Charlottesville and a time for gracious anger


[Image description: A raging fire in the background. In the foreground is the silhouette of a wooden chair and some branches. Image obtained from]

Hi everyone. If you have been reading the news this weekend about the white supremacists, hooded KKK members, and Nazis protesting in Charlottesville and the car the plowed into counter-protesters, killing several and injuring dozens of others, and our president’s cowardly response blaming “both sides,” you may be feeling a combination of weariness and hopelessness and anger. And fear for the people we love and for our country, the United States. This feeling has become familiar these past few months. I don’t really know what to say in this post. I know the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends…I don’t know. In recent months it seems that this arc is bending the opposite way, toward injustice, racism, misogyny, bigotry. “The heat here is nothing compared to what you’re going to get in the ovens,” says a white supremacist in the protest. It seems our side, the side that fights for inclusivity and justice and compassion, is losing.

A while ago, a colleague of mine, Nancy Long of 501 Commons, shared with me her philosophy of cultivating gratitude and impatience and how we must work toward a balance between the two, the balance of appreciating what we have, but to be impatient and to use that energy to push for change. This concept has stuck with me over the years; it is wise counsel on some of the darkest days.

Reflecting on Nancy’s words, I realize the horrible events and the state of generalized fear and anxiety of the past few months require us to balance something more difficult than Gratitude and Impatience, and that is Grace and Anger.

We must be angry, because the danger of not being angry is that we become complacent. We acquiesce to injustice instead of confronting it. We accept racism and xenophobia as normal, as part of the natural order or free speech or whatever, instead of seeing these things for the horrors that they are.

But we must also have grace, which is something I’ve been finding harder and harder to summon of late. Without grace, we turn on each other instead of on the wrongs we are committed to righting. Without grace, we see “the other side” not as humans, and we get confused about who is actually on the other side. Without it, we don’t forgive ourselves for our failings and we give in to despair and hopelessness.

It is this balance, this gracious anger, that we must work toward, and it is hard to achieve. If we are too gracious, we get walked all over. If we are too consumed by rage, we lose our humanity. But if we are to fight against this level of hatred, each of us must strive for this balance. We have to get angry and speak out and condemn the awful things we see, even if that means confronting our friends and families and colleagues as well as those in power. If there’s one thing I have learned as an immigrant in this country, it is that the angriest and loudest people often get what they want here—whether that’s at a local school board meeting or in national elections—and the quietest, most humble people often get screwed. And so it happens, those with the smallest megaphones are often Black, other people of color, immigrants and refugees, those with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals, and others from marginalized communities. In the face of injustice, we must be angry for one another, beside one another, all of us, all the time.

At the same time, we have to have grace. I’ve seen too many activists attacking one another, using social justice principles to shoot down colleagues on the same side of the struggle. I’ve seen the competition to see whose community has suffered the most or who is the “wokest.” Then there’s the one-strike-you’re-out thinking, where people are not allowed to make mistakes and grow, but are automatically labeled evil and ostracized. All of these things play into the hands of the racists, white supremacists, KKK members, Islamophobes, homophobes, transphobes, anti-Semites, xenophobes, and other peddlers of hate and violence. When we are divided, they win. We outnumber them by a wide margin, and yet they keep advancing.

Our sector, the nonprofit sector, as a whole, must also strive for this balance between Grace and Anger. But maybe the balance has been too tilted toward Grace, and we need to shift it back toward Anger. We are significant, making up 10% of the workforce. We do incredible work each day. But because we tend to attract nice, community-centered people, we often don’t get as angry as we should be. We put up with crap and work around it instead of confronting it.

I think in many ways we are afraid of anger. We see it being unleashed by the side that revels in hatred; we see the destruction is sows. But like Impatience, Anger can be a tool for good. As my colleague Rodney D. Foxworth Jr. wrote in his essay “The Need for Black Rage in Philanthropy”: “Black anger has often stoked the flames of progress in this country.” The flames that we are still warmed by, even as they are being threatened by the cold water of racism and bigotry.

