It should come as no surprise to anyone that the most vibrant places are those that embrace diversity and celebrate the stories of the many who call that place home or conduct business there. Without hesitation I can say, Roanoke is such a place. The past couple of weeks have clearly illustrated this to me. Within the span of just a few days, I was able to attend the Roanoke Chapter of the NAACP Annual Awards dinner and observe the many contributions its members, young and old, make to our community.
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea presenting Saint-Lô Mayor François Brière with a Key to the City on May 7, 2018.
I also was able to meet and dine with the Mayor and a delegation from Saint-Lô, France, one of our Sister Cities. Saint-Lô and the Roanoke region are forever linked via the sacrifice of so many from here to free them from Nazi occupation during World War II. I was able to attend the annual Strawberry Festival downtown where folks from all across our City gathered to enjoy one another’s company and, of course, some nice spring desserts! Finally, I was at a business breakfast where among the attendees were the latest of generations from Roanoke alongside others who were first-generation Americans. Many of these small-business owners are engaged in the global economy selling products in Roanoke and throughout the world.
Why does it matter that over the course of any given week our City exhibits such diversity and inclusion? It matters because it reminds us how African-Americans helped build this City and how they continue to contribute to its success and vitality. It matters because it reminds us of the sacrifices those that came before us made so that we may have a better life. It builds new relationships upon the old relationships. For example, did you know that the VT-Carilion School of Medicine has an exchange program where medical students from Roanoke spend time working at the hospital in Saint-Lô and vice versa? All directly related to the Sister City relationship between the two and built upon the bonds that grew from the heroism exhibited in WWII. It matters because when we all come together to celebrate, we come together as one City. It matters because today’s economy is diverse and global, and our linkages to it are essential if we are to continue to prosper.
Perhaps most importantly, it matters because living, working, and celebrating alongside a diverse population makes us more aware and more empathetic to the needs and desires of those different than us – it makes us stronger and wiser.
How Are We Doing
So, if diversity and inclusion are as important as I indicate, how are we as a community doing? I believe we are doing well, in a number of ways better than many places found elsewhere in our country. We are not perfect; there remain issues in our past needing reconciling and forgiveness. The divides between us – physical and socio-economic – are still too great and, if not overcome, threaten to undermine our successes. However, as I see our community welcome refugees from some of the most violent places on earth, providing them shelter and teaching them to read, I am hopeful. As annual events like Local Colors and the Henry Street Festival bring our community together and celebrate our diversity and its significance in our community, I am hopeful. Finally, as interactions such as those noted at the beginning of this post continue to regularly occur, I can only be hopeful about our future.
So, the next time you are looking for something to do, go to an event that celebrates our diversity, patronize one of our many restaurants run by first-generation Americans, visit a library or park not in your neighborhood, or just drive around our community and take in all the diversity we have and recognize it for what it is – a strength and an opportunity!
- Bob Cowell