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Dallas Woman Turns Tragedy Into Conversation About Race

Stella M. Chávez
Sara Mokuria, 31, saw her father get shot and killed by police when she was 10. She's made it her mission to build bridges between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Imagine seeing your parent shot to death in what may have been a misunderstanding because of race. That’s the story of one woman who has helped organized a conversation about race and education. It took place Thursday night in Dallas at the Bishop Arts Theatre Arts Center.

Sara Mokuria learned about heartache and loss when she was only 10. Her dad was a political refugee from Ethiopia and owned a gardening company. She thinks he also battled depression – he often self-medicated with marijuana and alcohol. One night, he came home acting irrational. Her mom called police, hoping they would take him to jail or the hospital.

“We were standing at the door,” says Mokuria. “My father had a phone in his hand and a kitchen knife, and he ran and he was standing in front of us – in my mind as a sign of protection – and that’s when he was fired upon.”

Her father died instantly. The officers who shot him were white. Mokuria, now 31, thinks they fired because he was black and they didn’t understand what he was doing.

“I went through different phases,” she says. “At one point, I wanted to be a lawyer so I could put the police in jail. I went through a stage where I hated police. And I’ve grown to an understanding now that people are not bad, individuals are not bad.”

What happens, she says, is that "people are in systems that don’t work.”

“They don’t work for either side,” she says. “And so I see a lot of parallels in the criminal justice system and in education. It’s failing both sides.”

Years later, Mokuria met one of the officers who shot her dad. They spoke for only ten minutes – it was an emotional moment. And, Mokuria says, she remembered the day differently than he did. But she felt at peace and learned that the incident affected him and his family, too.

“I never had that awareness of the police officer’s perspective in terms of what it does and how it can devastate their life and their family life,” she says.

Her father’s death is the reason why Mokuria become passionate about social justice. She is now involved in the group Mothers Against Police Brutality and is the manager for the Trans.lation project in Dallas’ diverse Vickery Meadow neighborhood. The project aims to bring the community of 30,000-plus immigrants and refugees together through art and open-air markets.

“If you don’t understand how people show fear, how people show love, show concern, those different things,” she says. “You can make decisions based on your misunderstanding or misinterpretation that can be deadly.”

Mokuria says Thursday night's discussion at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center is just the beginning of what she hopes will be an ongoing series of conversations about race. She and author Bernestine Singley organized the forum -- “When Race Becomes Real: The Next Generation Speaks” -- with the idea that people of all ages should share their personal experiences.

“We believe that that’s a way to get at the larger story," Mokuria says. "And it informs our conversations about desegregation, about the anniversary of civil rights, about home rule, about the opportunity gap."

And informing others, she adds, is also a way of honoring her dad and her mom, a retired high school teacher.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.