Today has been designated a National Day of Healing.
“And we have a huge job to do,” says former Gov. William Winter.
Winter is honorary co-chair of the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise, a community of corporate, public and non-profit organizations supporting the healing process for citizens who feel oppressed because of their religion, race, ethnicity and sexual identity.
Last December, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation brought more than 550 people from across the country together in California to deepen their understanding of how to unearth and eliminate the deeply held, and often unconscious, beliefs created by racism. At the summit, the foundation and a broad coalition called for a National Day of Healing. Representatives from more than 130 organizations attended the summit, and some will sponsor events in their communities.
“Healing is not permitted to slip backward,” Winter says. “That will happen unless we take the responsibility to seeing to it that it does not happen.”
In Mississippi, community leaders, businesses, clergy and other institutions are hosting forums, prayers, classroom lectures and community conversations.
The National Day of Healing follows the annual commemoration of the birth date of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They fear each other, because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other,” King said in his 1962 speech at Cornell College.
As King’s speech emboldened many college students to empathize with one another at Cornell in 1962, today, students on college campuses across the nation are also integrating the space and beginning the conversations necessary to heal one another.
Last July, Gregory Jackson Jr., a senior political science major at the University of Southern Mississippi, was emboldened to create with other students the “Am I Next?” campaign, a non-violent movement that allows citizens to express their concerns about the series of police shootings and killings of black men. Jackson calls it the first opportunity for the predominantly white campus to “hear from the other side.”
Summer 2016 was an “especially explosive” time in the United States, says Dr. Marcus Coleman, assistant professor of interdisciplinary and communication studies at USM.
“It knocked our students off kilter, as it should have,” said Coleman. “Collectively on campus, they buckled up after the shootings of unarmed black men Philando Castile (in Minnesota) and Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and there came a social conscious of young people in Hattiesburg.”
On July 14, the “Am I Next?” community forum gathered more than 200 people. Majority were students; however, community leaders, clergy, teenagers and their parents, the Hattiesburg police, university faculty and staff also attended.
The first priority was to educate the audience, explained Jackson.
“Let’s sit down and have a conversation. In this conversation, let’s talk about police brutality. Let’s talk about racial issues and how do we as citizens express our rights by the law peacefully. How do we keep ourselves safe? Let’s educate ourselves,” Jackson said.
Rusty Keys, captain and investigator with the University Police Department, advised “The best thing you can do is comply,” recalled Jackson.
Some students in the majority black audience weren’t satisfied with that advice because they felt that even if they did comply, they still might not live. Jackson, personally, explains that his family has ingrained in him “to do what the officer says so you can go home to your family.”
Keys, who previously served in the Hattiesburg Police Department, explained that all police officers aren’t bad guys, but they are trained to protect themselves.
Questions continued after the forum formally ended, so USM’s Dr. Marcus Coleman spoke to participants about continuing the conversation in the community. Coleman says he then began planning a five-week initiative of empathy training with “intentional conversations about difficult topics.”
The first day of empathy training included 12 participants gathered at St. Paul Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, a historic site that housed freedom school during Freedom Summer, the 1964 voter registration project in Mississippi.
“You can teach different people how to be empathetic and to speak with empathy. With that, you have a greater ability to build relationships,” said Coleman.
Several years ago, Coleman attended the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, where he received training on issues concerning African-American communities and how to better resolve them using empathy.
It wasn’t long before word about the five-week empathy training caught the attention of of Lt. Chris Johnson, assistant director of police training at the Hattiesburg Police Department.
Johnson, associated with the academy for 14 years, has always emphasized empathy scenarios and video models when training prospective law enforcement officers on how to conduct themselves. So the Hattiesburg Police Department partnered with Coleman last October for a five-day workshop during the three weeks of refresher courses for five officers wishing to transfer to the HPD.
We wanted to enhance the education of “empathy, compassion and the understanding of the needs of the people” in our city, said Johnson.
“I am an advocate of any training that produces a more effective and community-driven police force,” said Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. “The current headlines remind us that we are in a time where both empathy and de-escalation training are greatly needed as each aim to build relationships, relatability and trust between officers and the communities they serve.”
Johnson hopes that other police departments will model Hattiesburg’s partnership with outside experts in the training of empathy and understanding. National Healing Day calls for the bridging of gaps in communities by religion, race, ethnicity, sexual identity and even law enforcement and the citizens they protect.
To find our more or participate in local healing day events go to http://www.dayofracialhealing.com/.