Leaders of Change gets students, officers together for open dialogue, relationship building

Recently,  some Springfield High School students gathered with some Springfield Police Division officers to have the first of many open conversations about race relations, policing and other issues with a goal of building a sense of empathy and understanding.

Organized by Leaders of Change (LOC) Founder Lauren Kelley, the community outreach program was created after the idea came up when the organization teamed with officers filling community needs for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As Springfield Police (SPD) officers and the LOC volunteers talked openly about race relations and policing, they realized these same kinds of conversations could be beneficial within the community.

“During the Christmas event, that’s when I asked the officers to participate,” Kelley says. “They were on board from the very beginning and ever since then we’ve had their support for this event. It was very natural and very seamless, and they’ve been very supportive.”

Kelley then worked with SPD and Springfield High School (SHS) to work out details and organize the program. Kelley says opening doors to having upfront, honest conversations – even if they are difficult – is a step in the right direction.

“Growing up I always heard you have to get both sides and hear both sides because there’s two sides to every story,” she says. “So if we can get comfortable with that, that’s the first step. We have to be able to say, ‘I’m willing to sit down and talk with you.’

“I feel like I’m a small part of a bigger picture, and as much as I can I’m trying to help my community and the people who look like me.”

When building this outreach program focused on open dialogue, Springfield High students were selected by the school administration, and they had a chance to plan questions in advance, says Brentt Hogan, SHS administrator over student services.

“Our students were well engaged. They had great questions and were eager to participate,” he says. “When we mentioned this opportunity would be provided, they jumped at the chance to have a safe interaction between people of color, students and local police.”

Though the topics were heavy, both Kelley and Hogan emphasized the importance of these kinds of open dialogue to find empathy, build understanding, and push growth in a positive way.

“The goal was for the students to benefit and grow because, as black individuals, that’s basically what we’re longing for,” Kelley says. “If we look at ourselves on opposite ends, there’s no coming to the middle.

“I think everyone thinks, 'You look at me like the enemy, and I’m just automatically wrong in your mind, and so I’m just going to shut down and dig my heels in.' (Principal Hogan) doesn’t want that. So for us, it was, figuring out, 'How do we get the students to understand there’s a different way to go about conflict?' There’s a way to sit down and discuss something uncomfortable and learn from it.”

And they did. They sat together and shared honest feelings and backgrounds and emotions and thoughts. Students asked questions, and the officers – Officers Vernon Bass, Zach Massie and Tommy Potter – gave genuine answers.

“I would say every positive interaction that police in our community have, leads to a future positive interaction,” says SPD Capt. Brad Moos regarding the officers participating in the outreach discussion.

Some of the questions the students asked during the nearly two-hour conversation, included:
  • Does race affect how you initiate contact or interact with people?
  • Have you ever experienced one of your coworkers go against policy because of racial biases?
  • What do you think of the saying, “All men are created equal”?
  • Do you know if racial bias training is required (for police officers)?
  • As a police officer, are you ever afraid to do your job?
“I had students who participated ask me when we’re going to do it again,” Hogan says. “And I really believe that as far as it being the first time – there were some first-time jitters, some uncomfortable moments, some silence ... but the students were all involved, and it became a collaborative atmosphere where the kids were asking questions and people were piggybacking off other questions. It was a very meaningful experience.”

Hogan says he talked to the students in advance to explain the importance of focusing the conversation around building an understanding rather than leaning on negative preconceptions to tear anyone down.

“They were there to have a fruitful effort and a meaningful conversation to make sure (the officers) were heard and we (the students) were heard, and I applauded the officers for their transparency and understanding that this is just the beginning of a dialogue that can better help the police and also the community,” he says.

Hogan expressed that one important part of the conversation was about the process officers use to find a suspect following a reported crime. He says some students openly shared with officers about times they’ve felt uneasy about being stopped, even though they knew they hadn’t done anything wrong. And the officers shared how sometimes while doing their jobs, things get dangerous, and they worry about their personal wellbeing, too.

“A few discussions were on African American males and their interactions with police and making sure everyone makes it home safe, and how during those interactions they’re afraid,” Hogan says. “The police were empathetic to that, but these were true concerns for some of the students in the session.

“I believe those topics and areas of immediate concerns were taken wholeheartedly, and they gave explanations about how some stops and processes happen.”

Both the students and the officers could agree that regardless of the situation or interaction, everyone wanted to feel confident they could make it home safely at the end of the day.  

“That was heavy as far as the conversation was concerned,” says Hogan, emphasizing the importance of the students and officers both being able to openly talk about their perceptions.

“We would love to see this get bigger and more meaningful as we grow and that we can learn and continue with other opportunities. Some hot topics are still happening, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, and so these are the kind of fruitful conversations, meaningful conversations, we’ll need to have,” Hogan says. “Springfield High School has great students, and what we saw was just a small piece of what we have to offer the City of Springfield.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.