by Ari Robin McKenna and Makayla Miles
When Conner Dassa-Holland was in middle school at Orca K–8, his English teacher there, Donte Felder, would often present students with two questions:
“What is your story? What is your future?”
Years later, Donte would run into Conner from time to time in South Seattle, where they both lived. Usually, after getting an earful of Conner’s recent achievements, he would ask Conner what had become a predictable question:
“What is your story? What is your future?”
Responses varied over the years. Having spent both 7th and 8th grade in Donte’s English classrooms, Conner was ready with a variety of off-the-cuff answers over the years.
Donte remembers their final exchange:
“What is your story? What is your future?”
“Change the world. Our systems are wrong.”
“I’ll figure that out later, but one step at a time.”
At the beginning of his junior year, Conner transferred from O’Dea High School to Rainier Beach High School (RBHS, “Beach”), only a few blocks away from his home. He began taking bold steps, and almost immediately, flourished. An incredible two years of his life followed, leading to acceptance from 19 colleges and a world of possibilities.
Though Conner was bountifully supported by his mother Alicia and father James at home, a team of educators showed up for him, and here they recount for the Emerald a sample of those bold steps Conner took while he was still in their midst.
Vic Roberson — Rainier Beach Track Club Coach
“Conner was [one of the] old guard. We had his older brother, his older sister, him and his baby sisters, so they all came through our program and we really treat people like family, and he was always just an easy member of the family. We would have seen him at age seven or eight; just a young kid, learning to run. He learned to run a 400, the short distances, the long distances a little bit. And then he began to get bigger, and he became a thrower. Shot put was his favorite throwing event. He graduated out of the program when he got to high school.
“Then he called me up as a freshman and said, ‘Hey Coach, (he called me coach) I’m gonna volunteer.’
‘What do you mean volunteer?’
‘I’m gonna volunteer at the track club.’
“And he came out. He worked the kids out. He went out in the back where all the throwers were. And one by one, they gravitated towards him, hugging him: “Conner! Conner!” And he’d go out and teach them the shot put and the discus.
“He did that for three years. Loved to do it. Kids loved being with him.
“It’s just so wonderful to watch that. He’s the kind of bubbly personality people just love to work with.
“I think the thing that’s so amazing that I recall is: here’s this big kid — you can laugh at it — and he ran like a deer on its tiptoes. It’s like, ‘How’d he do that?’ [Laughs heartily] ‘Cause you’d think this big guy would be plodding, and just heavy. He’s just light on his feet. Just the miracle of a kid that size running that way, almost as if he were floating. He touched people in the same way, floating above it all, and connected to it all.
“I’m just honored to know him, and to have been part of his life.”
Phuong Tran — Head Counselor at Rainier Beach High School
“When I met Conner there was this natural leadership tendency that he portrayed, and so I ended up asking if he was interested in doing some suicide prevention work. I recall Conner saying that he was interested.
“When I met with the group of students, Conner stuck out. He voiced a lot of great opinions. He had great suggestions on how to implement it within the school.
“I trained this amazing group and Conner led it all. We hit 100% of the advisories, and delivered more than 30 lessons within the building in regards to peer-to-peer suicide prevention, supported by UW’s Forefront Program. Throughout this process I just became a supporter; he led all the lessons.
“During this time, I got a phone call from his mom that one of his best friends killed himself. I was really worried because I knew that we’re in this process of doing these lessons, and I was thinking that Conner would need a break, just to process things and get time off of this work. But when I called him down the next day, he was sad, but it motivated him to keep doing the work that we were doing, and it never stopped him from his purpose. If anything, it gave him more fuel to aspire to really tell a testimony to students that this is real, and this is what we can do to help our friends in times of need.
“So that was really inspiring because it even taught me as his counselor that no matter what happens in life, you control it. Self care is important where you need to pause, but sometimes — the amazing thing about Conner is that he taught me that you can cope through your actions. It can give you more motivation to help the community and others, and I think that’s where Conner found his passion.
Even if he’s down — or whatever emotional state he’s in — he gravitates towards others, and seeing the help that he can do fulfilled his heart and passion. He showed me that there’s so many student leaders that can do so much, like never ending …
“I never got the underlying deep emotional Conner, the ‘why.’ It was just a lot of action and really minimal talk. He came into Beach High School with a mission and left with a strong voice and a purpose.”
