Jewish activist Yavilah McCoy speaks about forging relationships through diversity
“The power of proximity” will eventually enable equity, McCoy said
Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed: Know before Whom you stand.
These words are often inscribed on the arc that holds the Torah – the first five books of Moses and core scriptures of Judaism – in Jewish synagogues. They hold a deep, powerful meaning for Yavilah McCoy, a black, female, Jewish activist who spoke at the University on Tuesday at an event hosted by the Kennedy Political Union, Center for Diversity and Inclusion, AU Hillel, Kay Spiritual Life Center and Nachshon Project.
From the time she was in third grade, McCoy told a group of about 30 students in the SIS Founders Room, she had something that gave her hope about humanity’s ability to bridge gaps in diversity created by systematic racism and generational misteachings: her faith.
McCoy is the CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting, an organization based in Boston that “provides resources for us to recover our deepest humanity in relationship,” she said. McCoy has spent the past 20 years working in multi-faith communities, but her heart has always sat most deeply with the Jewish community, and specifically her own community of Jews of color, she said.
McCoy began her talk by stating that being in Washington made her reflect on the principles of this country’s founding fathers, and as a black, Jewish woman today, she thinks that their vision for America was revolutionary.
But, their vision was blind, as it did not write in rights for “indigenous people, women, children, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, immigrants, those who would be made most vulnerable by the emission or fair and equitable laws to protect them,” she said.
“How do we cure our blindness?” McCoy asked the audience. “Take time to become proximate to each other’s stories, listening to make sure we do not deny one another’s suffering and inherent humanity. For the true measure of our character and commitment to justice, after all, is measured in how we treat the poor, disfavored, accused, incarcerated and condemned.”
McCoy was raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the location of the Crown Heights riots in August 1991. She said that people’s inability to understand one another’s stories sparked the riots.
After talking about her childhood in Brooklyn, she told the audience a more recent story. On her way to Costco in Boston a few years ago, she noticed she was being followed by a police officer.
When she pulled over for gas and stepped out of her car, the officer yelled at her to get back inside and refused to let her out. McCoy’s husband did not answer her calls, so she called 911 and told the operator that she “was pulled over because of racism.” The operator disagreed and said that they were searching for someone who had recently committed a robbery, and told her she would be released shortly. When her time to leave finally came 30 minutes later, a white man parked in his car nearby approached her window and asked if she was alright.
He told her that he noticed that something unjust was happening, so he wanted to sit by and be a witness to anything that might have happened, she said. He gave her his card and told her that she could call if she needed anything.
It was that day, McCoy said, that she fully realized the importance of white allies within the black community. She noted that students have told her that they didn’t recognize the privilege that they had through their white heritages until they forged relationships with those who had dissimilar heritages. McCoy said that it is our job to relay our stories to those with different backgrounds to help others understand what it is like to walk in each of our shoes.
McCoy told her audience that her great-great-grandmother was a slave. Her great-grandmother, who died 10 years ago at the age of 99, was the daughter of a slave. She wanted those listening to understand how close current generations are to that time in history.
“I am a Jew, I am a black person, I am a woman and I am proud to walk this word as a child of God inspired to walk humbly, pursue justice boldly, and to do it with unity,” McCoy said in the final moments of her speech. “May we always find reasons to walk together.”