Police-Community Tensions Bring Humphrey Fellows Together for Discussion of Race in America
July 21, 2016—The discussion couldn’t have been more timely. Just days after a black man was shot and killed by a police officer in suburban St. Paul during a routine traffic stop, and a gunman killed five police officers in Dallas, two groups of Humphrey School of Public Affairs fellows met with Dr. Samuel Myers, a Humphrey School professor renowned for his research on racial disparities, to discuss race in America.
“The events of the past few days once again raise the question of what it means to be a person of color in America,” Myers, director of the Humphrey School’s Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, told the group as he opened the session.
The Roy Wilkins Community Fellows Program, hosted annually by the Wilkins Center, brought 22 individuals serving communities of color, including Minnesota's tribal nations, to the Humphrey School last week for an intensive boot camp that trains them to become stronger community advocates.
The 25 Mandela Washington fellows, here from 22 African countries, are in the midst of a six-week academic and leadership institute at the Humphrey School. They are among 1,000 fellows participating in the program at institutions around the country. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Its goal is to empower young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, networking, and support for activities in their communities.
The fellows are visiting at a time when tensions are high between the African-American community and law enforcement following the shooting deaths by police of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, and another black man, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Their deaths touched off massive protests in cities around the country. In Dallas and Baton Rouge, gunmen who reportedly were upset about the police shootings killed a total of eight law enforcement officers. The suspects were eventually killed by police.
In the wake of these recent events, Myers told the group that he’s heard from colleagues around the world who asked, “What’s wrong with you people?” And they’re asking whether Americans are more violent than people in other parts of the world.
Also leading the session was Sharon Sayles Belton, former mayor of Minneapolis and co-director of the Wilkins Fellowship program.
“A cloud of sadness and grief is looming over my soul,” said Sayles Belton, the first African American and the first woman to be elected mayor of Minnesota’s largest city. She served from 1994-2001. One reason for her dismay is that people with differing viewpoints are in conflict and not talking with each other.
Sayles Belton recalled her first year as Minneapolis mayor, when the city’s homicide rate spiked, and her administration was blamed for it. She related how she put together a plan to address the situation, which focused on engaging everyone in the process. As a result, she said, the crime rate declined.
“The key is conversation and dialogue,” said Sayles Belton, who is now vice president of community relations and government affairs for Thomson Reuters Legal business.
Fellows share common experiences
Dr. Myers invited the attendees to share their thoughts and concerns about racial inequality, saying he wanted to provide them a safe space to express their feelings.
Several Wilkins fellows related personal stories about their experiences with racism and racial profiling. “I’ve been pulled over by the police many times,” said one Minneapolis woman. “I don’t think people understand how small you feel when the people who are here to protect my liberties make me feel so insignificant.”
“I’m unapologetically black,” said another, adding that many people have no empathy for people of a different race or other circumstance. “If you don’t have empathy for your fellow brothers and sisters, nothing will change.”
One Mandela fellow said she lived in the United Kingdom for four years, and has noticed a big difference between the UK and the United States in terms of race relations. “There is so much fear here in the U.S. Because of that, it’s hard to move toward unity,” she said.
Many Mandela fellows noted that racial and ethnic tension is not unique to America. It’s common in their home countries in Africa, although the oppression there is often based on ethnicity or tribal backgrounds.
“I understand what it means to be judged based on a characteristic you’re born with—skin color or ethnicity,” said one Mandela fellow. “It breaks my heart that the way I look could be the difference between living and dying,” said another.
As for how to move forward, most everyone agreed that empathy for others, constructive dialogue, and ongoing conversation are the keys.
“A true leader tries to find solutions and build bridges, not look for someone to blame,” said one participant.
Sayles Belton noted that there is also a role for public activism, saying that protests, letters, emails, and phone calls are effective at getting the attention of public officials.
“But after you express your anger and frustration, you need to have a plan,” she added. “Elected officials do not have all the answers. They need your ideas and input.”
A Wilkins fellow from Minneapolis said that’s exactly why she signed up for the weeklong training program. As a community activist, she said she’s sat across the table from Governor Mark Dayton on a few occasions, and when he asked, “What do you want me to do?” she didn’t have a good answer.
“Next time I sit across from the governor, I want to have a policy solution,” she said.
Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz said that’s why it is so important that the Humphrey School connects with the community through these two groups of fellows.
“The Mandela Washington Fellowship and the Wilkins Fellowship reflect our commitment to progress,” he said. “We are a school continually shaped by the talents, passion and social justice commitment of our staff and students and faculty. But our scholarship is meaningless if it doesn’t impact the community and the rest of the world.”