Corey Sampson — Rainier Beach HS Head Coach, educator, mentor, community leader
“Brought him on. Personality great. First one in line. First one through. He quickly became captain. He wasn’t a rah-rah type of guy, but he was the first one to show you by example. He had a charisma to him; he had an aura to him that just brought everybody around with him. He’s the type of guy that checked all the boxes: the attitude, the grades, off field, school — all the boxes. He also always surprised you, because he was kind of unpredictable. Conner was a cat that was real sarcastic. You see him in life. You don’t know if he’s real or not.
“He went by all means. I called him Rick Flair [a WWF wrestler], the ‘whoo’ and the dirtiest player in the game. He wasn’t the best athlete. He wasn’t the most talented, but he figured it out. He would hold you. He would pinch you. He would give the shirt off his back to make sure you were cool. He wasn’t a cat that tried to just fit in.
“When we took team pictures, Connor was always in the back. He didn’t care about being the guy that claimed the fame and glory. You could see him down here at Safeway bagging your groceries. ‘Coach, you need some help with the cart, taking it in and out?’ or ‘Coach, I gotta leave early. I gotta work, you know?’ He was a leader, contributing to his family, the community, all that. He came from a good cloth.
“Before he even played a down with us, he became a leader off the field. At a bonding session around a bonfire at Camp Long before Conner’s junior year, it just got deep about life, and after that it was a team bond that was unbreakable, and he was elected our captain. It was like we’re family. We’ve shared our deepest secrets with each other, and we’re going to hold onto each other and pull each other and move on from there. We were inseparable to this day.
“Connor texted the guys in the Beach Boyz chat at 8:30 p.m. and said, ‘I love you guys’ and he was dead at 11 p.m. (on Mother’s Day). That’s powerful. Those guys love each other. We come from different backgrounds, but we have the same common goal.
“We lost the state championship game to O’Dea; Conner transferred from O’Dea. So I’m boohoo and I’m crying and I’m walking to the locker room. Conner comes to me and gives me a big hug and he said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry we lost, but I’m glad we got there. I’m glad I played, because if I’d played for those guys, I wouldn’t even have been on the field. But next year we’re gonna win it. Thank you for allowing me on the team.’
“So that was huge, because, you know, he’s the captain his junior year. So that’s big. I just loved him, man, loved him like my son.”
Angie Thompson — Rainier Beach High School Activity Coordinator
“That smile. I remember the first time I saw him; it was that smile. He came to RBHS as a junior with so much confidence and swagger. He was incredibly handsome but it wasn’t just that. His smile made you feel comfortable like everything was going to be okay — even after losing at State in football, there was still this huge smile on his face …
“That first year at Beach, Conner spent a lot of time in my office. Not because he was in trouble, but just to get to know me and get my advice. I remember the first time: he just came into my office and sat down. I looked up puzzled ‘cause he didn’t seem to need anything. He just wanted to be there. I’m really good about sending kids back to class when they stop in to say hello or get help, but somehow we ended up talking for over an hour. And that was how it started. We spoke daily. He made it his business to check in often, then when the time came, he decided to run for ASB [Associated School Body] office — strengthening our work together for the following year (as I am the ASB advisor).
“I was surprised at first that he wanted to run, but could totally see him winning. Everyone loved him. He was a terribly popular, athletic, charismatic, fun-to-be-around — a cool kid. In fact, when his opponent found out who she was running against, she yielded the contest. She eventually told me that even she would vote for Conner!
“He chose the perfect running mate in Yobachinia Fraizzer. He knew she was bright and hard-working. They made an effective team. Choosing her was actually strategic as well.
“I remember his speech. He was a natural. He convinced his peers to vote for him, and won. He was a cool white kid, in the minority (there were less than 20 white kids in the school) yet he won Senior Class President!
“He was so loving. When the days were hard and I needed something, he was there. Sometimes he’d bring me chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. He’d buy my coffee when I was tired. If he left campus for lunch, he’d check to see if I needed anything. He really, actually, genuinely cared.”
