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‘Courageous Conversations’: Serve & Connect Founder Kassy Alia Ray Shares Her Perspective

Starting a necessary, national dialogue right here, right now …

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It seems everywhere you turn these days people keep saying they want to “have a conversation.” Or that we, as a nation, “need to have a conversation.” This phrase has already become shopworn, like platitudinal pleas for “peace” or insincere extensions of “thoughts and prayers” following a tragedy.

Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Memorial Day, the notion of a national dialogue on race and justice has been on the tips of many tongues … yet real rapprochement remains more elusive than ever.

Why? Because our badly divided nation cannot even start this conversation …

Many who say they want to talk really just want this issue to go away – while others who claim to desire a discussion really just want to exploit current tensions for political or ideological gain. They don’t care about their fellow human beings – they care about agendas. Elections. Ratings.

And yes, clicks.

Compounding this problem is the fact we are inhabiting a post-truth world – one which has grown troublingly tribal in recent years. A pervasive polarization of perspective has penetrated its way into far too many of our dialogues (especially on social media) … echoing and amplifying the acrimonious talking points of those who profit from fear and division.

More than ever, “dividerers” are dominating the debate right now … winning the battle for hearts and minds. As a result, we continue to see surging anger (much of it admittedly justified), demonization, destruction, demands …. and more death.

But talking? Listening? And (God forbid) actually hearing what others are saying?

Trying to see things from their point of view? Sympathizing with their plight? And actually changing as a result?

There has been precious little of that …

It has been next-to-impossible in this climate of contentiousness to get people to make a conscious effort to reexamine themselves and their attitudes in the hopes of achieving anything resembling an authentic recalibration of their perspective.

Because for all the talk of “conversation,” few are having one.

This news outlet has done its level best over the past few weeks to offer an informed perspective on the killing of Floyd (and its fallout). In providing news and analysis of this developing national story – as well as coverage specific to our home state of South Carolina – we have tried to provide readers with relevant facts while telling the truth as we see it. But ours is just one view. Having an actual conversation means seeking out other vantage points, engaging them and sharing the results.

In initiating this broader discussion (as opposed to just talking about it), we could not think of a better perspective to feature first than that of Kassy Alia Ray. Alia Ray is the founder of a Columbia, South Carolina-based charitable organization which has spent the better part of the last five years fostering relationships between local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

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(Via: Provided)

Alia Ray founded Serve & Connect after her husband Greg Alia, a Forest Acres, S.C. police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty on the morning of September 30, 2015 – leaving her and the couple’s six-month-old son, Sal, behind.

Like many other media outlets in South Carolina we have covered the work of this group before, but we never knew just how involved (and invested) it had become in the work of “bridge building” within multiple, diverse communities in our state.

In addition to helping the families of fallen law enforcement officers, Serve & Connect provides direct community support and facilitates collaborative community partnerships across the state – work that has truly helped hold things together in South Carolina during the tumultuous weeks following Floyd’s killing.

While many among us are just now arriving at the realization that our communities need to start talking to one another (and to law enforcement) – Alia Ray has been leading this dialogue for years. And she has done so despite enduring the sort of loss that would turn most people’s hearts hopelessly hard and eternally intractable.

“She is inspirational,” one veteran law enforcement source told us. “Truly an example of how to turn a tragedy into a legacy.”

Tragedy into legacy … our thoughts exactly.

Alia Ray, 33, is not just winging this effort, either. The Maryland native has her doctorate in clinical community psychology – which means in addition to having a heart for what she does, she has the mind for it as well.

That’s probably another reason why her group has been so successful in its efforts …

When we reached out to Alia Ray – pictured below with her husband Mitch Ray and Sal (now five years old) – we had admittedly had high expectations for what she might share with us. Given where she resides at the intersection of all this, we felt sure the perspective she could offer to this national discussion would be compelling, instructive and illuminating.

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(Via: Provided)

To say Alia Ray exceeded even our loftiest expectations with her responses is an understatement. The conversation that follows is truly “courageous,” but it is also genuinely revealing and uplifting on multiple levels … one of the first things we have read in recent weeks that gives us real hope for the future of our country (and our local communities) as we navigate an uncertain future.

Alia Ray’s account is also chock full of actionable wisdom – practical ways we can start shedding the clichés of convenience and begin engaging in the truly courageous work of real change.

