Elizabeth Shillue shows love for the community through her anti-racism activism
by Ginny Bixby
Elizabeth Shillue didn’t plan to become an activist when she moved to Charlottesville, but today, it’s her life’s work. The founder of Beloved Community Cville, a local organization focused on anti-racism activism and education, is quick to defer to others’ leadership and stories.
“It’s really important to respect past leadership in the movement for Black lives within Charlottesville, as well as the leadership that’s already established and emerging,” she said.
Shillue grew up in Connecticut and later lived in Tucson, Arizona before moving to Charlottesville for her husband’s job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Shillue was working as a social worker at the time.
“My entire work life has been with people who are suffering or on the margins in some way. I worked with prisoners, detained refugees. Alzheimer’s patients, caregivers, veterans, terminally ill, disabled, elderly people,” Shillue said.
Shillue said her Quaker faith combined with her experience working as a social worker was a big catalyst for her activism. But after a personal crisis, Shillue really felt the call to get more involved in making change.
“I came into a new understanding of how stigma and marginalization really operates in our society,” she said. “I really had a shift inside in how I showed up.”
And after seeing the documentary “I’m Not Racist… Am I?” in 2015, Shillue said her eyes were opened further to inequity in society, especially when it comes to race. The documentary follows a diverse group of high school students as they engage in difficult conversations about racism. Shillue wanted as many people as possible to see the film, so she organized a showing at the Paramount Theater downtown later that year.
Shillue contacted Charlene Green, who was then the Director of the city’s Office of Human Rights, about hosting a showing in partnership with Shillue’s Quaker meeting. The screening at the Paramount sold out.
Following the Paramount showing, Shillue and Green organized about 27 showings in venues across the community, including schools, churches and the University of Virginia. They also trained 40 discussion leaders. Shillue hoped to get 2,000 community members to see the film. She estimates at least double that number of Charlottesville residents has come to one of the showings.
“Literally to this day, I still meet people who tell me that film had an impact on them, and that it impacted how they see people like their students and their patients, and how they’ve been inspired to do things differently,” Shillue said.
As Shillue organized more and more showings of the film, it became clear to her this was getting bigger than just film screenings. So, Beloved Community Cville was born. The name of the organization comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “He envisioned the beloved community as a society that’s based on justice and equal opportunity, love of one’s fellow human beings. People forget just how threatening that vision was,” Shillue said.
After Shillue witnessed the tragic events of the Unite The Right rally in August 2017 firsthand, she felt called to further her anti-racism work. This is when Beloved Community Cville really took off. Green had been organizing bus tours that highlighted the racial history of the city. After August 2017, Shillue said more community members were interested in these tours, so Green and Shillue worked together to create a bigger, more sustainable bus tour project.
“In the process, we discovered how people who had grown up here had stories that related to the history that we were wanting people to learn, really made the history come alive,” Shillue said. “And so we started focusing on gathering together a multiracial group of people and the idea that we would work to shine the light of truth on our history and with an emphasis on untold stories, stories that have been kind of hidden.”
The bus tour highlights places such as the site of the former Vinegar Hill Black community that was razed, historically Black churches and the sites of the Confederate statues. Shillue said the project has six docents and six advisory members, and the group is over 70% non-white.
“What has impressed me about Elizabeth’s work is the fact that she’s worked so hard to make it accessible to lots of different ages,” said Green, who is now the deputy director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance. “She’s putting information out there for people to come and think about and talk about and hopefully create some action around that changes Charlottesville for the better as we continue to grow and diversify and and just figure this whole mess out.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shillue wanted to keep the tour accessible. So Beloved Community Cville started organizing virtual tours of various sites in Charlottesville. The organization has already released several videos and will be releasing more.
“It’s really going to be amazing. People will be able to learn about significant local sites, but on their smartphones,” Shillue said.
Going forward, Shillue wants even more people to learn about the true history of Charlottesville.
“I think it’s really important for people who want to engage in social change in our community to learn the racial history of our community, so that they know how things got to be the way they are today, learn what the untold stories are, whose shoulders are standing on, who’s already involved in the work.” Shillue said. “It’s important also to prioritize relationships, over speed and accomplishments. And also, to always remain humble. Always be learning and willing to not know things and to be corrected.”
(Click here for the complete Daily Progress article)
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