So in the space of two years, one bold, humble step at a time, Conner’s story included becoming a beloved track coach, spearheading a program that spoke to every homeroom about suicide prevention, leading RBHS football to the state championship game for the first time in decades, and becoming the unanimous choice for class president. It’s no surprise colleges were falling over themselves to get him in the door.
It’s also not a surprise that many of his peers are still devastated, most of them needing space to process their loss.
Conner had selected the University of Washington and chosen pre-law, but spent the last few months of his freshman year quarantined with his tight-knit family.
Conner’s mother, Alicia, clearly wired similarly to her son, has turned an unimaginable Mother’s Day into a gauntlet for Rainier Beach. She has refused to contribute to the narrative that Rainier Beach is either dangerous or flawed, that youth crime is best contained by building prisons, or even that whoever killed her son deserves to be in one. Teaming up with local district representative candidate Chukundi Salisbury, they are launching the initiative “Walk Away.”
To her son’s killer, she levelled these words at the first crowded vigil on Tuesday for the Dassa’s Rainier Beach community, “The person who did this to my boy … they needed a hug. They needed more love. They couldn’t have done this, if they would have had those things in their life.”
Doubling down at the second packed vigil this past Thursday for Conner’s O’Dea community, and referencing both her son’s murderer and the same broken system Conner spoke of to his middle school English teacher, she said:
“And so, they have no idea what they opened up when they decided to do what they did that night, whoever that person is. And they’re gonna have to hear us. They’re gonna see us. They’re gonna understand what they took from us, because we are going to blanket this community in love like no one has ever seen before. The people who haven’t been listening to us all these years are going to listen. If I have to sit on their desk, they’re going to listen. And all of you guys, and all of the support that we have are going to keep Conner alive forever.”
Alicia went on to express to the Emerald that Veniace, his girlfriend of three years as of Tuesday, was almost ready to speak about her son. She said of Veniace, “She was everything to him. She’s just beautiful and smart and everything you would want for your son. The fact that she holds his heart forever, that’s everything for me, because she’s so amazing. So amazing … ”
Speaking with the Emerald via phone, Veniace gasped audibly when told about the praise Alicia Dassa reserved for her. Heading to Seattle Pacific University’s criminal justice program, and with her eye on being an FBI agent, she was with Conner one day not too long ago, and, naturally, looked through his phone, finding her contact name.
“When I opened it, he literally had my whole profile made. Like my full name, my height, my weight, what I was allergic to, what I liked, what type of clothes I like, what flowers I like. And I just have never met somebody that would take that much time in observing somebody else, just to make them happy.”
Speaking about Conner’s immediate family, which besides parents Alicia and James includes his little sister Keira, his older brothers Alexander, and Dante, and older sister Kauleta, respectively, Veniace had this to say:
“They were always strong for everyone. They were strong for his best friend’s mom when their son passed away. They’ve always showed love to kids that were never their kids biologically, but they’ve always been there. Everybody is on the same team in this family; everybody just has the same underlying goals: supporting each other and loving each other. And now it’s just our turn, and everybody else’s turn to show that same love that the Dassa family has shown everybody else. His friends crashed there for nights. They don’t have stable homes, and they’ve given people food that they know don’t have access to food all the time. So I just think that it’s just time for everybody in the universe to reciprocate that same energy.”
What’s your story?
Conner’s story is full of broad devotion to loved ones and friends, dedication to what he needed to do for himself, service as a way of life and as an extension of his family’s values, a seemingly misplaced humbleness, sarcasm, and sheer magnetism. All along, he’s been a confidante, a trickster, a code-switching bridge builder. Someone who used action as a healing agent.
What’s your future?
Conner’s future is inside us now.
Makayla Miles is a writer. She works at Rainier Beach Action Coalition, giving important updates about the work RBAC is doing in the community. She is currently working on an Adulting 101 series for the South Seattle Emerald. You can follow her here.
Zion Thomas is a photographer, passionate about social justice, and a fierce community activist. He currently works at Rainier Beach Action Coalition where he is focused on helping the community in any way he can. You can follow him here.
Featured image taken by Conner Dassa-Holland, courtesy of his girlfriend Veniace.
Slideshow courtesy of Alexander Dassa-Holland and the Dassa and Holland families.