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Kassy Alia’s Keynote Speech at the City of Columbia’s 31st Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration

By February 5, 2019 February 18th, 2019 No Comments

I was deeply honored to be asked to speak here today and also deeply humbled. I felt this tremendous responsibility to craft a message that spoke to the message of Dr. King while also respecting the lives and experiences of everyone who is here today.

As I was grappling with what to say, I reached out to my friend Alana Simmons. After her grandfather, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, was one of the nine precious souls killed at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015, Alana founded Hate Won’t Win. As I shared my thoughts with Alana, she paused and said, “What you are saying makes me think of the final chapter of Dr. King’s final book, ‘Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community’ where he spoke about the concept of the ‘world house.’”

The notion of the “world house” is one of brotherhood. Specifically, Dr. King says, “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” Peace is the fight worth fighting, he argues, and that peace is accomplished when we see that we are all interdependent. “All life is interrelated,” Dr. King shared. “The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all.”

His words resonate with me deeply as they remind me of my own experience finding peace after my husband’s death.

It was June 27, 2008, when I met Greg. I had just finished my junior year in college and was very focused on getting into graduate school. So, no boys for me. I left without exchanging numbers but wouldn’t you know – I ran into him at the grocery store the very next day. I’m not quite sure if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but if there is, that was it. Loving him was a different experience for me. I would just touch his hand and feel electric. Loving him transformed me.

We were married on December 14, 2011, and welcomed our son, Sal, on March 31, 2015. I loved every moment of my time with Greg, but that time with our little family of three was perfect. I remember that September driving home from a work trip and I got teary just thinking about how thankful I was. My life with Sal and Greg was everything I had ever wanted.

And then, in an instant, it was gone.

It has been over three years since that tragic day, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

It was a beautiful Wednesday morning in September. Greg, who was a police officer, had just switched back to day shift. I remember that morning Sal, who turned six months old that day, woke up early, as many babies do. I was so tired, so Greg took over dad duty and played with Sal as he got ready for work. Then, about 6:30, he brought him to the bedroom, said, “I’m sorry babe, I have to go.” He kissed my head and he was gone.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

I later learned that he had been providing back-up on a call about a suspicious person. When Greg showed up, the man ran. Greg chased. A struggle ensued. Greg was shot. He died instantly.

When I look back over the past three years, I am thankful that out of all the feelings I have felt since losing Greg, anger and hate have been among the least common feelings. But, I have to tell you, in those first few hours, I was angry.

You see, it was 2015. I don’t know how it was for others, but for me, it felt like I couldn’t turn on the news without seeing another tragedy of an officer involved shooting or an officer being shot. With each tragedy would come a flurry of divisive opinions on social media. It seemed to me that at that time you could be either for police or for community – you couldn’t be both. And if you were for community, then you had to be against police. For those who were against police, it felt like they were against all police, including Greg.

When he was killed, that narrative left me to wonder if his service and sacrifice were valued. So, I began speaking out. Over the first 48 hours, I did a number of interviews all talking about Greg and sharing our story. I did it for Greg, to honor his legacy. I did it for Sal, so he wouldn’t look back on the news years from now and see hate. But more than anything, I didn’t want to fuel a hateful narrative. Too often, we forget that there are real people behind the stories we see in the news. I didn’t want Greg’s death to become a tally mark for one team versus another. I wanted to remind people of the humanity in this tragedy.

I also wanted to challenge the negative focus on police. So, at 3:00 in the morning the night after he died, I shared a Facebook post asking for two things. One, I asked that people share stories about Greg so Sal could learn about the man his father was and two, I said that Greg was a hero and many other cops are too. I proposed using the hashtag #HeroesInBlue as a way to raise awareness of the good stories that so often go untold. A few months before he died, I asked Greg what he thought about the tensions between police and community. He said, “Kassy, no one wants a bad cop brought to justice more than a good cop. But for every one negative story you hear, there are thousands of positive stories happening every day that go unnoticed.” Heroes In Blue was intended as a way not to take away from the bad things that could and should change, but to make the good stories a part of the conversation.

Now, Heroes In Blue was nothing more than a hashtag, a gut reaction that I had hours after Greg was killed. Prior to his death, I had been actively working to complete my doctorate in Clinical-Community psychology and was doing work that I loved. However, I felt called to do something to change the relationships between police and community. I just wasn’t sure how.

I was so excited when I was invited to speak on my first panel. The topic was race relations. I saw this as an opportunity to break down barriers. If only people could hear me, I thought, they would understand.

Things didn’t go as planned. There was a couple in attendance and they were angry with me. It seemed that I represented everything that they despised. After the panel, people rushed up to me. “I can’t believe they treated you that way,” they said. It was so bad that the panel staff escorted me to a private hallway as if to shield me.

