Village Merchants Association brings on diversity consultant and hosts panel on racism

Rehema Ally-Lifa is the La Jolla Village Merchants Association's new diversity consultant.
Rehema Ally-Lifa is the La Jolla Village Merchants Association’s new diversity consultant.

In an effort to be “a truly welcoming organization attracting all types of people to work, visit, shop and dine in our Village,” the La Jolla Village Merchants Association decided to form a diversity task force and brought on a diversity consultant, Rehema Ally-Lifa, to lead it.

“Listening and learning from those representing various backgrounds and experiences is a critical part of this process,” Village Merchants Association Executive Director Jodi Rudick told the Light. “As a consultant, Rehema will assist with messaging to ensure we’re being inclusive with all aspects of our strategic plan. Rehema is uniquely qualified to represent young, African American viewpoints and offer perspective. We are better because of various viewpoints.”

As one of her first acts, Ally-Lifa led a panel discussion on race at the association’s June 10 online meeting, ahead of a June 12 Black Lives Matter demonstration in La Jolla. About 50 people attended, with panelists including Ally-Lifa, UC San Diego student Paris Eisenbeiss, San Diego State University football player JR Justice, organizer of the La Jolla Black Lives Matter march Danika Zikas and social media manager for LJVMA’s website Julia Espinosa.

In her opening statement, Ally-Lifa said she was previously a Village Merchants Association intern but decided to take on her new role because “I believe it is important that we are all educated about what is going on in the world. It is necessary to have these conversations.”

Born in Tanzania and growing up in different countries, she said she was truly exposed to racism when she came to the United States.

“It was the complete opposite from what I had experienced abroad as a young child,” she said. “The more time I spent in the U.S., the more I realized there was a clear separation between black and white. All around me, I felt I didn’t belong to either side. I wasn’t black enough to be black and I definitely wasn’t white enough to be white. It wasn’t until high school and college that I was seen as a threat, that my skin color was a threat to people.”

She shared anecdotes of being followed in grocery stores and getting dirty looks at drugstores.

“My non-black friends and non-black peers will never understand what the black community goes through daily,” Ally-Lifa said.

Speaking about the recent nationwide protests calling for racial justice and police reform following the deaths of black people at the hands of police officers, she said she does not “condone rioting and looting,” but she “understands” it.

“If one continues to murder people, shut down their voice, ignore the issue of racism and sweep [stuff] under the rug, people are going to get fed up and start rioting and acting out, because that is the only way they are going to be heard,” she said.

Ally-Lifa also reflected on the June 6 Black Lives Matter caravan demonstration that started at the Torrey Pines Gliderport and moved a miles-long line of cars across San Diego. She said members of different races standing with the black community warmed her heart.

“We are going to turn things around, but we can’t do that unless we have the support of everybody,” she said. “Stand with us and help build more equality for us. Help us get a seat at the table just like every other white person.”

Eisenbeiss agreed that white allies should use their “privilege and their platform” to boost black people and help their voices be heard in the social and legal system.

“We live in a country where black teens are 20 times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts … where black unemployment rates have consistently been two times higher than whites for the past 60 years … where when black children are put in the criminal justice system, they are 18 times more likely to be charged as an adult than white kids,” she said.

Justice shared anecdotes of things that “just happen in most black people’s lives,” such as being pulled over and heavily questioned for doing a “California roll” through a stop sign and having limited hairstyles allowed while going to school.

He encouraged participants to search for “professional hairstyles” online, saying they will find hairstyles for white people. Conversely, he said, searching for “unprofessional hairstyles” will turn up photos mostly of black people.

“Everyone wants to see our culture and pick and choose from our culture, but they want to leave out the other parts and not take that on,” he said. “To truly accept who we are, you have to accept all of it. You can’t say, ‘I can’t hire that person with dreads because he doesn’t look professional.’”

“And when you meet people, take the opportunity to listen,” Justice added. “Listening is everything.”

Espinosa, who is Justice’s girlfriend, said people often say she has a “black boyfriend.” “If it was any other race, you would probably say ‘your boyfriend,’ but to me people say ‘your black boyfriend,’” she said.

Panelists were asked whether progress is being made in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ally-Lifa said “a little,” while Justice emphasized the importance of not slowing down.

Eisenbeiss said change is “on the horizon” but does not happen overnight. “The protests are the beginning, but there are longer steps and strides we need to take to see that this change is for real.”

Ally-Lifa will develop the diversity task force and present an action plan to the LJVMA board of directors for adoption at its July meeting. The association next meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, via Zoom. Learn more at ◆