Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville


  • Recent 2021 opinions from the Virginia Supreme Court have allowed the City of Charlottesville to consider acting on Confederate monument removal.
  • These statues have been a topic of petitions and rallies since 2016, including the deadly Unite the Right Rally in August of 2017.
  • New research sheds light on how adolescents were making sense of the rally and events that unfolded within their community in 2017.
Source: Journal of Research on Adolescence and the UVA School of Education & Human Development

In the spring of 2016, Zyahna Bryant, a 15-year old high school student at the time, wrote a petition to City Council calling for the removal of the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of Market Street Park (then still named Lee Park) in downtown Charlottesville. Although the park has changed name twice (first to Emancipation Park, and then to its current name, Market Street Park), the statue remains in place despite calls for and multiple attempts at its removal.

In addition to being home to the statue, Market Street Park was the main site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally where members of white supremacist and affiliated groups gathered to protest the statue’s removal. At the time, this was one of the largest and most violent U.S. gatherings in decades.

In April 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion to reverse previous circuit court rulings that had prevented the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. As the City of Charlottesville starts a process to act on the monument removal, Youth-Nex is revisiting new research findings about adolescents’ perceptions of the Unite the Right rally that occurred in their own town, during the summer of their middle school years.

Dr. Joanna Williams, a Youth-Nex faculty affiliate, was interviewed by Kalee De France and the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) to explain this unique and important research of how young adolescents were making sense of the events that unfolded within their community.

Question: What, in your opinion, is the main takeaway of the article?

Williams: I’ll start by saying there’s like a lot of context to this paper. All of the authors were living in Charlottesville in 2017 when the Unite the Right rally happened. We were about to start year two of a mixed-methods project that was focused on investigating diversity and social relationships in early adolescence. The Unite the Right rally happened in August of 2017, about two weeks before the school year started and, because of the focus of our project, we decided to ask students about their understanding of what had happened.

One of the key takeaways is that we should expect heterogeneity in how youth process events like this. There was a lot of heterogeneity in how kids interpreted and were responding to the Rally. One group of students said things along the lines of “Yeah, I know what happened, but it’s not really on my radar.” A second group knew a lot of the details of what happened but didn’t feel personally impacted – they sounded like news reporters in their accounts.

Another group of students had spent a lot of time processing and talking about what happened. And for some of them, their processing led to disillusionment, like “I can’t believe that stuff like this still happens” or “I thought we were beyond racism”.

There was a fourth group who were feeling, either at the time or a few months later, a sense of fear and vigilance. They said things along the lines of “We know why the KKK was here, and I’m Black. And I know that they were here because of people like me”. These students shared feelings of anger, fear, or just general concern. And, finally, there was a smaller subset of students who were sort of dismissive—they felt like people were overreacting to the situation. They said things like “I’m embarrassed to live in Charlottesville because we’re getting so much attention because of things like this”

The second type of heterogeneity that we saw was in relation to who belonged to these groups. On one hand, the group of students who expressed fear and vigilance were all students of color and most identified as Black. On the other hand, there were also many Black and other students of color who did not express any personal stress or concern, but there were White students in this group as well. White students made up the bulk of students who sounded like reporters or who expressed disillusionment or sympathy. The small group of dismissive students all identified as White.

It’s important to make sense of this heterogeneity in the context of what we know about young adolescents: they’re making meaning of important and abstract concepts, like racism and white supremacy while also trying to make sense of their own identities.

For more from this Q&A including the experiences of Dr. Williams’ team when asking these tough questions and what she is looking forward to seeing in upcoming research, please see the SRA blog. For more on these research findings, please see the Journal for Research on Adolescence article entitled “From Apathy to Vigilance: Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

As Educators, What Can We Learn from the Attack on the Capitol?

By Andrew D. Kaufman

A week after protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the pictures are still hard to fathom. While peaceful demonstrations are rightfully a part of life in Washington, this incident is unlike anything we’ve seen in two centuries.

The Senate chamber was breached by people wearing combat gear and carrying zip ties. A Confederate battle flag was paraded through the Capitol rotunda. Police officers were assaulted, the Speaker of the House’s office was taken over, and at least five people died. 

