Many people here in Evanston, as elsewhere, are unnerved by the mean-spiritedness by many who hold power in our nation. The rhetoric of polarity and divisiveness that threatens our country seems to be spilling over into our community.
We are fortunate in Evanston to have many who understand that leadership stems from acknowledging what we have in common in order to forge a stronger community.
As an example, what could have been an unproductive or even acrimonious town hall meeting on cultural awareness and community policing looked instead like a congress of people trying to learn from one another and talk through potentially divisive issues.
The June 20 meeting, held at the Morton Civic Center, was the first of three town hall meetings on police-community relations. These meetings are the result of a multi-year diversity assessment and training for the Police Department. The ongoing training addresses intradepartmental issues as well as concerns brought by community members – such as the need for training in de-escalation tactics and policies and the fact – or perception – that there is aggressive policing in some areas of the community.
The format of the meeting helped keep the focus on its purpose: to foster better understanding between police officers and community members with the goal of strengthening the Evanston community.
A panel of Evanston police officers, most of them at the command-staff level, answered written questions from the audience, read to them by the moderator, Diversity Consultant Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan. For many, writing down thoughts and questions helps ensure clarity from both sides and eliminates accusations and pontifications.
Even more helpful were Dr. Logan’s introductory remarks, which acknowledged the pervasiveness of the problems that were the impetus for the meeting, outlined the parameters of the evening’s discussion, and asked all present to remember what they have in common: the desire to make the community safe and just.
Below are some excerpts from Dr. Logan’s introduction:
“Tonight we are here, not to define and defend our differences, but rather to learn from and leverage them to make our community a better, safer, and more equitable place for us all to live.
“And before we delve into differences, let’s start from an understanding of the commonalities that bring us together tonight; among them:
“We all have a vested interest in what happens in this community;
“What happens in this community affects us all, albeit, in different ways;
“We all have a responsibility to do what’s right for this community, and working together, we can make this a better, safer, and more equitable community to work and live in;
“We are here because we all want to make our City a better place … though we may differ in how we feel it needs to be accomplished. And those differences in approach constitute another arena from which we can all learn from one another.”
Evanston is composed of many communities, some discrete and some overlapping. Within many of these communities, one can find hurt, resentment, and distrust. Where that is the case, determined and persistent work may be needed before honest conversation can begin. “Trust,” Dr. Logan said, “is both a prerequisite and something we must work to maintain from both sides.” To shoulder the shared responsibility of building a stronger Evanston, there is a need for “reciprocal consideration and understanding.”
This reciprocity involves understanding that people who seem to be on the other side may be offering not “opposition” but a different approach to a common problem. There is nothing to risk in starting from that point, because it allows people to focus immediately on the issue, and it forecloses the need for recriminations and accusations.
Dr. Logan’s words in the context of police-community relations are applicable on a broader scale. “We must look beyond police officers being merely law enforcement officers and beyond community members being merely Evanstonians. Rather, we must see, acknowledge, and speak to the humanity that lies within us all.”