Emotions from Charleston: Building Connections with One Another

By: Bradley Fabro Afroilan  

Saddening and Inspiring—these are the two words that can best describe this past week for me. 

On June 17th, 2015, the lives of  nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were stolen, taken away, robbed, murdered.  All of them were black.  The shooter, a white 21 year old man, almost exactly my age. 

The worst part for me in this matter is that when I received this news in the Haas Institute Summer Fellow email list serve that night, I was not surprised. Shocked yes, because lives were stolen, but not surprised.  After studying race/racism for so long, it doesn't take too many words for me to read to  know what is going on and what might ensue after an event like this. 

I quickly turned away and didn't want to read it. 

I guess this turning away has just developed into a defense mechanism now to escape to a better place: a place that doesn't have these problems; a place where I know I can ignore. A place where I know only temporarily, the fact that the world has a lot of problems.

And yes I am saddened.  Yes, it saddens me that lives were stolen and the murderer has been "apprehended" and delivered to "justice" wrapped in a protective, bullet proof vest.  Though the vest was black in color, this is America's white shield to protect their own from punishment. 

It saddens me more in the fact that though the system, this structure that we live by is broken from the point of view for people of color, but in reality, it was made that way.  This structure is working. It is working by those who created it. It is working at the expense of the lives of brown and black bodies. 

The system was never broken, it was made that way. 

June 18th, 2015

~6:50 a.m., Home

I'm somewhere in between dreams and reality.  I check Facebook and find a notification that CAL BSU is hosting a vigil for the victims later that day on the Sproul Steps at 6:30PM. I instinctively donned  any article of clothing I owned that was black.

9:50 a.m.,  460 Stephens Hall, Conference Room 

We  had a training on Community Organizing and yet my mind is still focused on attending the vigil tonight to try ally this community that is constantly wounded and for healing. Even the week before, we had the ordeal of Rachel Dolezal pretending to be Black.  It added insult to injury, but that's for another discussion.

A lot has gone on in the past two weeks, and it's been difficult to comprehend, think about and talk about. But I soon found out that at the Haas Institute, we do not disregard what happened in the world and continue on with our tasks.  It is a small act is what I have greatly appreciated: we make time for these issues to check in on how we feel.             

Adam Kruggel was our guest facilitator that day.  To be honest, I don't remember much of what he said even though I took down notes for later.  However, what I remember is how he made me feel:  for some odd reason, I haven't had deep conversations about social issues in the world and what to tangibly do about them.  I'm not sure why It might be stress. Maybe some new defense mechanism my body has against these issues.

Or maybe burn out from overexposure.

Whatever it might be, it wasn't until  Adam talked about empathy that was I reminded of a conversation of a friend from UCSB on being empathetic with others.   To be empathetic means to see the world in the eyes of others, but simultaneously feel the pain of the affected community.  As he said in his example of St. Paul, it is to go into a community one does not know, do the hardest work, and share who one is.  In short, to be intentional with one's motive and be vulnerable by sharing your story with people who see you as a stranger and possibly as one who might not be trustworthy.  My conversation with my friend was exactly this and I'm a little saddened, but not surprised that I forgot this act of empathy.  Though being vulnerable and sharing oneself is the most tangible way to show solidarity and understanding, after feeling "othered" and put down for so long by structural racism, being vulnerable is difficult.  It's much easier to put on a front and harden my heart. 

Sometimes I'm not sure who to trust.

However, I've realized that in order to make coalitions and even just to get people on board the movement, I have to be vulnerable and share with them who I am.  I can't expect people to organize and act with me if they don't know me or know what is going on.

I've learned that organizing and activism are very different.. A large part of organizing deals with interpersonal relationships and trust, and this is what inspires me.

Building these relationships is a long, slow, patient process.  Similarly, learning is a long slow process and though I've studied social issues for quite some time, I know that this process is still going and may never end.  It's a beautiful thing to know that I still have a lot to learn.  It's humbled me and made me realize that if I want to make change and make connections, I have to be vulnerable and I'm going to learn to do this.

I'm inspired to do so because I'm coming full circle from my first year in college. I put my walls up and carefully let a few people in. Today, I hope that I will let my walls down to actively and empathetically listen with my ears and my heart and share myself again. 

It is going to be a long, slow, painful process, but it is with the intention to fulfill the need of building connections and learning to understand rather than to be understood.

Note from the author: Please know that I am anti-system, not anti-white.  I'm against the system that established by white imperialists to benefit themselves and disadvantage people of color. 

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.