Listen to the Serendipity Stories Podcast on your mobile phone (Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, TuneIn) or on your browser (RSS Feed, Website, Soundcloud). Here’s the transcript for Episode 3 with our host YeSeul Kim and guest Katherine Kylila Rice.
Katherine (sings): I want to run towards the sun and never look back, break these chains. Let go of the past, I want to run towards the sun and never look back. Drop this weight. Let go of the past. Choose to let go. Let go. Let it go. Choose to let go, let go, let it go.
Welcome to the Serendipity Stories. I’m your host YeSeul Kim, here to share the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. That was Katherine Kylila Rice, starting us off with her song.
In this episode, Katherine recounts her life growing up as a black woman in America and the moments of serendipity that led her to run for mayor of a small town in Oklahoma. Her story begins in Tampa, FL. There were never any ordinary days…
Katherine: My childhood was awesome. So I grew up in a two parent household. I also grew up middle class. We were the first black family to move into our mostly white middle class neighborhood. High school was the first time that I ventured, I guess, outside of my bubble and got to go to an inner city, historically black public school. And so I was one of those individuals who got to experience, I guess, what it’s like walking in between worlds in still a government trying to integrate. I’ve always been considered like an outsider, you know, too white for the black kids, too black for the white kids.
Yeseul: Well, how did you feel being at the intersection of two different worlds?
Katherine: Well, so the good part is, I experienced the whole, like, identity crisis or like identity politics that people don’t experience until later in life. Very early on. I remember at the age of four when I was at my exclusive private Christian school, like one of the parents got mad at, I guess, something I did to their kid and and, you know, and called me the N-word. And I asked my parents later, like, what it meant. And then I had to have, [OH MY GOD] like, that discussion about what that was. And then also, I remember later, I think I was like five or six. And our mailbox was blown up. And we had, like, the bomb squad out in our neighborhood. And what it was was pretty much just some of the neighborhood kids didn’t like the fact that we were black and decided to play pranks on us.
YeSeul: What did your parents say to the little Kylila about these horrific incidents that you had to deal with at such a young age? I’m sure it was heartbreaking for them.
Katherine: Probably. But my parents, they are much older than, I guess my peers’ parents. Like my mom had me when she was 40. The reason why I mentioned that is because my parents, they integrate their high schools. Like they were involved in the civil rights movement. They remember having to drink from different water fountains. And so my experiences, even though they’re painful, they aren’t as extreme as what my parents went through.
Katherine: My freshman year I remember I was in biology class and we had to do like this 10 page report on something. And I turned it in and my teacher didn’t think that the quality of work that I produced was something that I was capable of. she so she accused me of cheating. And tried to get me kicked out of the program.
Katherine rose above the bigotry and graduated high school with many options. The University of Chicago offered her a basketball scholarship and LSU recruited her to join their computer honors program. In the end, she decided to attend the US Military Academy, also known as West Point.
YeSeul: I can’t imagine that there were also a lot of people of color at West Point. And then especially women of color at West Point. So what was it like?
Katherine: Difficult. It was really, really difficult. Once I got to West Point, there was an assumption that, like I had only gotten there because, you know, because of affirmative action that I wasn’t qualified enough, meanwhile my SATs and ACTs were higher than the majority of people there. I was probably in the top for physical fitness, but just getting accustomed to the type of old, I’m even going to say white supremacist, military culture that was at the academy. I remember um, uh after President Obama, after he got re after he won re election. People were playing like the communist anthem outside of their windows. And so it was just difficult being black and not being from a military family.
Yeseul: It sounds like you are an outsider. Yet another time.
Katherine: Yes. Yes.
Because she didn’t come from a military family, she was constantly judged by her peers and the administration. They would pass her off as disrespectful, incompetent, or even lazy for not getting the military culture and customs at West Point.
Katherine: There’s a saying in the Corps of Cadets, which is cool, which is: Cooperate to graduate, meaning that you have to lean on your peers to help you get through. But if your peers don’t want to help you and if your peers have some incorrect assumptions about you, then you’re pretty much screwed. I also experienced culture shock and didn’t really have the resources or the social capital to, I guess, overcome that. That’s the reason why I left West Point, because I just got tired of wrestling with it. I want to go where I’m wanted. I don’t want to stay in an organization that hates me. I know I’m good enough. And I don’t need people to tell me that I’m not good enough. That I need to pretty much be the impossible.
After the break, Katherine keeps finding herself on the outside of different communities. But a string of serendipitous moments leads her to run for mayor of a small town she had never even heard of.
Katherine Kylila Rice has been defined by her race since she was a child, whether she wanted to be or not. She felt marginalized at West Point and so she chose to leave after two years. As she was packing up her belongings on her last day, she met someone.
Katherine: His name is Greg. We were in the same company, but he was a grade above me. And so we didn’t really interact that much.
