By Irene M. Ota, College of Social Work and Irene H. Yoon, College of Education
The unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri sparked a cross-campus dialogue at the University of Utah to discuss racialized police violence and what concerned community members can do about it. We were already planning this informal gathering to create a space to dialogue about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, co-sponsored by the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, College of Education, and the Women’s Resource Center. Then, just days before the planned event, in Saratoga Springs, Utah, about 35 miles from Salt Lake City, a young mixed race Black man named Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by the police. With this local case, the need for community connection and action on campus became even more palpable.
We knew the University needed a campus-wide opportunity for people to find each other, dialogue, process concerns, and identify effective forms of action and engagement to press for change and collective urgency. But, we didn’t know if anyone would come.
We have a largely commuter campus, so many students work jobs during the day. We are in a state with relatively little community outcry over racialized violence. We told ourselves that even a conversation with five people was important, in order to build connection and start a series of conversations and action.
The response was greater than we had anticipated, with over 40 people attending from numerous areas of the University of Utah and the greater community. We were a diverse group in age, ability, academic discipline, profession, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity.
Students, staff, and faculty identified themselves as coming from sociology, chemistry, environmental science, psychology, theater, business, communication, and the U.S. Army (Fort Douglas, an Army Reserve base, is on campus), in addition to education, social work, and the Women’s Resource Center. As each person introduced themselves, they shared their reasons for attending.
Many people felt they didn’t know who else to talk to, who else cared about the situations in Ferguson and in our own backyard. Some people were there for very personal reasons—friends of Darrien Hunt, mothers afraid of what fatal police shootings mean for their children and grandchildren of color.
#UFergusonDialogue: "This is the first time I've been in a group this ethnically and racially diverse." —Student
Others were angry about injustice, not only for Michael Brown, but for many other people of color, and had found their outrage was falling on deaf ears in other parts of campus or in their other communities. Finally, almost all agreed that they wanted to be part of collective action and public pressure on local government and police departments, public and elected officials, and local media outlets.
In addition to meeting the needs above, we were explicit about our goals. We felt a dialogue was necessary for our campus climate—for concerned individuals to have a space to have difficult conversations where they were allowed to speak their emotions. We knew that, on this large campus, individuals would want to network and find each other.
As educators, we facilitators also wanted to be available to participants who needed to unpack competing accounts, imagery, media narratives, and statistics about Ferguson and racialized police shootings. Finally, as individuals who had participated in many dialogues in the past that had petered out over time, we wanted to make sure we didn’t stop at talk, but also brainstorm constructive collective action. We decided one first action could be a joint letter to the editor of several newspapers.
For a dialogue with individuals who wouldn’t know each other or have relationships with each other yet, we started with a structured two-hour process. We began by establishing “ground rules,” or norms for participation and dialogue. Next, we briefly situated the conversation in a long history of (officially or unofficially) sanctioned violence against young Black men. About 10 minutes into the session, we were ready to begin.
For the first hour and a half, participants shared who they were, why they were participating in the dialogue, their emotions and concerns and questions about how and why Michael Brown’s and Darrien Hunt’s deaths had occurred. We observed that the diverse group had a range of needs, from working through personal identity to wanting to show up in quiet support. Some individuals shared what had pushed them over the tipping point from passive personal concern to joining a group dialogue for action.
Before moving on to our collective action item, we brainstormed tips and wisdom about what we could do in response to the shooting of Darien Hunt, as well as addressing racialized police violence more broadly. Participants suggested:
Calling and emailing elected officials in this midterm election season (drafting a “script” for people who were worried about getting tongue-tied)
Writing letters to local police departments
Tweeting and leaving Facebook posts on pages of local police departments and elected officials
Forming an action group to serve as a “home base” for sharing information about events, action items, and resources
Speaking up within our own existing networks and communities (e.g., classes we teach, places of worship, our families).
#UFergusonDialogue: "I'm here because I have two sons… I'm scared for my children." —Community Attendee
Finally, for the last half hour, we presented drafts of several letters to the editor that we had tailored to each newspaper’s coverage of Ferguson and of other fatal police shootings like Darrien Hunt’s. Participants read the letters, gave comments or suggested revisions, and had a few moments to consider whether or not they wanted to sign their names (or sign as “Anonymous”). Virtually all participants signed on to these letters. More have signed on since.
Implications for the Future
So what can we say now? Was the event a success, in terms of our goals and needs? We think so, because our main intention was to create space and build networks for the future. Many connections between individuals and organizations were made – we noticed people staying after the event, crossing the room and shaking hands, exchanging emails and phone numbers. Two social work students are creating a phone tree, which would alert individuals to incidents, concerns, and issues, and encourage them to write, email, and/or phone their legislators with possible resolutions and action. Those letters to the editors will go the local newspapers, which we hope will be printed. We plan to share them over social media networks regardless.
As with any grassroots community organization that is spurred by a single event, it can be hard to keep things like this dialogue going over time. One of our goals and guiding questions was how not to forget, but to stay engaged, despite everyone’s own busy lives and community engagement in disparate spaces. We are cautious until the suggested initiatives take hold. We will continue the dialogues and calls for action. We are committed to supporting each other, staying socially conscious, and we are dedicated to moving forward.
Note: We would like to extend special thanks and appreciation to Debra Daniels, Assistant Vice President of Women’s Enrollment Initiatives and Director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Jennifer Nozawa at the College of Social Work, for their support and collaboration in planning and facilitating the event and this essay.
Irene Ota is the Diversity Coordinator & Diversity Instructor at the University of Utah College of Social Work. Irene works with students of color in the College of Social Work as a resource and support person. She assists with information about application procedures and resources for financial aid and scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students.