[image-1]KJ Kearney, a former columnist for the City Paper and now Democratic candidate for the South Carolina House of Representatives District 15, gave a speech today as a part of Creative Mornings Charleston. As you probably know by now from our coverage, Creative Mornings is an organization that hosts talks with coffee and breakfast each month. The organization has chapters in cities across the globe, and this month’s theme of “Broken” took place at the Charleston Library Society.

The morning kicked off with a powerful poem from Jacob Graudin on the theme of brokenness. I wouldn’t dare paraphrase, but suffice it to say it discussed beauty and brokenness, and whether we can, or even should, reconcile the two. The Kearney took the mic.

Clad in jeans, purple Saucony sneakers, and a T-shirt that read “Charleston Sticks Together” — a slogan printed on a diamond designed to resemble slave tags and the effects of slavery that still exist in the city — Kearney made his entrance. He pulled the mic from its stand and took his rightful place in front of the podium, where he remained, pacing back and forth throughout the talk.

“Who is KJ?” That’s the question he opened with. As we learned, Kearney is a self-described late bloomer who runs H1gher Learning, a non-profit that, according to its website, “uses hip-hop culture to teach at-risk students life skills.” He’s also someone very familiar with the day’s theme of broken.

Kearney established through a few examples — education, healthcare, and criminal justice — that it’s plain to see that many systems in America are broken. But, and more importantly, he challenged, are they actually broken? Or, are these systems that are so clearly broken to average people, actually working exactly as those who designed them intended? That is, are broken systems created that way to benefit those who make incredible sums of money off the brokenness? Using statistics and personal anecdotes, Kearney describe just how much money is made and what actually fixing those systems would cost us.

According to Kearney, fixing America’s broken systems would cost those who actually have a choice in fixing them. He pointed to how mass incarceration paves the way for cheap labor, labor we as consumers benefit from in the form of lower prices on goods such as coffee cups and clothes and posed the question, are we willing to pay the price of progress for a sense of altruism and empathy for others? Kearney didn’t answer, but he encouraged the audience to ask themselves that question. Adding that all our talk about fixing broken systems boils down to a well-intended farce.

Now if this sounds like a heavy talk for 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, let me add that Kearney’s questions were interrupted frequently by his unrelenting charisma and humor. Often, he sidetracked to tell a story or to riff on something that bothered him. These breaks often resulted in booming laughter that filled the old building. I’m not sure whether or not we were laughing in earnest or as a welcome comedic relief. But either way, even with Kearney’s charm, casual tone, and comforting jokes, the seriousness of the questions posed was undeniable.

And the irony was not lost on me as I watched Kearney deliver his speech in a building lined with decorations dedicated to powerful men of a bygone era; a room that housed a glass encased sword from a Confederate soldier; a place that for years provided membership to whites only. Is it progress or probability that here was a black man standing proud and delivering a thoughtful message despite the many symbols of oppression and brokenness that surrounded him? Like Kearney, I don’t have the answer. 

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