What is Safety in a Racist Environment?
Ahead of Groundwork Denver’s Earth Day tree planting events in April, 2023, nearly 20 volunteers – including many high schoolers – knocked on more than 500 doors and spoke directly with dozens of neighbors on their doorsteps. The goal: to share information about a local program we were working on to get climate-friendly trees out to residents.
Fast-forward one month. The day before 100 volunteers would enter residents’ private properties to plant those trees, Ralph Yarl, a Black 16-year-old, fought for his life hundreds of miles away in Kansas City. As he was trying to pick up his younger siblings just a few blocks from his own home, Ralph rang the wrong doorbell, and the white man who came to the door shot him twice. The shooter cited his size as the reason for “standing his ground.” Ralph’s stature should not matter, but Ralph is 5’8” and 140 pounds. Ralph was shot because his Blackness elicited fear. He was shot for being Black.
Ralph is miraculously expected to recover from the gunshots, one of which hit him in the head.
In the days following his shooting, several other teenagers experienced similar violence, and not all survived.
Door-to-door canvassing is a tactic we lean on frequently for many of our programs at Groundwork Denver. It is the most effective tool we have. We teach the skill to youth as a way to engage community, build power, and practice communicating with their own neighbors.
The canvassing we do looks a whole lot like the situation that nearly took Ralph from us.
As an organization, we are re-examining our responsibilities as adults entrusted with the safety of the young people who lead so much of our work. What happened this month was not just a series of tragedies, but a shift in the consciousness of marginalized communities of all sorts. What is and what feels safe has changed. As gun violence and racism take young people from us, as our young people of color grapple with yet another new way our society has come to view them as dangerous and disposable, we must respond.
This shift has us – Groundwork Denver – trying to hold many truths at the same time:
- We center youth and community. No program or mission or action is more important than keeping each other safe.
- Our youth are scared. We are, too, and so are parents. We are halting canvassing efforts immediately and organizing around this issue. Parents of color from our communities, as well as staff who are parents of color, are leading this conversation and will guide decision-making. We were already working to contract with a company that specializes in canvassing, and we will bring their expertise into the conversation.
- We know that while our programs do not stop bullets, the work we are doing addresses injustices that endanger lives. More slowly and quietly, but backed by lobbies even more powerful than the gun lobby. In some of the communities we work in, residents have a life expectancy 10 years lower than neighborhoods where the most power is concentrated and resources allocated. Environmental injustice is a form of racist violence.
- Canvassing is powerful. It is a way for neighbors to connect. For people most excluded from information and public life to engage locally and get what they need. For people to organize and leverage their collective voice and force change.
- We believe that when any group is intimidated and coerced out of public spaces – when we allow our valid fear to force us into hiding, into silence, out of community, away from each other – we lose much of our power. While going inside may feel safer, we set our future generations up for lives less liberated. We allow society to move along without changing the conditions that drove us underground. And so we remain underground, endangered.
- We all deserve to live full lives in full light.
We stand by our collective decision to bar canvassing for the time being. We know that we do not, by any means, have all the answers – far from it. But we are not about to put our young people in Ralph’s shoes.
We need to hear from our youth and from you.
Are you a youth, a parent, someone with lived experience, or with an organization that’s also grappling with this? Please share what you’re doing, what you’ve learned and witnessed, and organize with us to take action.
Do you work for a funding organization or have access to funds? We need people like you to collectively help organizations like ours adapt and adopt new ways of reaching our neighbors safely.
To get in touch, please contact Savanna@GroundworkColorado.org. Your input will be kept confidential and anonymous.
To support Ralph Yarl’s family as they continue to incur major medical bills, please visit their GoFundMe page. The family of Payton Washington, a cheerleader who was shot days later after accidentally trying to get into the wrong car, is also asking for financial support to cover medical costs for her survival and recovery.