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The Pain and Power of Identity

Filed Under: Education, Featured

The Pain and Power of Identity
In February, IFR typically pays special tribute to the African Diaspora in our monthly staff meeting. This year, we wanted to share relevant staff stories with the community.

Kamailia Williams is an African American woman and San Francisco native. She was born when the population of African Americans in the City was 88,000 strong. As a member of IFR’s staff, Kamailia works with the SPARK (Strong Parents and Resilient Kids) program, one of the first to serve families in the Sunnydale housing development.

Thinking about how San Francisco has both changed and remained the same, Kamailia shared: “The San Francisco I grew up in had large African American, Latino, and Asian communities. Now, I don’t even like hanging out here anymore because of all the gentrifiers.” Typically soft-spoken and pensive, Kamailia’s eyes show her pain and frustration. “I see continued police brutality and oppression, and wonder, is it ever going to change?”

There’s so much grief and loss in the community that Kamailia and her SPARK co-workers must protect themselves from vicarious trauma. “It’s hard to go back and forth between hope & grief. We struggle to help families recognize that these circumstances are not their fault…I love the work we do. We get to see the many positive things they accomplish amidst the hard times; we help them find ways to get through those moments so that they feel seen and supported.”

In spite of their current circumstances, there is cautious anticipation this year as HOPE-SF and developer Mercy Housing begin construction of new replacement housing for Sunnydale. The long-awaited project, which will take a few years to complete, is expected to create new housing, open recreational and educational space and facilities, community gardens, secure courtyards, and a farmer’s market.

Against this mixed backdrop, Kamailia makes several connections related to the African Diaspora: the displacement and enslavement of Africans from their land, and the displacement of African Americans from San Francisco; the dehumanization of slaves, and the dehumanization of Sunnydale residents; and the trauma that has carried forward to the present day.

This reality notwithstanding, there is another connection that can’t be forgotten or ignored: the rich cultural legacy that begins in Africa and extends across the continents from one generation to the next. This, too, is a product of the African Diaspora. The contributions of Africans are everywhere: from animal husbandry, herbal medicines and vaccines, to foods such as rice, peas, and beans. The tremendous influence of Africa on the arts and humanities is inescapable – from literature and storytelling, drumming, dance, and music; from sculpture, masks, and sculpture to textiles, pottery and architecture – Africa’s contributions abound.

Consequently, it is not surprising that discussions of the African Diaspora resemble a dance that shifts forward and back, from history to the present, and side to side, from its negative memories to its positive contributions. For many, the human pain and historical trauma of slavery can overwhelm efforts to celebrate the beauty of African culture and traditions. “I remember asking my grandma to tell me about the past. For a long time, she wouldn’t tell me. It was too painful, and in her way of thinking, wallowing in the pain was not an option. You had to always try to keep moving forward.” Through IFR’s extensive training in trauma, Kamailia and her team are learning that it is through remembering – not just the horrific periods of history, but the powerful periods that preceded and followed them – that healing begins.

Today, Kamailia and her coworkers look for ways to channel community pain constructively. Last fall, they utilized a Día de los Muertos activity to provide a space for people to have their sadness and honor those they’d lost. “Being able to plant seeds that there’s another way is a gift. Embracing Día de los Muertos to channel their grief was a seed.” Telling their stories, sharing their powers of resilience, and remembering and honoring lost loved ones, SPARK’s seeds are taking root in Sunnydale.

When asked what message she wants people to take away regarding the African Diaspora, Kamailia is clear: “Remember the contributions African Americans have brought to this world…People of color must remember our power and use it in constructive ways…”

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