I was distraught. What did I say to be the target of such anger? I swung back around. I wanted to talk directly to them.

We spoke for close to an hour. What I remember most from this conversation was not what they said, but what I learned. I learned what it felt to lean into what was uncomfortable for me to hear, to listen to their perspectives, deeply, openly, and that change was not about being understood, but in seeking to understand.

I didn’t agree with how they expressed their pain, but after we talked, I felt I better understood where it was coming from. I realized then how little I understood about why people distrust police or really about the experiences people of color face in our country.

I think before that point, I thought I understood. I mean, the focus of my work before Greg died was on working to address health disparities and my doctoral program places a strong emphasis on diversity, inclusion and social justice. I had written numerous academic papers that cited all of the relevant health disparities statistics. But, for all that, I see now that I didn’t really understand. While I knew the statistics, it wasn’t until I truly sought to listen that I began to see the humanity in the numbers.

Some of you may know this, but I re-married in October. And I think one of the first things that really brought my new husband, Mitch, and I closer together was this journey of learning. I remember he would propose something new we could explore together that could better help us learn and understand. As I would venture into difficult conversations – conversations where I intentionally sought out to learn from people who were most different from myself and sought to listen and learn from their stories – he was there to process it all with me. Through this experience, we learned and grew and importantly we also developed many outstanding, transformative, genuine friendships with people we may have never really known had we not been open to learning.

Now, through all of this, I am by no means an expert on race and racism. There are sincere limitations with my world view which limit my ability to ever truly understand what it is like to be someone of color in our country. That being said, this process did help me begin to notice things that I may have missed in the past.

For example, one time I went to the grocery store with my son. We always go to the bakery to get one of the free cookies they have for kids. When we got to there, there was a line. A white woman was being helped and behind her was a black woman. We were third in line. Once the baker helped the first woman, he turned to me. Perhaps he knew all I wanted was the free cookie, but I saw the second woman’s face drop. “Oh, she was before me,” I said. The baker turned to help her. As he walked away, the woman looked to me and said, “Thank you. He knew I was here first but he was going to help you instead. Thank you.”

My heart broke. How often had this happened? How many times had I pushed my way in front of others without thinking? It was just a cookie. It would only take a moment. But to that woman it was so much more. I wondered how many other times she had been chosen second that day? Or how about in her lifetime? I wondered, how would I feel if I were her?

It wasn’t just the cookie situation that I noticed. I began to see signs of it everywhere. More and more I witnessed broken systems, one after the other, and how they impacted people in real life. I saw it wasn’t the major acts of racism that were most prominent but the small everyday acts that communicate place and privilege in our society. I felt I finally began to understand why people of color in our country may feel that their lives don’t matter as much to society as mine. I thought about how I felt watching news – how it made me feel as if Greg was under attack – and I wondered what it would be like if roles were reversed and every time I turned on the news I saw a story about a black man being shot by a cop. How would I feel?

With this realization, came a sense of hopelessness. It seemed that bringing people together was an impossibility.

Alongside this journey of growth, I was dealing with the experience of the case involving Greg’s death. Every time I had to meet with the lawyers, it was as if I was being sucked into a deep pit of hate. I would be left incapacitated for days at a time. Losing Greg was the worst thing that could happen, but being asked what I would want for the life of the person who took him from us was a close second. I struggled to understand what justice meant. I researched – what happens when someone is killed? What if that person is a cop? What if the person was killed by a cop?

I was a wreck. There was one particularly painful day with the attorneys where I left feeling defeated. I wracked my brain – how was I going to survive this? How was I going to sit there in that courtroom facing the source of my greatest pain and go home and love my son? How was I going to teach him about empathy and forgiveness when I couldn’t even find that in my own heart?

I thought about a lot of rational explanations about what I could teach Sal about justice, but none of them brought my heart peace. It wasn’t until I imagined how I would feel if I were the mother of the man who killed Greg and immediately I pictured him as my own little boy, so filled hope and possibilities. And right then and there, I saw it – the common ground. His mother and I – What she wanted for her son I imagined was not so different from what I would want for Sal. Neither of us wanted to be in this space.

I wondered, what if we had found him – the man who killed Greg – before that day? Would we have found a man in need? And what if we could have helped him? Would we even be here?

It was then that I saw an opportunity for police and community to come together. What we both want is essentially the same – for the people we love to be protected, our communities to be safe, and our children to thrive. What if we could work together to achieve this shared goal?

Heroes In Blue was rebranded to Serve and Connect to better reflect this message. The mission was expanded to emphasize the critical importance of partnerships for improving community safety, resilience and well-being. Our goal is to ignite positive change in police-community relationships by optimizing collaboration, elevating trust, and fostering a sense of shared pride and vision for the future. We refuse to accept things as they are and believe in a new path forward – one of hope, unity and prosperity for all.

