When I spoke to William Kellibrew for the first time at a NI Bureau Luncheon for the WIP Class I sensed there was more to him than met the eye. I had the pleasure of sitting at his table for a discussion on the Shared Future of Northern Ireland and was both intrigued and impressed by the fact that despite he was not able to comment personally on his experience of Northern Ireland, he offered a refreshing, insightful and philosophical pacifist outlook. His charisma was infectious and he really struck me as someone who could really raise community awareness and empower people working to rebuild their lives, families and communities. From time to time, the surfacy of the networking environment renders it to be a social experiment however William seemed genuinely interested in one’s perspective. I wanted to learn more about him.
What I found out blew me away. William has a truly remarkable story. He has been compelled to speak out and act because of a great tragedy in his life. William’s mother, Jacqueline, and brother, Anthony, were shot in front of him when he was 10 years old. The shooter, Marshall Williams, an estranged boyfriend of his mother, placed the gun to William’s head. William pleaded desperately for his life and was let go. After a three-hour standoff, police entered to find three bodies, including the killer’s. Unbeknownst to William and his family, the shooter was a convicted felon who had spent 11 years in prison.
Somewhat naturally, William drifted between resolve and despair for years. He travelled with a Howard University performance group, singing, dancing and acting but thought about suicide and was hospitalized after experimenting with drugs. What drove him from the depths of despair was nursing his grandmother after heart bypass surgery. Nursing her back to health inspired a new lease of life which he now confers upon other people.
In his capacity as President of the student government at UDC he organized rallies to support the students at Virginia Tech and teams to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. His story grabbed national attention as he sat down with national treasure Oprah Winfrey and actor and comedian Bill Cosby in October 2007 to talk about the William Kellibrew Foundation, an advocate, bridge and community driven partner dedicated to breaking the cycles of violence and poverty. From there an internationally recognized advocate for peace was born.
I knew none of this before I sat down to lunch with William, a guest and a friend of NI Bureau Director Norman Houston at the luncheon, but to learn of it afterwards probably gave me fuller appreciation of where he was coming from. At the table we debated whether the theme of the program this year, Dealing with Difference, should be disregarded altogether as it only served to heighten the disparaging cultures within Northern Ireland. Instead the proposition was made that job creation, greater social benefits and more tangible practical benefits should be the solution to realizing the promise of a Shared Future.
While I would admit that I would have leaned towards the latter viewpoint before the program, something that William said in response to it resonated with me as, a few weeks on from the luncheon, 12th July celebrations took place. William said that you can’t simply be forced to exist in co inhabitance for a prosperous and fruitful society to emerge- what was needed was a level of mutual respect and understanding which I still believe to be so lost for many people who the devolved legislature at Stormont represent. Kellibrew stated “The more we tell our stories, the more we give others the permission to tell theirs. That helps break the silence and moves people to act.”
To put this into perspective, on the 12th July we visited the American Irish Historical Society, a place the program would have envisaged to have had a neutral perspective on the island’s past. As it transpired, what came to pass was perhaps an inaccurate reflection of our shared history. While walking around the museum, I felt an affiliation with the Irish flag displayed which had flown proudly over the bullet-stricken GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising. However at the same time I was acutely aware that this was simply not the case for other students in the class. To be in a place of such Nationalist history on a significantly symbolic day for British people, I could not help but be mindful of the compromise to their identity when they may have wished to celebrate the 12th July in a different way. I understood why they may have felt disengaged.
And so when I reflect now on the words of William Kellibrew, I think that employability can only take you so far in a Shared Future of Northern Ireland. It will be a catalyst for a feel good factor being restored and may in some small manner build bridges between communities but it does not get to the root of the problem- people need to intervene, educate and make an outreach to forge bonds, otherwise what happens 9-5 is immaterial. The two pillars can be harmonious, they are not mutually exclusive. Don’t forget where you come from; don’t forget where you’re going. William Kellibrew has taught me that man can have some of life’s greatest obstacles put in front of him but if one can look deep within themselves and see a greater purpose to their role in society, real change can happen.
“It’s a treacherous story, and has been a long road to recovery. I have to live with it every day, but it’s motivational for me and those who hear it. For those who can do it, using their story to channel grief to more positive actions is incredibly effective.” (William Kellibrew)