Daring to Have Difficult Dialogues

by Eboni Zamani-Gallaher / Dec 23, 2014

Over the last few weeks, I have felt a case of unsettling déjà vu. This déjà vu continues to happen for many others and me as cases of black men falling victim to police brutality are commonplace. With the grand jury failing to indict in the death of Michael Brown, I found I had no words. With the repeat of no indictment regarding Eric Garner’s case in New York one week later, I literally wanted to holler. Real evidence of change – a movement is needed. Because where can you get an indictment if not the Eric Garner case?

In Cleveland, Ohio November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice found playing with a BB gun was killed by a police officer. To quote Eric Garner moments before his death, “This stops today.” If only this trend would stop. In the interim, there are teachable moments that the public can benefit from and schools can leverage throughout the educational pipeline. Middle school, high school, and college students (in age appropriate ways) can embark on learning about themselves and others backgrounds subsequently fostering personal awareness and multicultural relations.

The challenge of self-development is closely examining your values, attitudes, exploring racial/cultural identity, and increasing consciousness regarding multiple forms of privilege. In a society where white is the norm referenced by which all others are compared, the mainstream/dominant culture does not reflect people of color. Group membership shapes perceptions regarding situations that are otherwise outwardly objective as the value and meaning of diversity means different things to different people. Hence, the variety of perceptual differences regarding the lack of indictments in policing abuses that result in citizen deaths demonstrate communities of color experience issues related to race differently than their white counterparts.

Calling for Constructive Conversations in P-20 Education
Educator Julie Helling contends, “It should be no secret that racism exists in this country and in the classroom.” Shaun Harper and Estela Bensimon’s color of consciousness concept calls for institutional leaders to intentionally and purposefully respond to the realities of race in fostering inclusive environments. School assemblies, town hall meetings, diversity awareness campaigns, reflection activities, and so forth are venues to foster discussion on race relations and other aspects of diversity. For example, faculty, staff, administrators, and students (altered for age-appropriateness with the latter group) could also ponder and discuss the following:

  • What does justice mean to you?
  • Was Eric Garner treated fairly or denied his lawful rights?
  • How do we address the divide over what is considered acceptable policing tactics?
  • What are the right of protest and civil disobedience?
  • What is the future of community policing?
  • Why is variability in perceived diversity rarely discussed?
  • Do you think this variability is underappreciated and not on many people’s radar?
  • What tensions persist between constitutional rights and civil liberties that continue to place blacks and other marginalized groups at the center of the struggle for social justice?
  • Why are there differential levels of social capital across communities, and historically why have communities of color and poor communities had limited access to various forms of capital?
  • How have the poor and racial/ethnic minoritized groups had less currency with regard to interactions with law enforcement?

The above questions for discussion are not an exhaustive list of what could be talked about but possibly serve as a springboard for courageous conversations. In navigating conversation and activities with youth (i.e., grades K-12) around Ferguson, the following online resources proved helpful to me in steering a thoughtful exchange with my 5th grade daughters.

The aforementioned conversation starters could also be discussed through intergroup dialogue with adult learners (IGD). IGD is a powerful tool for exploring concepts of equity, cross-cultural communications, intercultural awareness, human relations, and social justice. While many four-year institutions have programming on intergroup dialogue or intergroup relations, less is known about IGD, deliberative democracy and social justice education programs in K-12 education or community colleges. Thus, a program of study that is experiential, undergird with theory where students learn about advancing equity, curbing social inequality, and explore social identity would be complimentary for youth and adult learners.

In canvassing various programs of study with criminal justice programs across states, there is no uniform requirement for diversity courses across institutions. The typical required core courses are Introduction to Criminal Justice, Introduction to Corrections, Introduction to Criminology, and Juvenile Delinquency/Juvenile Justice. In most cases, students will have general education courses whereby they can elect to take diversity-related courses in fulfilment of their general education requirement. Accordingly, it is probable that classes in the humanities, social/behavioral sciences, or communications have content relevant to cross-cultural communications, contemporary social issues, and so forth. I would argue that every student majoring at the two- and four-year level in criminal justice should have a required diversity cognate (i.e., minimum of 9 credit hours). If we want culturally proficient leaders in law enforcement and culturally competent officers on patrol, having diversity content as an elective or only one-course requirement will is negligent. Courses such as Introduction to Social Justice, Ethics, Historical and Contemporary Practices of Restorative Justice, and Human Relations would supplement the training of aspiring criminal justice professionals.

In sum, the pervasive tensions in race relations call for courageous conversations and activist leadership. Activist leaders are armed with a deep understanding of the conflict process and understand that conflict is integral to institutional change. We should challenge our students across age cohorts and the spectrum of difference to endeavor to be the change they want to see in the world. Each of us can contribute to the movement for a more socially just, fair, and inclusive community through active engagement and a clear stance on diversity matters. By not ignoring the salience of race, we are more apt to revise and correct failed practices and improve policies in and out of academe.

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher is a professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership in the College of Education at Illinois and Co-Principal Investigator on the Illinois Community College Board grant at OCCRL. Her research centers on access and collegiate experiences of marginalized students at two- and four-year institutions of higher education.