When I think about how I felt when Greg first died – the anger, the hate – and to see how far we come, it’s a true source of hope. Nothing will ever bring him back and I will continue to miss him for the rest of my life. However, what we have accomplished through this journey gives me hope in a different future, one where we are united over our shared humanity. By seeking to genuinely understand a different perspective, we have been able to chart a new path for police and community relationships. And I have also found peace and healing in my own heart.

None of this would have been possible without an authentic process of openness, learning and growth.

We all come to the table with our own experiences and stories. Some people we are really good at understanding and others we are not.

To be able to genuinely live as brothers and sisters in this world house requires us to grow in our empathy and understanding for one another, no matter who we are, what our stories are, or where we come from. The more we are able to see the world from the lens of another, especially those who are most different from ourselves, the more we are able to see their stories – their joys and their sorrows – as being so directly linked with our own. Empathy helps us to see that what impacts one impacts us all.

But empathy, like most things, is a skill. It takes practice, patience, and a ton of courage. Courage to take an honest look in the mirror and identify our strengths and areas for growth. Who are we most comfortable with? Who do we not understand very well? And how can we seek opportunities for growth?

It takes courage to be vulnerable and honest about what we don’t know. Standing up in front of you all today, sharing my story, was scary. I cringed with each word thinking about my own ignorance and privilege. But, if I hadn’t been honest about what I didn’t know, then I would have never been able to learn.

Leaning can be such a difficult process. It forces us to lean into what is uncomfortable for us to hear and allow ourselves to be transformed in the process. It can also mean feeling like we are going against our own people at times. But, imagine what we are able to achieve if we find the bravery to understand one another? What could we accomplish?

Over the past three years, I have been amazed at the power of people to promote healing and understanding.

For example, about a year ago, I was in a meeting with several police and community partners. Our goal was to understand how we could better improve relationships between police and people experiencing homelessness. There was a gentleman in attendance and as we started the meeting he said, “I think the best way I can contribute to this conversation is to be open about my own story.” We sat there as he, a black man, shared his life experiences with police starting from when he was 7. He said that his dad had abused his mom and when the police came to take his dad away, no one said anything to him. He stood there terrified. That early childhood experience painted a negative view of police for him and leaves him to feel wary of police even today, so much so that when it was time to teach his teenage boys to drive, he gave them the talk. “If an officer pulls you over, two hands on the wheel. Say ‘yes sir, no sir’ and do as you’re told.” As he was teaching them, an officer did in fact stop them. He described his fear and how he held his breath just hoping everything would work out ok. And it did – the officer was just sharing a helpful warning, was nice and courteous and actually apologetic for stopping them.

What blew me away about this man’s story was not simply the content of what he shared but the way he shared it. It took tremendous bravery for him to show up authentically and to share of himself the best way he knew how. He wanted to be open to our discussion but in order to do so, felt the need to first share about his own story. That took incredible courage. And it elicited a powerful response. One of the officers in the room, who was also black, opened up as a result of hearing this man’s story. He shared his own experiences with discrimination and even negative interactions with the police. None of that would have happened had the first man not been so tremendously brave. To this day, his actions continue to be among the most moving and courageous that I have ever witnessed.

When we are willing to show and be present for others, when we allow people to really see us and understand us, and when we are willing to really listen and hear what they have to say in return, incredible things happen. Trust is built. Empathy grows. Healing blossoms.

The struggles that Dr. King fought against are still very real today. Racism continues to be ever present. And it seems with every day, we grow more and more polarized from one another in thought and action. We are so divided, so disconnected, and it is challenging our ability to move forward toward effective action.

With that comes fear and a desire to fight against this great threat. We all speak and call for a different future but we can be at times frozen in our ability to pursue that which we hold so dear. As Dr. King said, “Many men cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ but they refuse to do the things that make for peace.”

If we want a different future, one filled with peace, we must start doing things differently. We must choose connection over division, empathy over blame. We must actively seek opportunities for learning, and compassion, and understanding with every fiber of our being. We must resist the urge to hide or shelter ourselves from the unknown and bravely chart a new united path together. And, when others show up authentically and honestly, we must be willing to embrace them and listen. To love them.

And to let love lead our own actions as we move forward.

It was a true honor to join you here today. Thank you again to the City of Columbia, especially the Department of Parks and Recreation and the MLK Day committee for inviting me to speak here. While I may be the one standing up here today, I want to say that we all have a story worth sharing. No matter who you are, or where you come from, your life is precious and worth understanding. We just need to take the time to ask one another more, listen to one another more, and show up for one another more. A new future is right at our finger tips. All we have to do is find the courage to connect with one another. I believe when we choose that simple act of knowing one another better, then we create a future where all children can thrive.

Thank you.

*Video produced by City of Columbia