Alumna Veronica Benjamin ’06 returned to Athenian Thursday evening, October 28 to serve as keynote speaker for our fall Equity and Inclusion night, a biannual event for Upper School students that spotlights social justice issues. Veronica spoke about her activism in seeking justice for the 2018 and 2020 killings of Laudemer Arboleda and Tyrell Wilson, respectively, at the hands of Danville Officer Andrew Hall. Pictured with the family of Laudemer Arboleda on the day that a guilty verdict was returned for one of two felony charges, Veronica organized support for Arboleda’s case. In light of her monthslong leadership, we were eager to have her speak to students about local activism.
The Tyrell Wilson case hit home for Veronica–a permanent resident of India–who returned to her childhood home in Danville for the duration of the COVID pandemic. She encountered Mr. Wilson, an unhoused man living on the streets of Danville, on her regular route. “I started organizing in the wake of Tyrell’s murder because I saw him every day,” Veronica told students. “I commute to Berkeley on the bus and Tyrell was the man at the bus stop. He was so peaceful…Tyrell was part of my life.”
While some residents called on the city (primarily via the NextDoor app) to find ways to remove or house him, other neighbors mentioned his gentle, harmless manner. As Danville officials responded to posts, some pointed out that Wilson could not be arrested if he hadn’t committed a crime. On March 11, 2020, Wilson was shot and killed by on-duty Officer Andrew Hall at the intersection of Sycamore Valley Road and Camino Ramon after a twenty-three second confrontation.
“When I found out Hall was the officer who killed Tyrell, I was livid,” Veronica recounted. It wasn’t the first incident for Hall. In November of 2018, while on duty, Hall shot and killed Filipino man, Laudemer Arboleda. The cases had similarities: both Wilson and Arboleda struggled with mental health, neither possessed a firearm, and both were men of color. And in these–the only two officer-involved shootings in Danville since 2001–Hall was the gunman in both.
As Veronica co-organized justice efforts within the community, she focused on educating the public about key facts in both cases and driving turnout to key events. She became involved with Conscious Contra Costa, which she now co-leads. She spoke candidly with students about the challenges of teamwork and navigating bureaucracy. “What I’ve learned in the past six months of organizing is….how to work constructively with others and learn to compromise.”
Sanjev deSilva, Director of DEIS at Athenian, has been another significant figure in supporting the cause. He’s spoken at several vigils, marches and memorials. In the spring of 2021, helped efforts to educate the Athenian student community about the Tyrell Wilson case and prompted interested students to attend rallies. After meeting Veronica at a protest, Sanjev discovered their mutual connection to Athenian by happenstance. Two of the students who attended one of the vigils, Izze K. ’21 and Khalil W. ’21, facilitated Thursday’s Equity and Inclusion conversation with Veronica.
When asked her thoughts on the role Athenian played in her current path, Veronica’s response hinted at several of our pillars: leadership, service to others and democratic participation and justice. “One thing that Athenian instilled in me is the idea that our learning ultimately has to come back in service of something greater than ourselves and in service of our society,” she said.
Veronica followed up from the conversation on E&I Night with a call to action for how the greater Athenian community could get involved by issuing the following statement:
“I deeply appreciate everyone in the Athenian community who is dedicating their time, energy, and resources to making it truly equitable, inclusive, and committed to its highest ideals. I was honored to be invited to the E&I Night and have the opportunity to reconnect and converse with many of you.
For any students, faculty, or family members who would like to get more involved in Conscious Contra Costa, please join our listserv (firstname.lastname@example.org), and/or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.”