We could not think of a better way to start to this incredibly important series. We hope our readers will read, reflect and respond … and we cannot thank Alia Ray enough for sharing so freely of her wisdom and experiences. In our estimation she is, like her late husband, a hero …

Below is Alia Ray’s conversation with our founding editor Will Folks

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KASSY ALIA RAY

(Via: Stephanie Tassone)

WILL FOLKS: So, there is obviously a lot going on in the world right now that puts you squarely in the middle of some important discussions … so, let’s talk first for a moment about the incredibly unique perspective you bring to this conversation.  Of course, I’m betting you probably would give anything in the world not to have that perspective, right? 

KASSY ALIA RAY: It depends on how you look at it. If you are referring to the perspective I have as a police widow, then of course I wish I didn’t have that perspective. I miss Greg every single day and imagine I will for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if you are referring to my role as a police wife who is also committed to community change, then the answer may be different. I have never once regretted that my husband was a police officer, and to this day remain incredibly proud of him and the many friends I have who continue to serve. I also am thankful for my professional background in community psychology which provides me with the tools and perspective to facilitate positive change.

I don’t want you to take us back to that day … I want you to take us back before that. Tell us about Greg. His legacy is a huge part of what you do and why you do it, clearly, so share some memories you have of him – if that’s not too personal.

Greg and I met during the summer of 2008. Greg had just come back from California where he had worked as a production assistant on movies that included Indiana Jones and Iron Man. While he loved movies, he was always called to serve. In high school, he was a member of the JROTC and in college he studied criminal justice. That is the kind of man he was – called to serve others. Greg was unbelievably kind. He had a strong moral compass for right and wrong, and cared about helping the underdog. He had a calm presence about him that brought others peace. Loving him made me the woman I am today. I believe he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.

The concept for this amazing group you’ve created – how did it come to you? How hard was it to get it off the ground?  How hard is it to maintain the momentum, the funding, the community support?

Serve & Connect grew out of an initial reaction after Greg was killed. It was 2015, and tensions were very high between police and community following a number of highly publicized cases, including the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. At the time, it felt like someone could either be for police or against police; that you couldn’t be both. This was difficult for me before Greg’s death, but was magnified even more so after the fact.

My first reaction was to provide a space that recognized the humanity in the loss. Yes, Greg was a police officer, but he was also a husband, a father, a son, and he was loved. The night after he was killed, I shared a facebook post asking for two things: 1) that people share stories about Greg so that Sal, our son who turned 6-months old that day, could learn about the man his father was, and 2) 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 positive stories that so often go untold.

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(Via: Provided)

As time went on, I felt deeply called to do something that could make a difference and help bring people together. While I believed (and still do) that supporting our police is important, I also recognized that doing so alone wouldn’t bring about real healing and unity between police and communities that are distrustful of police.

Tell us a little bit about the process you went through that ultimately broadened the mission of your group – that has helped make it a catalyst for the “real healing and unity” you are talking about?

I spent substantial time seeking to understand ways we could facilitate healing between police and communities that are distrustful of police. I spoke to many people from diverse backgrounds seeking to understand their perspectives. I read books, articles, and more, and explored opportunities to further understand why people may distrust police. It was through these experiences that I began to better understand how distrust in law enforcement exists within a broader context of racism in our country where black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by policies and practices that negatively impact their lives. To many, police are a representation of these unjust systems.

Inevitably, this journey of learning impacted my own process of finding peace with the man who killed Greg. I saw that he was once a little boy, just like my own son, and recognized that, while I didn’t know his story, there were many reasons which could have contributed to his ultimate decision to take Greg’s life. At the sentencing (hearing), I shared, “What if we had found [the man who killed Greg] before that tragic day? Would we have found a man in need? And what if we could have helped him?”

So this peace – and perspective – you were able to find in that moment, that is what defines the mission of your group?

It was there I saw an opportunity for police and community to come together. At the end of the day, what we – police and communities – want is more the same than it is different. We want our communities to be safe, our families to be protected and our children to thrive. Serve & Connect is grounded in this belief and seeks to bring police and community together to accomplish these shared goals.

It has been quite a journey launching Serve & Connect. Prior to Greg’s death I was doing work that I loved focused on addressing community health disparities. Starting an organization was not something that I had previously decided on; it has been a process of learning embedded within a passion to make positive change happen. I am proud of what we have accomplished in a short period of time, but know there is much work left to be done and invite others to join us in the movement for change.

