PROVO — Bri Ray has shared her experiences dealing with racism growing up in Utah County before. That made her apprehensive to do it again.
She didn’t want to feel the pain of not being heard, of not being understood; she didn’t want to hear another dismissive response of “just brush it off, they didn’t mean it that way.”
Yet, Thursday night in front of over 1,000 people that filled a hillside at Kiwanis Park in Provo, Ray spoke up again.
“Tonight I pray that you see me and hear me, without feeling the need to fix me,” the singer from Orem said. “I am not broken, our system is broken. I am not broken, our society is broken. I am not broken, our teachings are broken. I am not broken, our habits are broken. I am not broken, our country is broken.”
This time may have felt different for Ray. The mostly white crowd who had gathered for Hear Their Voice — a rally put on by members of the black and brown community in the Provo area in response to the unrest over George Floyd’s death — rose to their feet and applauded. It was as if they were collectively saying, “We hear you!”
That was the goal for Kwaku El and Ricky Barrera who put the event together in only two days. They wanted to give black and brown members of the community a place where they could share their stories and experiences.
And give everyone else a chance to listen, too.
“I wanted to do something,” El said. “I throw events, so I figured I could use my talents to make something happen. And I think God just took the rest of it and made it work.”
The event featured talks from Stacey Harkey of Studio C fame and James Curran (also known as JTM — previously James the Mormon), but mostly it was made up of college-aged men and women. Some were raised in Utah, others in Houston, Chicago, or abroad, but all had experienced the same thing — prejudice in one way or another due to the color of their skin.
The speakers shared poems, songs, and impassioned cries to the audience. They told about their experiences with racism in America and Utah and asked for help in changing policies that can help end oppression and systematic racism.
“Welcome to the fight,” Harkey said. “It’s exhausting, isn’t it?”
The speakers detailed just how exhausting it can be.
Karmen Kodia, who is originally from Sweden, was caught off guard when she first came to America. Her nationality was questioned because of the color of her skin, she was called the n-word, and people credited her acceptance into BYU to her being black.
“I was shocked,” Kodia said. “What has hurt the most is that my black brother and sisters have had to deal with what I’ve dealt with the last five years, their whole lives.”
Like Curran, who said he was fearful each time he gets pulled over. He’s scared to drop his phone or make too quick a move or say something wrong — actions that would make him seem like a threat.
“In my life as a black man, I’m not good enough to date someone’s daughter,” he said. “In my life as a black man, I cross the street when I see someone walking alone, so they don’t feel uncomfortable.”
Ronald Weaver III, a student at BYU, said that because he was black his classmates assumed that he was on an athletic scholarship — nevermind the fact that he was the salutatorian of his high school in Chicago. To some, that might seem innocent. To Weaver, it’s far from it. It’s assuming he can’t be successful unless he can jump high or run fast. It’s degrading; it’s stereotypical; it hurts.
“For those of who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn’t you promise to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort?” Weaver said. “Why aren’t you mourning? Why aren’t you comforting?”
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, only .8% of Utah County’s population is black. With that number, the large crowd did provide some comfort that the movement might lead to positive change.
“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m not alone,” Curran said.
Added former BYU football player Batchlor Johnson IV, “The fact that we had this showing shows we have the power to do what we want to do.”
What they want is meaningful change that can help end the daily racism they see. Johnson met with BYU President Kevin J. Worthen and BYU Police Chief Chris Autry this week to start the conversation about change that “goes past social media trends.”
Johnson was joined by Autry on the stage and the two grabbed each other’s hands and raised them in a unified fist.
“We are going to form committees; we are going to have difficult conversations,” Johnson said. “We are going to do it together.”
That moment signified the entire event — a community coming together to listen and learn from people who so often haven’t had a voice. But for the ones on stage, they know an evening meeting isn’t enough.
“This country was built on racism,” Kodia said. “When you build something, you can always break it down and rebuild it. This is a life commitment. And you, you should commit.”