Rodney calls for philanthropists to be angry. “It stands to reason that in our pursuit of justice and progress, philanthropy, however it manifests itself — a national institution, a small family foundation, or individual donors with or without significant wealth — would be well served to embrace [anger] as well.”

We should all be embracing our collective anger. We as a sector need to get angrier at the ridiculous expectations put on us that tie our hands while people suffer and die, like society’s destructive insistence on low “overhead” and on “sustainability.” We need to get angrier at funders’ risk-aversion and 5% minimum payout and lengthy processes and intellectualizing while people are getting deported and children are being torn from their parents. We need to be angrier at leaders who want to play it safe, who refuse to see race, while people are threatened with Nazi salutes and Confederate flags and references to ovens. We should be angrier at donors and fundraisers who insist on seeing the people most affected by systemic inequity as “others” and the object for pity and condescension, not justice. We must still be grounded by Grace as a sector, but we need to channel more Anger.

I’m tired. I’m thinking of the woman who was killed. Her name was Heather Heyer, and she was 32. I’m thinking of her family and friends. And the dozens of people still in recovery. I’ve been checking the news constantly, feeling hopeless. Seattle had our own march of white supremacists. It is sad and draining. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. I know it seems this week, just like the weeks after the Orlando shooting or after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, that the hatred is too strong for us to fight. It’s OK to feel this way. If you veer more toward anger than grace at this moment, like I am, you are not alone.

But, at every racist march and protest, we have counter-protesters fighting on the side on justice. Often the counter-protesters vastly outnumber the bigots and racists. For every hateful person trying to tear our community down, at least five good people are working to build it back up.

When I lose hope, I think of all of you out there every single day working to make the world better. You give me hope. We are part of the group that’s lifting up families and building communities. We are bigger and stronger than hatred and terrorism. Our work is critical, and it makes a difference. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, history has repeatedly seen, because we bend it that way.


34 thoughts on “Charlottesville and a time for gracious anger

  1. Mariel Rieland

    Thank you for the encouragement!! I love the idea of “gracious anger.” Keep going and keep inspiring others 🙂

  2. Hildie Lipson

    You really did know what to say in this post. So helpful and what I needed to read this morning. Thank you, Vu.

  3. K D B

    Thank you for this. I personally find it’s good to address both sides (hopelessness + strength) when trying to find our way to make things better in the world; denying one does not necessarily make the other stronger.

  4. Dawn Butterfield

    Once again, Vu, you’ve put into words exactly what I’m thinking and feeling; thank you.

  5. Maria Ta

    This was much needed going into this week. I’ve been feeling drained from not only work but from the country I find myself living in these days. To all you nonprofit unicorns out there, ride on.

  6. abstract668

    Thank you. Once again, I am in tears. Once again, you are saying what needs to be said. Now I have to write two proposals that have outcomes, timelines, and sustainability, for $20,000. Oh and a 100% match. There are people living in tents and boxes a block from my house. We may be starting a nuclear war. A woman got killed by a terrorist in Charlottesville on Saturday, where militias gathered holding GUNS. I know I will be in tears all day, but your words will bring me back to grace, and my anger will be righteous.

  7. Ellen Osborne

    I’m in Charlottesville and my organization works with immigrants and refugees, as our town is a designated resettlement location. Since November, things have been truly awful. We were all dreading this past weekend and it turned out to be worse than imagined. The constant anxiety and fear is taking it’s toll. I think we’re all operating under a black cloud, which causes us to be working at a less than optimal level. It’s affecting our functioning. It’s a wonder anything is getting done.

    1. Ashley

      Hi Ellen! Would you mind sharing the name of the organization? I would love to send a donation your way 🙂

      1. Ellen Osborne

        Sure. We’re Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle. Our “official statement” today — (weird, never had to issue an “official statement” before)–
        “The events in Charlottesville the weekend of August 12 do not represent the community we know and love. At Literacy Volunteers, we strive to be an open and welcoming place to all who want to improve their lives through education. We are proud to serve individuals from almost 50 different countries and from all walks of life. A true testament to the goodwill in our community can be found in the hearts of the hundreds of volunteers who give so freely of their time to help others.

