As part of the Cincinnati Project, I was invited to participate in discussions at the 2016 NAACP National Conference surrounding police-community interactions. While my primary role was as a scientist, to help collect data to understand how police officers and members of local communities, my experience left me struck by the stories I heard and the emotions they elicited from me. By the time I left, I realized that although I can have empathy, understanding, and can fight to eliminate social injustices, I will not ever understand what it is like to be Black in this country.
Creating more positive interactions between citizens and police officers
I was fortunate to attend two different sessions in which individuals shared their experiences, thoughts, and hopes for the future for creating more positive interactions between citizens and police officers. There were community members, cops, lawyers, judges, religious leaders, community activists, and students who convened to discuss this issue with each other. It was inspiring to see the diversity of experience that flooded the room to address positive community change. I was most influenced by the stories that people told and the discourse surrounding those narratives.
The one I remember most was when an individual said that mutual disrespect leads to noncompliance, which can sometimes lead to death for people like him. He described how trust was the underlying issue that needed to be addressed to rectify relationships between police and young black men. He also remarked that it was unacceptable that the same agency that enacts the brutality against Black men, is the same agency that investigates it—the police. He described how being stopped by a cop is one of the scariest experiences he could imagine.
“I don’t think about interacting with police as a skill that I need to develop.”
I thought of my own experiences with police officers. They are mostly positive. I’ve been at most nervous, but not scared and certainly not fearful for my life. I don’t think about interacting with police as a skill that I need to develop. I have no need to have techniques that minimize my risk of dying when interacting with a cop. I have studied race, social inequality, policing, and the psychology of stigma for nearly a decade.
My understanding of race changed as a result of this man’s words. I sat in the room listening to traumatic experiences that I am excluded from simply by my white privilege. This was a transformative experience for me as a doctoral student in the psychology department at UC.
“I was empowered through my involvement.”
I was empowered through my involvement because I was able to interact with individuals who had an understanding of racial inequality that I can only experience through their willingness to share their stories with me. I have since found a vehicle for addressing some of these issues and my desire to help by using the knowledge I started to gather in these rooms to design research that addresses racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Without The Cincinnati Project this would have never happened.
As a student, experiential activities are vital for real learning to occur. UC has a history of excellence in cooperative learning, but these experiences have often been isolated to students in departments that specialize in technology, engineering, or business. The Cincinnati Project was vital creating an experiential learning activity for me as someone who studies human behavior and social process. The connection to the community was vital in facilitating an experience that completely changed my perspective on a topic I know well. My involvement in this project has been one of my most influential experiences as a student and I am grateful for the community partnerships that The Cincinnati Project has created that have shaped my journey as both a student and future scientist.