Katherine: And the way we met was actually on the day that I was to leave West Point. During graduation week of like 2013, I wasn’t graduating. I was just I had just finished my sophomore year. But I was in my barracks trying to pack up my stuff. And, you know, I was angry and I had my music playing loud. And so he was in the barracks because he was injured and he was on crutches. And he had to use the restroom, but he noticed that my light was on. And so he crutched on over to my room and asked what I was doing and saw that I was just angry and sad and frustrated because I realized that I was running out of time. And so he offered to finish packing up my room for me and to send it to where I needed it to go. So I was like, OK. And I gave him the money to do so. And I left. And then later he kept writing me letters. Every month he would send me just a letter just to check in to see, like, how I was doing.
After dating for a while, long distance, they got married and moved to Geronimo, Oklahoma, which was close to Greg’s army base. It was a small town. Not really their scene — but the move was supposed to be temporary for Katherine. She kept herself busy. She built a virtual reality tech company and ran a social impact consultancy. One day, a client called her into his office.
Katherine: One of my clients is a retired general, a black guy who is local to Lawton, Oklahoma. And we were making small talk. One day he noticed that the town that I live in, Geronimo, was advertising, that they needed a new mayor. And I had looked up what the qualifications were to be mayor. And apparently you only need it to be a resident of Geronimo for six months. And there was no filing fee, which is amazing because most of the times like to get on the ballot, like you have to pay quite a bit of money. I joked, hey, maybe I should run. And he was like, no, like you should
The next day, Katherine submitted her paperwork. She was going to run for mayor of Geronimo, Oklahoma. Remember, Katherine had planned leave in a few months. She had no experience in politics and she had never even wanted to become a politician. Also — Geronimo was really, really white, like 95% white.
Katherine: I ran against two Republicans. I’m an independent. So when I say independent, it means I’m not subscribed to any political party. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. I don’t trust either one of those parties because neither one of those parties trust me…. One was the head of the current city council and he had been a resident for 20 some years. And the other was a business owner in Geronimo and he’d been a resident for like 15 years.
Katherine had exactly 30 days until election day. If she won, she’d be the first black mayor of Geronimo, and the youngest.
YeSeul: Tell me about the naysayers in your life and the people who objected to you running for mayor. In particular, I remember you telling me about the African-American community being very dubious and almost telling you it’s a waste of time.
Katherine: The church that we had joined in the area was one of the oldest black churches. And so when I told them that I was running for mayor and, you know, I was looking for volunteers. A lot of them didn’t take me seriously or didn’t want to volunteer. Geronimo had a reputation of just like arresting black people that. Black people knew not to drive in Geronimo after the sun went down. Some black people wouldn’t even drive into Geronimo during the day just because some of Geronimo’s reputation was that they had some very racist cops maybe back in the day. If there was a black person driving through city limits like they were going to be harassed. So for black people to hear, hey, I’m going to run for mayor, it was just like I can’t even drive through Geronimo. How are you going to win mayor?
YeSeul: So you’re running against two white gentlemen who are established figures and longtime residents of Geronimo. So what was your campaign like?
Katherine: Yes. So people didn’t really know me, I had just moved there. And I had only been a resident for about seven months. And so my goal was to sprinkle Geronimo with glitter. And that glitter was campaign signs. Pretty much just having my name everywhere. And so I went to all the business owners at first and introduced myself and they agreed to put up my signs. My focus was to just get them to know me right, to no longer be an outsider.
Katherine’s campaign philosophy was to build trust with the people of Geronimo, who were mostly blue collar workers.
Katherine: My campaign was mostly just built on, you know, let’s create a better relationship with people and their government. I would say some type of speech or I would put on some video on Facebook or social media. And people would contact me and want to talk. Many times people who were very, I would say, mean on social media or very passionate about being against me, I would offer to have a conversation with them. And a lot of times in real life, people are not as mean as what they are on social media. And many times they are that mean because they just want to be heard. Most of my campaign, honestly, was me just listening to people. If I see myself as a public servant, then my goal isn’t to do what’s convenient for me. Right? It should be for me to do what’s convenient for the people who I serve. And so if the people I serve don’t get off work till 10:00 P.M. but they want to speak with me, then I guess we’re having a meeting at 10:30.
After an intense 30 days of nonstop campaigning, it was finally election day, November 15th, 2017. Polls would be open until 6 PM. At dawn, Katherine woke up and began her rounds to knock on doors. She wasn’t expecting to win but she at least wanted to get people out to vote.
Katherine: Some of my West Point classmates flew in from other states and we knocked as many doors as we could. And we told people to call their friends to make sure that they voted because many people actually forgot that that day was Election Day. Also this was another reason why I work out — I was literally sprinting in the neighborhoods, knocking at doors, asking people if they voted. I didn’t care who they voted for, but that’s what we did. We did that until six.
An hour after the polls closed, Katherine waited in her car a few miles away for the results. But the race was still too close to call.