Tell us more about Serve and Connect.  What does it do?  What is its purpose as you see it?

We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization with the mission of igniting positive change through police-community partnerships. Working directly with law enforcement, community stakeholders, and citizen leaders, we aspire to improve neighborhoods challenged by poverty, crime, and neglect by building trust, optimizing collaboration, and fostering a shared sense of pride. Our vision is to create safe, vibrant communities through partnerships.

You can think of us like the bridge bringing together police and communities. We do this through a variety of initiatives. For instance, our COMPASS program utilizes evidence-based best practices to support the ability of police and community organizations, leaders, and residents to direct changes related to reduced crime and enhanced well-being and resilience. Much of what contributes to crime are non-criminal actions – poverty, trauma, hunger, and more.

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(Via: John A. Carlos II/ Provided)

Police can’t address these issues alone, nor arguably should they. They frequently encounter people in need, and we believe they can be positive agents for change especially when working together with services and resources that are designed to help address needs and foster empowerment. In almost every community, there are incredible assets which exist that can be lifted up to support change. However, these resources often work in silos. Through COMPASS, we seek to build a foundation of trust and open communication which enables partners to work together to achieve shared goals. We believe we are all different pieces of the same puzzle. Through our COMPASS program, we seek to put those pieces together to create a holistic, positive future.

Another program we have which I love is our Compassionate Acts Program which provides resources to police to help people in need. The goal is to increase opportunities for positive non-enforcement interaction between police and communities in need. In a statewide survey we conducted back in 2017, we learned that while 94 percent of police felt that community policing was important to them, only 29 percent felt that they had the resources to be able to help people in need. Our Compassionate Acts Program seeks to address this need by providing police with resources and support for addressing needs as they encounter them.

For instance, our Greg’s Groceries initiative provides police with boxes of non-perishable food to hand out to people experiencing hunger. Since its launch in 2017, nearly 50,000 meals have been delivered to people living in food insecure areas by police. In total, 25 police departments have participated in the Compassionate Acts Program, and 88 percent of recipients indicate that the resources do help build community trust in police.

On top of our community building efforts, we also continue to support the many good deeds demonstrated by police every day. A few months before he died, Greg said, “For every one negative story you hear in the news, there are thousands of positive stories happening every day that go unnoticed.” When Greg died, I learned of many ways in which he made an impact on the lives of others, including an op-ed written by a woman who was experiencing homelessness. I was (and am) so proud of Greg, but I also now see that he was not alone. Every day, there are incredible acts of service and compassion demonstrated by police, and amazing stories of healing and partnership with the communities they serve. With this in mind, we continue our work of supporting our police.

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(Via: Serve & Connect)

For instance, each December we rally community support through our Greg Alia Day campaign where we facilitate nearly 600 lunches delivered to departments throughout the Midlands.

We also support families of officers who are killed or critically injured in the line of duty. When Greg was killed, the community rallied around Sal and I. It meant so much. It said to me, “Your husband’s sacrifice is seen and valued. Your family is loved.” I know how important that was to me, which is why we continue to offer that support to  families of officers killed or critically injured in the line of duty in partnership with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association. Since launching the program in 2016, we have raised over $500,000, 100 percent of which has gone back to the officers and their families.

Talk to us about some of the families you and others have helped through Serve and Connect.  It feels like you are building a real community with them – and with those helping them.  Tell us some of the stories that have inspired you as you have built this from the ground up.

Wow – what a question. Honestly, I feel those we have worked with have touched me more than I have touched them! I feel incredibly honored to have the opportunity to witness some of the most amazing displays of healing, kindness, and unity through this work. These are the stories that so often go untold, but they exist all around us, every day.

One story that immediately comes to mind is out of our COMPASS work in Columbia’s 29203 zip code. At one of our weekly meetings, a resident living in a neighborhood known for high rates of crime shared how much the work impacted her life.

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(Via: Serve & Connect)

“I was planning to take my life the day I was invited to this meeting,” she shared. “But now my life has been turned around. I see a hope in my kids’ eyes that I had never seen before. They are inspired. They are ready. This work cannot stop.”

Another story I love is out of Camden. A woman was caught shoplifting food at a local grocery store. When the officer found out, she drove to the woman’s house. The woman asked, “Am I in trouble?” The officer replied, “You are in trouble with me for not telling me you needed help.” From there, the officer learned that the woman had no food in her house. She provided her with several boxes of Greg’s Groceries and was able to connect her with resources to help her long term.

