Monday June 8th, 2020—so much has changed in the last two weeks: news of the pandemic fading amidst reports of the police killing of George Floyd, subsequent protests morphing into fires and looting in some areas, then volunteer clean up, curfews, amassing of the National Guard, larger more peaceful protests, and moves to defund or dismantle the police.
As a Luther faculty member who divides my time between Decorah and St. Paul (when there is not a pandemic), my Minnesota home is about two miles from University Avenue, the site of protests, and on May 28th the burning and looting of many businesses: Lloyd’s Pharmacy completely burned, Noodles & Company now boarded up, a remodeled Ethiopian restaurant reduced to a pile of bricks. I was recently disoriented by the sight of National Guard members, Humvees, and long guns in front of Target, more reminiscent of experiences I’ve had in Guatemala and Honduras, rather than a trip to the grocery store in St. Paul.
Last week, I met two new social work graduates at Como Park in St. Paul and talked about what has been happening, as the now-ubiquitous sound of a helicopter passed overhead. Tamar Tedla, of St. Paul, helped to organize a march and vigil at the Woodbury City Hall, in observance of the funeral for George Floyd. Laura Lehman, a Minneapolis resident, participated in protests at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th precinct, near her home, and helped to collect baby supplies, food, and toiletries for affected community members. Both women have made donations to local service providers, and to businesses affected by the unrest.
I asked them what change they want to see:
[Tamar] “What’s happening now isn’t only because of what happened to George Floyd—it’s a response to the murders of many others, like Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, etc. Minnesota ranks high in racism within law enforcement; there's a really ugly history which involves police brutality towards black folks that supports what is happening right now.
There needs to be more education of the public, and representation of people of color in education. As a black female, there were not many people who looked like me in higher education/administration at Woodbury or at Luther. When I was at Luther, the Black Student Union, international students, and others, facilitated a conversation with the Decorah police. This conversation in particular confronted Decorah police with experiences of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. We need to include more in the Luther curriculum that includes black folks, and also black joy, so people experience that as well.”
[Laura] “We need more people who are trained in de-escalation and appropriate interventions. We need more social workers, in the schools, in social services; we need more precise screening for those who will have the power that comes with having weapons. Minneapolis has an extensive background with racism and brutality within law enforcement... It's time to defund the police and move more funds to social services and trained specialists. During this fight for justice, I encourage myself and other allies to further educate ourselves on the history of oppression, self-reflect on our own biases, and continue to support black voices.”
I inquired with a few alumni about their recent experiences. Bill Fullerton (‘88), a psychology major at Luther and currently a therapist with the American Indian Family Center, replied:
“It is now 11 days since a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. I work for the American Indian Family Center in St. Paul as a clinical social worker where most of my co-workers are Native people. We are normally working to help people in the community deal with trauma issues related to racism but recently it has been much more difficult. In a meeting a few days ago, designed to assist us in dealing with the stress of our work, a Native spiritual leader asked us “Whose knee is on your neck and whose neck is under your knee?”
So if you are now looking at your knee or putting your hand on your neck, What next?
If you are at Luther College now, physically, spiritually, or you imagine yourself there as I still sometimes do, in the beautiful valley surrounded by some of the kindest and most caring people I have ever met, do you see American Indian people? Is there a sign of acknowledgement that Native people were banished from that land that we call the Oneota Valley in the city of Decorah in the county called Winneshiek in the state named Iowa or are they invisible? Native people in the United States have been asking to be seen and heard for years. I have heard people acknowledge that they are on land that was taken from Native people but I rarely hear of an institution backing that up with action. Maybe a Native work of art on campus, maybe a full scholarship for an American Indian student, maybe some of the kindest most caring people I have met will think of something even better."
For myself, after watching bystander videos of George Floyd’s life and breath slowly and callously squeezed out of him, the burning and looting nearby felt like a second death. While I don’t condone violence, perhaps this sense of a second death is partly the point—the death of comforts and a sense of safety that I took for granted, replaced by feeling unsettled, disturbed, uneasy.
What if I felt this unease every time I—or my son or my husband—saw a police officer, uncertain about whether that encounter might end in injury or death? What if I felt fear when stopped by law enforcement, afraid that my pleas for life would be unheeded? What if I felt unseen, unheard, dehumanized, by the structures that govern and serve my city? What if I felt this way all the time?
And I also wonder if those fires were for me and others like me, trying to unsettle my comfort and illuminate the inequities around me, to make me feel fear and uncertainty and despair that is easier to overlook when the smoke is not in my eyes, and the smell of burning rubber is not in my nose, and the crunch of broken glass is not under my feet.
As someone who has worked with refugees and asylum seekers, I wonder whether Black Americans could successfully seek refugee protection in other countries due to “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”? What does it say about myself, that I can champion the protection needs of those who are newcomers to the U.S., while those nearby face oppression and repression?
In one of my social work courses, we read sections of Critical Race Theory by Delgado & Stefancic (2001). I am reminded of the term “interest convergence,” coined by legal scholar Derrick Bell and suggesting that racial progress occurs when the interests of whites and blacks align, converge, intersect, rather than an altruistic willingness to promote the well-being of those who are oppressed. Does this current unrest create a mutual need for peace and safety as a shared interest, making change possible in this moment?
In another course, we read Ibram Kendi’s new book, How to be an Anti-Racist (2019) in which he notes that “Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy” (28)—seeing “bad apples,” rather than systemic racism. Amidst the pain, inequity, and tumult, Kendi gives us reason for hope: “Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind” (238). We have learned and perpetuated these ideas. How as a college can we be part of un-learning these toxic beliefs?
As a community, are we willing to be discomfited, are we willing to ask ourselves hard questions about what subtle and systemic racism exists in our classrooms and in our institution and in our community? Are we willing to listen to new voices, and to appreciate the contributions and ideas from people of many backgrounds, in order to make Luther College and Decorah, Iowa, more equitable and inclusive communities?
The events of the past two weeks have me thinking about how I can better equip my students to explore ideas of race, racism and power in themselves, our communities, organizations and society. As discussions develop around re-thinking models of policing and public safety, so that all community members feel protected, I wonder how social workers can be part of solutions that involve services rather than coercive responses. How can our social work program help to prepare today’s students to be tomorrow’s creative changemakers?
As a start, I commit to reviewing next year’s syllabi and course content for ways to incorporate more readings, knowledge building, and discussion about the role of race and racism in ourselves and in our systems, and actions we can take to create change.
What will you do?