        Please consider becoming a volunteer, supporting our students’ businesses, or engaging with us in any way which is comfortable for you.”

        1. Ashley

          Just sent a small donation! I’m in Miami but I passed along your org info along to a friend living in the area–he is a PeaceCorps alum and this type of service is right up his ally 🙂 My thoughts and prayers are with your community today. It was horrifying enough seeing it on the news; I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been living in the middle of it.

  8. Denise Dehne Borgoyn

    This article has some valid points about gratitude and compassion. But it is one person’s opinion. A little of mine. I am not a one sided person, like the author. I am multidimensional, like most people.
    There is misinformation, a misleading picture, and inflammatory language intended to raise anger in this piece. There’s been enough anger.
    This is not a black and white, north and south, your “side” is the only true correct side world. The people in the middle, where I am, want to make a better place. It’s really really hard work…being open-minded. Not for the faint of heart. But I would rather be part of the answer than be one of those clinging to their side of the problem.

    1. Tasha Williams

      There is no “middle” between Nazis and people outraged by Nazis. There is no “open mind” to be had. It’s frightening that the bar of normality has been pushed so low that any ostensibly reasonable person on this planet can see racism, hate crimes, or terrorism as having shades of grey.

    2. Esther Landau

      Okay, so if there as been “enough” anger, what are you proposing? What is the correct response to Nazis? My ancestors were in those ovens. I am a lesbian. Some of my close friends are people of color and immigrants. Are we to simply crawl into a hole and wait for it all to pass?

    3. Tom Wickersham

      Being “part of the answer” means pointing out the bigotry, hate, and injustice. And as long as there is bigotry, hate, and injustice, I will be angry. And so should you.

      1. Denise Dehne Borgoyn

        I have spent my personal and professional life fighting for fairness.
        Every. Single. Day.
        Yes I get angry. Then I get productive. Right where I am. Please don’t tell me what I should or should not do. You don’t know me.

    4. Jim Beck

      Never, EVER will I be open-minded about racists, misogynists, fascists. I am a multi-dimensional person and taking a stand is not for the faint of heart. Equivocating in the face of evil is not going to stop the Nazis.

  9. Maggi Junor

    I have shared this with all my colleagues. It was a wonderful post. I have always sought balance and have often felt an inability to engage with the world as it is now. This has given me the permission to be angry and still maintain balance. The sight of torch light parades in american cities truly frightens me.

  10. VickiMae

    Thank you for your honesty; it helps me to know I am not alone in my anger and reminds me that righteous anger is a powerful tool.

  11. Patrick Taylor

    I haven’t seen official counts of the number of nazis/white supremacists at the rallies. One white supremacist group bragged about 1,400 attendees. I’ve heard other estimates of the amount of people there (on all sides) at 6,000.

    Even if it is 6,000, that is still the amount of people who were waiting in line for the port-a-potties at the Washington DC Women’s March at any given time (total attendance: 485,000). That is less than the number of people who are going to see obscure indie pop band Sylvan Esso in Oakland this month.

    Granted they have sympathizers within the White House, and the White House is carrying out many policies that the white supremacists support – their immigration policy is taken whole cloth from white supremacists. But there are far more of us.

  12. Patricia Garza

    Anger AND Grace. I love that-thank you for articulating the language for me that I can use to discuss this balance with others.

  13. Denice Rothman Hinden

    Thank you for being light and hope, for helping all of us balance anger with grace.

  14. Brandy Steffen

    Thank you so much for this article (and all of your others as well). This is a great reminder that it’s ok to feel angry, as long as we use that anger to fuel us forward to greater good. Thanks!

  15. Meredith

    Thank you Vu. I admit I get scared by my own anger and it makes me feel no better than those who cause my inner turmoil. However, making sure that my sense of humanity and those around me outweigh that fear. I’m tired of feeling like I am wading through the muck. Balancing grace and anger is something that I can work towards.

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