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All boarding, grades 9-12 in Alexandria, Virginia


Virginia Leavell ’01

Virginia Leavell is an organizer, an activist, a taker of initiative, and a maker of no excuses. Co-founder of the Wayside Center for Popular Education and more recently DC Action Lab, Virginia has spent her life so far pouring energy and resources into campaigns for social and economic equality. 
 “There's injustice all around,” she says. “Once you open your eyes to what's going on, for me it's been impossible not to be involved.” As a consultant for grassroots campaigns of all sizes, she has erected teepees on the National Mall to protest the Keystone Pipeline, covered the lawn of the Federal Communications Commission with stuffed animal cats in favor of net neutrality, and unleashed an army of polar-bear-suit-wearing petitioners on the streets of D.C. in the name of environmentalism.

The World Is Closer Here
: “When I came to Episcopal for high school, I could explore what was going on in D.C. - and there was a lot going on. I was at EHS from 1997 to 2001, and that was the period when people in the U.S. were waking up to a lot of the problems of globalization. In 1999, there were huge mobilizations in Seattle that were all over the news. People were protesting the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. And then there was a huge mobilization in D.C. in 2000 when the World Bank was meeting in D.C. I was able to go to that and get involved and meet local [activists]. There was a lot of really great work happening here: workshops, demonstrations. I read obsessively about everything that was going on.”

Hunger Strike
: “When I got to college [at Georgetown University], I got involved with a group called the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. Basically, we all realized that workers on campus were making $6 an hour. I got really involved in a living wage campaign, which I prioritized all through college. It was a really exciting campaign. We fought for four years and ended up in a hunger strike that went on for nine days. And we won. That was a great thing for a [young person] to experience because that’s when I realized that if we organized and we struggled, we could win things.”

Uprising Abroad
: “[In college] I had studied abroad in Thailand, which was another eye-opening experience. There were dams being built and monocrop industrial farms being put in and organizers being assassinated. I was just in the middle of these struggles studying. I went back after I graduated and worked there for two years. That was also a very politicizing experience. When I came back [to the U.S.], I was like, ‘Is the revolution hiring?’ It wasn’t.”

Immigration Issues
: “I went back to Charlottesville, where I’m from. At that time, 2007, there was a big upsurge in the immigrant rights struggle, especially in Virginia. There was a lot of legislation being put on the books in counties that were increasing racial profiling and enabling local police to enforce federal immigration law, which was a new thing. There were all of these amazing undocumented immigrants who were taking to the streets and doing a lot of work. I got to be a part of that.”

Wayside Center
: “We kept losing those struggles because we were always trying to hold the line. When President Obama came into office, the number of immigrant raids just went up and up. People were always handling raid responses, and families were being separated. We decided we needed a place where we could educate ourselves and build capacity and strategize for the long-term. I helped start a center in [Faber, Va.,] called the Wayside Center for Popular Education. It's a place where people who are trying to fight for a better life and fight against oppression can come and meet each other and educate themselves and strategize campaigns.”

DC Action Lab
: “[In 2013], some friends and I started DC Action Lab. We get hired to help all different kinds of organizations plan their actions and events - anywhere from 10 people to 10,000 people. We help these groups logistically pull off the action, whether it's navigating the permitting or engaging the police. We work with artists to build all the props and make the banners. We step in as the helpers so that folks can prioritize mobilizing everyone and fundraising to get everyone there.”

Activist for Life
: “How do you stay engaged your whole life? How do you stay involved? One, you need to join an organization. Find an organization that has a message you believe in and work that you can get on board with, and join it. You learn from that experience. Two, education is key. We have to learn the other side of the story. Study and read and learn because that changes your consciousness and your orientation to the world.”

This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.
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