Originally published in The Daily Local.
Written by Michael P. Rellahan
On June 4, hundreds of people converged in West Chester to rally against police misconduct and to promote racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, who died while being forcibly restrained by police in Minneapolis, Minn. A day later, two of the participants in that event, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of Easttown, and West Chester NAACP President and Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board member Rev. Kyle Boyer of Tredyffrin, had a conversation about racial issues and how to work for equality. This is a partial transcript of that conversation.
Houlahan: I was wondering how you got to where you are and how did you come to do the kind of work you’re doing now? Because you’re kind of a renaissance person.
On June 9, Houlahan joined with other Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce the Justice in Policing Act. The package limits legal protections for police, creates a national database of excessive-force encounters and bans police choke holds, among other changes. The changes, if enacted, would have massive implications on policing in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.
Boyer: I appreciate that. I came to this work through a sense of call and purpose. Specifically, I had plenty of opportunities to lead in my primary and secondary schooling. And you know part of that was “sticking out.” I was one of a handful, at least in elementary, of African Americans. As a result, there was sort of an organic sticking out, but even more than that, I’ve always been an extrovert. And I’ve always had an innate sense of justice. But education and experience have refined that sense of justice and given it language and context. And as a result, anything I do in leadership, it’s because I feel called to it.
Houlahan: That’s actually remarkably similar to how I feel as well. I grew up in a military family. For me, I felt very much an outsider for a different reason because I moved almost every single year. I didn’t fit in. And so that has really stuck with me through my life, too. We have in common a real passion for education. My dad was a Holocaust survivor; he came here as a refugee, and so education and education equity are things that I was raised on as well. My family emphasized the only thing they couldn’t take away from you was your education. I think that you and I, early on, discovered that we have in common that we both taught at different times at the same high school, Simon Gratz.
Boyer: Yes absolutely. It’s cool to see different paths with the same underlying sense of purpose.
Houlahan: A lot has happened literally every day the past couple of weeks, including the marches that we participated in together. And I was wondering if you could describe how you’re feeling now, in maybe three adjectives.
Boyer: Hopeful, challenged, and surprised.
Houlahan: How come hopeful and surprised?
Boyer: Hopeful and surprised, and I think they sort of go together. The Main Line is not a bastion of black culture, so to see the march that went from Wayne to Paoli – so many non-black individuals come out and openly chant “Black Lives Matter” – to me was overwhelming in all of the right ways.
Houlahan: Your middle adjective, I forget. I think “challenged?” In what way?
Boyer: Challenged because the task, as I spoke at the West Chester march, is to do something. And to remind people that the march – yes, it is great and it is something – but there are other things that must be done. The energy must be converted to actionable items, must be converted to real change in legislation and policy and, of course, in practice. That’s the challenge – to guide individuals to be a part of the movement from rally to meaningful response.
Houlahan: Yeah. Many say “from protest to progress.” And I think that you did a beautiful job in your speech of framing out for us the history, in many cases a bad history, of our community and to challenge us collectively to do something, which I thought was a really good call to action.
Boyer: I want to hear your adjectives as well.
Houlahan: I also have profound hope, and I think I tried to share that in my speech at the march too. Because, as you said, for the first time, these conversations are being had in places that they haven’t been had before. But I’m also pretty devastated. I’m hopeful that we can make this the pivot point. I’m hopeful that we can make this an inflection point, but I feel as though we never quite turn things to good. We never quite take those really good pivot points and make them actionable. I’m hoping we can keep the energy going.
Boyer: Right. I completely agree.
Houlahan: So I guess the next question is “Where can we go from here?” What, in your mind, does change look like? A lot of black Americans are understandably exhausted and angry and just sort of feel like “Finally, welcome to the conversation.” What do we need to do as white people, people of privilege, to be able to take some steps that are helpful?
Boyer: Yeah. One of the things that we can do is come to an agreement about what is at the root of some of our problems. Systemic racism must be named, must be acknowledged. And once we agree on definitions, then we can move to some other things like actionable legislative items. I’d love to see: banning the use of knee holds, many places already ban chokeholds but adding knee holds to the list of banned practices; implementing citizens review boards; denying certain recertifications for officers if they’ve used deadly force in unwarranted situations; reviewing and adjusting open records acts; adjusting use of force continuums. There are actionable things, specifically regarding the police brutality aspect of systemic injustice. And then there are other things tied to it like removing barriers to the right to vote.
Houlahan: In the conversations that you and I have had, you have, as you have here, appropriately challenged us all to name it. Name the problem, and by naming it, then we’re able to more easily talk about it. Meaning: naming the people who have died at the hands of police brutality, people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Saying the words “police brutality.” Saying and understanding that even though it’s uncomfortable to name these things and to talk about a word like privilege without sort of feeling like you’re being attacked, that I am privileged.
Houlahan: What else can we do? I learned only just recently that you can join the NAACP as a white person. I did not know that. That’s cool. What other kinds of things can people do to be more engaged?
Boyer: I’m a continuous reader. There are tons of books that are joining the canon of must-reads as it relates to learning about race and privilege: “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram Kendi. Reading is one way to engage because reading is up there with listening. Sitting down and having conversations. Attending a black church service. Donating to organizations that you know are doing meaningful social justice work. Challenging some of your friends and family who are representing views that you know are not right. That’s one way you can be an ally.
Houlahan: Yes, we need to move forward on some of these changes, but in the end this is all about equity. This is about education. It’s about health care. It’s, as you mentioned, about access to voting. It’s about fair wages. All of those kinds of things are I hope things that we also take time to get to.