Inevitably, over the last few years, whenever someone has found out that I am a Chapel Hill native, they have made something along the lines of this comment: “Really got away from home, huh?”
If you’re one of those people, I promise I’m not trying to call you out. I understand how small talk works (sometimes).
Still, I think these kind of comments reflect a certain immature transience common among students who are as privileged as many of us are. Even in small towns, it takes a very long time to understand the lives of all the people around you and to confront the problems with the places we call home.
My learning experience in Chapel Hill over the last four years has been riddled with letdowns and lessons. Besides the considerable amount I learned through my academic work, I learned a lot about structural violence that occurs here; I only had general inklings of it when I was in high school.
This community suffers from problems of sexual assault, racism and mass delusion about how much this “liberal,” “open-minded” community is secluded from national problems.
In my freshman year, my mind was opened to the scale of the sexual assault epidemic at UNC, both through knowledge of my friends’ personal experiences and the brave testimony of assault suriviors in the public sphere.
In my sophomore year, the hypocrisy embedded in some of our most beloved athletic institutions finally became plain as day to me.
And in my junior year, my exposure to certain communities here enlightened me to the entirely justified levels of hurt and outrage in people of color that I had really only understood as an abstraction before.
In all of these issues, there have been hard-fought victories, but there has also been an incredible amount of institutional resistance to change. Witnessing this pattern over and over again disillusioned me of beliefs I had in UNC and Chapel Hill as places that fearlessly confronted their problems as collectives. Instead, we typically only respond when small groups of brave activists confront us.
This isn’t to try to call out any leaders in particular. It is incredibly difficult to change institutions, especially ones that have been around for hundreds of years. Still, to properly confront this community’s ills takes an extraordinary level of moral courage, and the truth of difficulty does not dissolve the moral imperative to take strong actions that will inevitably be met with resistance.
From my perch as Opinion Editor, I recognize there is only so much effect I can have sitting in rooms, discussing the various issues that affect this community with my colleagues and then writing about them.
And to be clear, there are multitudes of passionate folks whose work has forced us to acknowledge these issues, and I worry about finding communities as strong as ours in other places I may end up.
But if you’re nearer to your start at UNC or in Chapel Hill, I have a request: invest your energy in this place. There’s no way you’ll run out of efforts that need your help.