Nettie Webb '18

Currently a senior at the University of Virginia, Nettie Webb ’18 was recently awarded the first-ever Undergraduate Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 

Webb is majoring in interdisciplinary studies with minors in environmental engineering and environmental science, and concentrations in both environmental justice and decolonization of engineering curriculum. She credits Episcopal’s History of the South class, taught by Mike Reynolds, with igniting her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion work. She praises the class for helping her prepare to ultimately orchestrate the History of Enslaved African American Laborers (HEAAL) Tour with a group of classmates at the UVA.
“Episcopal definitely shaped and influenced the work I’m doing now,” Webb said. “If I hadn’t done the Voices of Integration work for Episcopal’s 50 Years of Integration celebration, I would have never thought that something outside of engineering was even in the realm of possibility for me.”
The idea for the tour came in response to an outcry for change in the wake of  Summer of 2020. “After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was a letter from the Black Charlottesville community,” Webb explained. “They proposed solutions for racial equity, and part of that letter was changing the curriculum that the University of Virginia provided first-year students to educate them on the history of slavery and white supremacy at the University.”
Driven to take action, Webb and her peers conceived a campus tour that could honor and acknowledge the enslaved workers, drawing on primary source documents and research undertaken by the University. That fall they debuted the tour to a group of first-year students belonging to a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) organization. Struck by the power of the experience, the group convinced Webb that it should be provided to all first-year students at UVA. Inspired by their recommendation, Webb wrote a grant proposal to the University’s Inclusive Excellence Committee and was awarded funding to incentivize first-year students to take the tour and to offer paid positions for the tour guides.
“The incentive was sponsored by a Black-owned restaurant which offered to cater food for whatever association or dorm yielded the highest attendance on the tour each year,” Webb reflected. The ability to pay the tour guides was also very important to Webb because it ensured equity by enabling those who rely on income from campus jobs to participate.
All first-year students are now strongly encouraged to participate in the tour not only to learn more about the complex history of the school, but also to better understand the reality of those enslaved laborers.
“I think it's incredibly important because of the recency of this history,” Webb explained. “UVA didn’t recognize or put intention into telling these stories or these narratives until 2007.”  According to Webb, the HEAAL Tour regularly generates meaningful conversations, thought provoking questions, and a safe space for Black students and alumni alike.
The tour concludes with an acknowledgement of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, designed after a broken shackle. The memorial is considered an “active” monument as the University continues to uncover the names and identities of former enslaved laborers. Although a hefty undertaking, Webb believes the key to discontinuing generational cycles of racism is education. “Unless we acknowledge the silent past, and then adequately change the structures that contribute to the system, then it's going to probably repeat itself.”
After graduating, Webb plans to take two gap years to embark on challenging experiences, including possibly becoming a teaching fellow, before pursuing her PhD in education, specializing in DEI in STEM.
“Guiding this HEAAL Tour, I had to lean heavily onto some of the skills I learned at EHS, and for that I am grateful.” She now emboldens current Episcopal students to engage in meaningful conversations with their classmates and teachers. “The in-depth conversations we actually got to have in our classrooms, the exposure to extremely great teachers, and the impactful discussions expanded my ideas,” Webb said. “I hope students take advantage of the incredible opportunity they have in that space.”