Traveling the United States has opened one family's eyes to inequality

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FARMINGTON — A year ago, David and Erin Leaverton loaded their three children into a recreational vehicle and started on a cross-country road trip to learn why the nation seemed to be so divided.

This road trip brought them to Farmington late last week as they learned about the Navajo perspective.

 “Our lives have been transformed by this journey,” David Leaverton said while sitting in the family RV Friday evening.

The journey has opened their eyes to the impacts of inequality in the country. They believe the inequality is behind the division.

“We walked into a world that presented an America to us that we’d never seen before,” Erin Leaverton said.

After leaving politics, Leavertons set out on a journey

The Leavertons trace their backgrounds to the Republican party. David Leaverton had done opposition research and targeted campaigns for candidates. He worked for President George W. Bush and later for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee until 2012.

“We kind of just walked away from that whole world because we needed a break,” said Erin Leaverton.

Erin Leaverton said they didn’t support either candidate in the 2016 election, but they did listen to the narrative. This highlighted the division in the United States.

The journey took them out of the traditional evangelical Republican circle. They attended a Pride Parade in Boston and a social and economic justice rally in New Jersey. In addition, they learned about racial and socioeconomic inequality in many of the places they visited.

“There’s a lot of stories that cities try to hide,” Erin Leaverton said.

She said she was shocked to learn that her home town of Canyon, Texas, had a sign at its entrance letting people of color know it was a “sundown” town. She explained that meant it was not safe for non-white people to be there after sunset.

Throughout the journey, the couple has blogged about their experiences and what they have learned. This blog can be read at undividednation.us.

Family enters final leg of the road trip

New Mexico was the 49th state on the family's itinerary. The final state they will visit is the state they once called home — Texas.

Their youngest two children, William, 3, and Mary Catherine, 6, played together at a table Friday evening while the oldest child, Grace, 7, looked at books while sitting on a couch in the RV.

A film crew moved around them grabbing shots for a documentary that will include the family’s story.

Erin Leaverton said the three children have learned about the country’s history alongside their parents.

Now the couple wants to share those lessons with the rest of the country as well.

There are various ways they hope to share what they have learned. These include a book and a podcast interviewing people they have met.

“I don’t think I can change someone’s heart, but I’ve met people who have changed my heart,” David Leaverton said.

Inequality catches the family's attention

The Leavertons initially thought political differences were behind the division in the United States.

Erin Leaverton said that theory was destroyed during the first week when the family visited Tulsa, Oklahoma. She said they discovered political differences are a symptom but not the cause.

By the time they reached Farmington, the family had discovered an answer to their question.

The Leavertons said inequality caused by a "hierarchy of human value" is behind the division. They say the hierarchy traces its roots to the first European settlers in what is now the United States.

This hierarchy impacted their own family relations, Erin Leaverton said.

Grace, the oldest child, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome the day she was born.

“My husband said it was the happiest, hardest day of his life,” Erin Leaverton said.

Erin Leaverton had never met anyone with down syndrome and thought Grace’s life was going to be horrible. She said traveling with Grace made her realize she was subconsciously judging her daughter.

Four Corners offers opportunity to learn Navajo perspective

The family wanted to learn more about the Navajo perspective. That desire brought them to the Four Corners region.

Erin Leaverton said they visited the Church Rock uranium spill site north of Gallup. In the 1979, contaminants from a uranium mill spilled into the Puerco River. She said not much was done to address the contamination.

The story of what had happened to the Native Americans after the Europeans arrived stood out in David Leaverton's mind as he visited Farmington.

“This land was not discovered,” David Leaverton said.

He said the Americas were already inhabited by thriving, advanced cultures and were doing fine without European intervention.

He said in many instances white people acted like savages in the way they treated the Native Americans. He highlighted the hanging of 38 members of the Dakota tribe in Mankato, Minnesota, as well as forced relocation such as the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk of the Navajo.

“’We the people’ has never meant all the people,” David Leaverton said.

He said when those words were penned the phrase referred to white, land-owning men. Because he fit into that category, David Leaverton said he had never seen the impacts of inequality before.

He said he had subscribed to a certain degree of white supremacist and racist ideology.

“Coming to terms with that is pretty hard,” he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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