These positive stories really are the ones we never hear about, sadly. But they clearly need to be told …

There have been so many other moments and stories which have left me with immense pride and hope. Overall, I think what makes me most proud is to see the change happen within the partners we work with. It is not about Serve & Connect, but rather magnifying the greatness that already exists within our communities. To see those positive aspects shine through and work together shows me that another way is possible – one where we stand together to achieve our shared goals.

For instance, after spending months building initial relationships and trust with our partners in Columbia, they felt it was time to focus on outreach to youth. Together, partners felt it would be important to create more spaces where police could have positive interactions with children in areas where they may not often get that experience. We supported the group in designing a plan that we called the “Summer Series.” Located in an area of town that was once called, “the most dangerous neighborhood in Columbia,” we hosted fun, family-friendly events for four weeks in a row. The first event was a water-themed day.

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(Via: Serve & Connect)

We had initially planned to have a variety of games with water balloons, but filling 4,000 water balloons took much longer than we expected! So, the kids took matters into their own hands. They were dumping buckets of water on police, and the police were joining right in. To hear the laughter and see the joy was indescribable. After four weeks of fun, we were able to establish a level of trust with the neighborhood residents that facilitated deeper conversation about fears and desires. Those efforts alone have led to so much good.

These are some of the stories that give me hope and show me that what is possible when we work together. The relationships that have grown through our efforts have sustained momentum even during challenging times. Since the pandemic hit, our North Columbia partners have met weekly at least to discuss ways to provide critical resources to people in need. They have provided meals to home bound seniors; care packages to moms on Mother’s Day; board games to families; toilet paper; and more. What is also interesting is that we consistently heard that the community wanted to see more of the police during times like this; not less.

We are about to get into everything that is currently transpiring in our nation following the killing of George Floyd last month, but I’m guessing these efforts have already made a difference, right?

Yes. These relationships have sustained us during the current challenges we face as a country. I have been honored to share spaces that are courageous and raw and real, where partners in Columbia have opened up about real pain that they are experiencing alongside authentic hope that we can be a part of the positive change ahead.

This positive momentum is growing in our other COMPASS sites. Omari, our Lead Community Organizer, has been attending discussions in Orangeburg, where he describes the events as a “family reunion” while also acknowledging the pain and need for action. And, in Camden, we’ve seen community leaders stand up and say they want to work together with police to make lasting change. In one recent meeting, a leader shared that he felt more hopeful than he had ever felt before. That before we started meeting together, he felt as if no one was really listening to the needs of black and brown communities in Camden, but now he feels heard, understood and feels more confident than ever before that change can take place.

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(Via: John A. Carlos II/ Provided)

Certainly, this is not just the work of Serve & Connect. The leader I mentioned in Camden is a courageous person who is willing to do something different to achieve change, just as are the other community members and police partners who are sharing that space. In Orangeburg, it speaks to the foundation of trust already built by the Orangeburg county sheriff’s office and to the hearts of the residents who have used their voice for positive change.

And, in Columbia, people – both community and police – who were already doing great work have come together as a “family” (as described by some members of the group), magnifying their shared impact by working together. These stories make me proud because if we can contribute even a little bit to accelerating their positive momentum, then wow – I don’t even think we know what might be possible.

You’ve obviously seen the video of what happened to George Floyd. And you’ve seen footage of all the destruction and violence that continues to follow in the aftermath of that tragedy – including violence against law enforcement.  Given the goal of Serve & Connect, all of this has to break your heart …

Of course it does.

When I first watched the video of the officer with his knee to the neck of George Floyd for minutes on end, I felt sick to my stomach. How could any person willingly harm another person as they cry out for help? Furthermore, my heart broke recognizing that the death of George Floyd exists within a broader context of racism for my black and brown friends. While I will never fully understand what that must feel like, I deeply hurt thinking about how much trauma the death of George Floyd must have brought forth for so many.

Then, for days I was scared for my police family. I watched in horror as rocks were thrown at them and police cars were burned. I heard stories of officers being shot at and followed home. It was hard to sleep for a while, because I was worried something might happen to one of the people I love in the night.