Source: Andrew Kaufman Blog

There’s a lot to digest when it comes to the events at the Capitol on January 6, and it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the unprecedented tragedy. But as educators, we can also take a step back and help come to terms with the more significant forces at play here, helping our students understand the consequences of our actions. 

Without getting into the political weeds, I think it’s possible to highlight several timeless lessons for educators from the events of the last week:

The Truth Matters

Politicians don’t have the best reputation for truthfulness, but President Trump had destroyed the norms of the office even before losing the election.

According to the Washington Post, Trump had reached more than 20,000 false or misleading claims by August 2020.

After his loss, he began a campaign of blatant disinformation to promote the idea that the election was “stolen” from him, without any reputable information to back it up

Where we get our information is an important question (and worth exploring in another blog post). Still, we have to teach our students to rely on evidence to evaluate the truthfulness of a statement of fact.

  • Where does that information come from?
  • Where did that person get the original data?
  • Are there other sources to confirm this information?

Every one of Trump’s allegations was convincingly refuted by anyone willing to dig into the issue. Yet he was able to convince a sizable portion of the country to question the integrity of the election. It’s our job as educators to help create better citizens who can see when they are being manipulated.

Respect for Others is Paramount

A bedrock principle of the classroom is respect for everyone. Yet outside of the classroom, students see more and more examples in which people are scorned for who they are, where they come from, or what they believe. Trump may be the worst offender, but this is unfortunately a longtime trend in public life. 

As educators, it’s never been more critical to teach our students that you can disagree with other people without demonizing them. One of the most valuable ways we can do this is by modeling it. We also should offer students examples of how this principle works in the real world.

Take this instance from President George H.W. Bush, who wrote an unforgettable letter to President Bill Clinton after losing the 1992 election. Bush, like Trump, became a one-term president, yet he reacted with grace and respect to the person taking charge after him. As he ended his letter, “Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

Stand Up for What is Right

There are lots of villains in this Capitol saga, but you can also find examples of people doing the right thing in the face of pressure. Look at the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger—a fellow Republican—who was pressured by Trump to “find” him more votes. But Raffensberger, in a phone call leaked to the media, pushed back against the president time after time, even when Trump threatened his political future.

Other state-level officeholders did the same, responding to the president with facts and legal arguments when he argued for loyalty. Even Vice President Pence broke from Trump to execute his duties as president of the Senate to confirm President-elect Biden’s election.

For that, he was threatened with violence. 

Doing your job isn’t always easy, but it’s essential for our democracy to function. Educators can emphasize the urgency of following the rule of law and why breaking norms can lead to disastrous consequences. We should also teach students that getting to the right answer may help you pass a test, but doing the right thing will help you live a life of integrity and purpose. 

Our Institutions Saved the Day

Finally, we must remember that what saved this Capitol fiasco from being even worse is that our institutions functioned as our founders had hoped in a period of crisis. The checks and balances built into the Constitution were designed to keep any branch of government from breaking our democratic norms. In the contested states and at the Supreme Court, the judges followed the law.

State legislatures appointed their selected delegates, whether they agreed with the results or not. Even in the House and Senate, members of Trump’s party denied his wishes to overturn the election, and some are now even supporting his impeachment. 

It’s easy to find faults in our system. But it’s also crucial to see the beauty in its design that enables democracy to function, even when its leader has no qualms about ignoring the will of the people.

Educators are an essential part of helping students to understand the role of each branch of the government and how they fit into the big picture. By teaching this lesson, we help students appreciate the resiliency of our nation and regain their faith in the future. 

In these trying times, we can all think about how to best teach these lessons to our students. It’s important for them—and for our country—that we do so.

Read the original post on Dr. Kaufman’s personal blog.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: A nationally recognized expert on teaching innovation and service-learning, Dr. Andrew Kaufman is currently an Associate Professor and Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. He supports faculty and teachers across the country in creating profound learning experiences that change the way students think, act, and feel, while making important contributions to their communities.