activism to move the needle. It takes compassion, empathy, and a drive to dismantle systemic racism so that we can have a more equitable future.

Please contact me if you want to learn more about our story, or if you’re seeking advice on how you can get started in your own hometown community.