It is possible to both condemn racism and also care for the wellbeing and safety of police. Empathy is at the heart of it all. When we are able to walk in someone else’s shoes, it is impossible to condone hate in any form. We see that, at the end of the day, we are more the same than we are different. Our stories and perspectives may be unique, but we are all part of one world family. To make a better world where our children can thrive requires us to build a practice of empathy, lean into uncomfortable conversations, and create real solutions that bring forth lasting change. We are all pieces of the puzzle. When we build empathy, we can bring together those pieces to create a new and beautiful picture for our future.

Where do we go from here?  There is supposed to be a conversation taking place across the country right now but we are so divided it is hard to see that conversation even starting – let along yielding anything lastingly, substantively positive.  How do we have a constructive conversation in such a climate?

After I spoke at the sentencing for the man who killed Greg, many people commented on my “forgiveness.” That was interesting to me. At the time, I didn’t consider it forgiveness. That experience led me to become very curious to understand what forgiveness means.

One of the books I read on the topic was “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond Tutu. In it, he outlines four steps that must take place for forgiveness to occur: 1) telling the story; 2) naming the hurt; 3) granting forgiveness; and 4) renewing or releasing the relationship.

I think we are at a time where black and brown Americans need to tell their stories and name their hurt. It is important that we, as a society and as people, listen. For many, this is likely to be uncomfortable. A natural response we as humans often have is to want to justify our position. However, at this moment, I think it is important that we seek to understand.

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(Via: Serve & Connect)

Courageous conversations require us to lean into spaces that are uncomfortable where we seek to listen and understand. Engaging in these spaces allows for us to humanize one another and for trust to be built. A foundation of trust is critical for moving forward together towards lasting change. Without it, we cannot see our common ground. Furthermore, these issues, namely around systemic racism, did not pop up overnight. They have been around for generations. To create lasting solutions is going to require consistent, sustained action. If we don’t have real relationships, then the work will fade.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not condoning hateful dialogue just as I will never say it was okay for that man to have killed Greg. But, even in the most difficult spaces, it is about building the strength within ourselves to stand in the gap to support lasting change. When we have empathy and see each other as human beings worthy of respect, it enables us to engage in very challenging conversations and find a way forward.

How do you see your role in that conversation?

I see us as a bridge builder, a facilitator to support spaces that allow for deeper understanding and trust building. We have a unique position where we have positive relationships with many law enforcement and community leaders. Empathy and trust are two of our core values, and we embed them into all that we do.

Tangibly, this looks like continuing our work within the communities that we serve. In addition to our ongoing efforts, we are accelerating our goals for 2020-2021, one of which includes a focus on healing and reconciliation. To achieve this goal, we will be expanding implementation of the Welcome Table, an evidence-based process for trust and reconciliation, throughout our partner communities in partnership with the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation. This is a practice we have already implemented through our work in Columbia.

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(Via: John A. Carlos II/ Provided)

Data from that work shows the welcome table led to increased trust and sense of shared power among police and community partners. Anecdotally, it has led to our core partners describing one another as “family” even during times as tense as what we are in now. In the year ahead, we are going to embed Welcome Table into each of our COMPASS communities and also expand use within Columbia by offering three youth-focused welcome table series.

We will also seek to engage in the conversation at both state and national levels. We believe that partnerships are critical to driving lasting change forward, and want to engage as a leader in this space working with other stakeholders who share our hopeful vision for the future. We feel encouraged that we have many outstanding police and community leaders in South Carolina, and are ready to work alongside them as we stand as a leader in showing what is possible when we work together.

Aside from supporting groups like yours that are committed to bridging gaps and bringing people together, what can else can we do?  And beyond giving, how can the community get involved and support what you are doing?  

We all play a role in making change happen. It begins within each of us. We must build a practice of empathy by engaging with people who are different from us.  We must teach and model kindness to our children, and seek to support our communities as we are best able. It means turning to wonder when we don’t understand something, and reaching out to personally discuss things that concern us rather than taking to social media to rant. It means looking at our circle of friends, and if they all look the same, or all hold the same belief systems, exploring how we might intentionally engage with those who may have different life stories from our own. It means reading books and listening to podcasts that take us deeper into understanding the experiences of others. It means personal reflection, and offering ourselves the grace to grow.

In terms of engaging with Serve & Connect, we have been so honored by the outpouring of support and interest to engage. We do have a volunteer group. People who are interested may reach out to us by visiting our website. People can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We also recognize the critical importance of this issue right now and are considering new ways to invite people into the movement.

We’d love to welcome more people to our Serve & Connect family and we remain firm in our belief that Together, We Are Better.

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