Katherine: When I got home and I heard on the news that they said that
I had won, I was just like, wow, like, OK, you know — we may — I might have won, but I’m still not sure. And so then I tried to call down to City Hall to verify. They gave me the runaround. And so I was frustrated. The news showed up at my door and they were just like, hey, so congratulations on being like the mayor of Geronimo. And I was like…Am I? And they were like, yeah. Like no one’s told you, like someone from the election office or City Hall should have called you.
Katherine: And I was like, nobody called me. And they were like, oh. And they like, well, congratulations. How does it feel? And I was like, “Amazing!!”
Katherine Kylila Rice won with 47% of the votes and by a 2% margin against her opponent. She had become the mayor of Geronimo, Oklahoma at just the age of 25.
YeSeul: Everyone’s kind of like, oh, where was I when I was twenty five? And the answer is definitely not mayor. So that’s just so, so, so impressive. Do you consider it a serendipity that you became mayor of Geronimo?
Katherine: Yes, yes, definitely.
YeSeul: Tell me why.
Katherine: I mean, who moves to…One, I never thought I’d be living in Oklahoma. I’m not a country person, even all people in my family are. But Oklahoma would not be where I would just choose to live or any rural farm state. To not only that, but like to win so much support that I’m actually Mayor. I think that is like beyond my wildest ever thoughts or imagination.
Katherine was so popular as Mayor that she was re-elected for a second term, this time with over 70% of the votes.
YeSeul: You’re a black woman in America. You’ve been an outsider for so long, you’ve been outcast for so long and you go to a place that you never thought you’d be in. And you get the community to fall in love with you. And you’ve accomplished something in politics that — black, white or whoever — most people don’t get. You got elected as mayor. What do you have to say about that?
Katherine: I think a lot of times people are just afraid. And that’s why they don’t see or accomplish stuff. Rejection can hurt. But everybody respects those who are persistent. There’s always going to be someone or something that’s for you. And there’s always going to be someone or something that’s against you. But if we can train our minds to listen to the positive and to trust ourselves more, you know, we can accomplish amazing things.
YeSeul: 2020 is a presidential election year. What advice do you have for American citizens as we think about politics and navigating politics in America?
Katherine: Our systems are run by people and our people are put there through voting because it’s a democracy. Voting is how you change things, in addition to your money. If you think the system still works for white people or if you think the system does not serve you, you need to vote. That’s the difference as to why you see black protesters who were protesting an unjust death getting tear gassed and pepper sprayed versus white armed protesters who are storming a Capitol building. The difference in those two groups is that one group is more likely to vote. One group is more likely to be involved in their government. It’s psychological warfare that could be going on that causes you to believe that your vote does not matter. But it does.
Since Katherine and I talked, there have been protests in every state in America — and cities across the world — in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Millions have poured onto the streets despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, calling for police reform and to remember Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, Yvette Smith, Tanisha Anderson and countless other unarmed people. We are sitting in a moment of history, at an inflection point, where we can speak up against racism and dismantle the systems of oppression; where we can have more Katherine Kylila Rices as our mayors, governors and presidents…
We can reimagine our identities as individuals and as a nation. We can also begin to heal together.
Here’s an excerpt from Katherine’s poem “Identity Crisis” that is a rallying call for all of us to do the work that it takes to build a more equitable future.
Katherine (spoken word poetry): Great leaders are made great, not because they never make mistakes. It is because they aren’t fake. The foundations are never shaken by life’s earthquakes. So please break me down to build me up, strip my flesh, make me bare my soul, make me less than I am. Peel away the clothes, the friends, the accomplishments, the known, the ego, the status. You can have it fill my atmosphere with all that is good. Replace the shouldn’t with should. Let it be ingrained that I have no choice but to take the harder right over the easier wrong. Humble me and at the same time make me strong. Anything worth having does not come easy because it takes hard work to get where we are and become the people we are destined to be. What a tragedy. To have no identity, to become nameless faces, to just exist and not live. I was given the choice to choose and I have chosen to give my life myself all that I am to do what I can as a sacrifice for the betterment of humanity. I signed away my rights to protect the rights of others. Some call this insanity, the concept, the selfless service. In the end, I know this is worth it to struggle to define exactly who am I.
YeSeul: That was Katherine Kylila Rice, an accomplished politician, business owner, and artist. Learn more about Katherine’s work to help businesses become a force for good and join her efforts to increase entrepreneurship amongst rural, African American and veteran communities at www.Poeticchange.org
YeSeul: Thanks for listening. I’m your host YeSeul Kim. This series is produced by Ben Severance and Nora Connidis Boydell. Editing also by Nora. Don’t forget to subscribe to Serendipity Stories and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @serendipitystories.podcast.
The Serendipity Stories shares the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. We might call it luck, fate, a freak accident, or a coincidence. But over time and with a bit of reflection, when we find meaning in those special events, we call it serendipity. Expect stories that are full of irony and whimsy, love and tragedy, and despair and hope.