“I remember lots and lots of light,” Karla Ballard told me about her childhood home just outside of Philadelphia, a community called Friends of the Fairfax. “So much light. And a beautiful, long dining room table. My father was an entrepreneur and my mom was a nurse. I just remember lots of light coming into that house and having grandparents around watching us, and having Susan, Eileen, and Max — my mother’s best friends.”
Throughout her professional life, Karla — who is a member of USC Shoah Foundation’s Next Generation Council, an advisory board giving their time to promote the Institute’s mission to current and future generations — has been working at the intersection of technology, community building and cross-cultural connections. She is part African, part Cherokee, and part white and recently discovered that she is the 5x-great-granddaughter of Aaron Burr. She is fueled by her history, both the one she inherited and the one she experienced. “My taste buds were expanded as a little girl. I don’t think I realized that my friends, white or Black, weren’t brothers and sisters. They were there at breakfast and at dinner. We were in the same building. Their moms were my moms. I grew up eating matzo ball soup and potato pancakes.”
The first time Karla was confronted with race as an issue was when she was in fifth grade and a classmate called her the N-word in the hallway. The first time she was confronted with race as a construct she was expected to abide by was in her church when she was told that she “sounded so white.” She heard that for years. “It was horrifying,” she said. “Other church go-ers would always ask me why I sounded so white.”
She said that these moments were like having water doused on her face. They were her wake up moments, when she realized that not everyone grew up like she did. They were also what motivated her. “I started the Black Student Union in high school and began to work with white allies to make sure we were addressing these issues at school,” she said. She later became president of the National Urban League Young Professionals -- a group that helps young professionals empower their communities. “I would say that it was those times when the pressure was on and I got “woke” that I left my bubble of idealism. And those were some of the very best moments of my life because it made it very clear that we have healing to do.”
In 2010, Karla was introduced to USC Shoah Foundation through her work with Comcast which was funding a program called Digital Connectors that helped to close the gap with broadband adoption. “All these other moms that I talk about raising me, a lot of their parents are Holocaust survivors. I was so aware of it as a little girl, but I didn’t have the education or know the history behind it. So, when I came to USC Shoah Foundation, that was an aha moment for me. I was like, oh this is what they were talking about.”
Her first collaboration with the Institute was soon after that initial introduction when she organized for a Holocaust survivor to speak with high school students in Philadelphia. “You could have heard a pin drop in that room,” she said. “These were all inner city students coming from vulnerable communities and it just felt so symbiotic. These young people literally said, if you survived that, then I can survive what I’m going through. That is when I realized how entwined our traumas are and what bridges could be created as a result of surviving trauma.”
This past June, I was introduced to Karla via Zoom. I wanted to talk to her about Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd. I don’t know many African-Americans in the field of Holocaust memory and I wanted to hear her perspective on what America is confronting and what connections she was making. “George Floyd did not get to survive, but his testimony we saw,” she said. “His story was a cop’s knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. That moment, in itself, was something you had to bear witness to. We watched a murder happen. To that in itself, we don’t react much, but we listen and we hopefully take from it a sense of empathy. And then you say, what do I need to do now? What can I do to avoid this happening again.”
Perhaps the two most repeated words when it comes to Jewish memory and the Holocaust are “Never Again.” The statement is woven into school curriculums and is the base of academic studies. “Never again” is the inspiration for deep dives into family history and the rallying cry for justice. As I talked with Karla, it kept ringing in my ears. We are all saying the same thing.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said to her. “How does it feel to be Black and working in this field of Holocaust memory?”
“Well, there are stares,” Karla said.
“I know it comes from a place of curiosity,” she continued. “In my board meetings, with staff and team members, there have been stares that say to me, how is this black woman so connected with our cause? And, why is this black woman so connected with our cause? I do get why Jewish people can be skeptical. I respect it because I think African-Americans can be the same way. Our history and our experiences are sacred.”
The conversation with Karla brought up the question: If our persecution and trauma are in a sense sacred, how do we let other people help us heal?
“Healing has to be done collectively,” says Karla. “I don’t worry about people identifying with who they are and where they come from, but I do worry about overidentifying and having that become a barrier. But, this is what is beautiful about the undivided attention that testimony requires. It inspires empathy. It’s connecting with someone from the inside-out.”
The killing of George Floyd in June was a tipping point in the confrontation with race relations not just in America, but around the world. In Italy for example, Black Italians, the children of African immigrants, have seized the movement to push forward their own fight for citizenship. Art is being created, agendas are being written, policies are being formed and fueling all of that are the stories being shared — testimony.
“You're hearing a big testimonial being displayed right now right through the Black Lives Matter movement,” Karla said to me. “The testimony is being shared of a massive cultural atrocity that's been happening for over 400 years. It’s a huge testimony. It's been going on for centuries, but now it's a real outcry around the globe. So, a lot of what needs to happen is exactly what we would do when we listen to USC Shoah Foundation testimonies. We need to listen. Listen deeply.”
Over the years, Karla has watched countless testimonies from USC Shoah Foundation’s archive — individuals from Rwanda, Guatemala, Armenia, and Syria and Iraq have offered her moments of horror, hope and reflection. “There was one Holocaust survivor whose name is escaping me,” she said. “I can see her in my mind though. What stood out in her testimony was her way of compartmentalizing the trauma, but still talking. She really focused on how she was not going to allow that trauma to deter her from being successful in life or moving forward. It moved me because I questioned whether or not she was really healing properly. Was she just pushing it down? And that triggered in me the importance of us expressing ourselves while journeying through any kind of trauma, not to just be okay with it.”
Much of the testimony we are hearing from African Americans right now is coming through social media — a space where anybody, at any time can record a testimony-of sorts. Nik Walker, who I went to high school with and who played the role of Aaron Burr (Karla’s forefather) in Hamilton on Broadway has shared short testimony-like-reflections on Instagram. They are vignettes of experiences and reflections. In one video, shared to his feed on June 3, about a week after the killing of George Floyd, he stands in his apartment and talks straight into the camera, first letting his followers know that it was his wife who encouraged him to share what he was about to say and then moving into a story about two white friends who sent him a funny gif and asked if he wanted to watch Ant Man.
“It just really meant the world to me,” he says with a shake in his voice. “And I know that so many white people are trying to find the right thing to say right now, and all I want to say to you is just be our friend… Just be our friend. When you look at us from a distance it makes us feel a certain way as opposed to just being there with us.”
“To be present in finding the connections is what testimony is all about,” says Karla. “When a story is so raw, so vivid, so detailed, it can inspire others to feel safe. To not only empathize with that truth, but also to connect.”