Rapid Blog: The power of collective voice: Speaking up, speaking out, and making real change

"Empathy and the commitment of not violating one’s dignity is where I believe we can find real, tangible solutions." In this week's Rapid Blog, Grand Rapids Second Ward Commissioner Joe Jones discusses empathy, community engagement, and the power of speaking up.
This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Joe Jones, who currently serves as President/CEO of your Grand Rapids Urban League. The League is a 74-year old civil rights organization whose mission is to provide the means to empower African Americans and other minorities to achieve economic self-reliance, parity and civil rights. Born in Detroit, Joe has served as a grassroots organizer an has been an entrepreneur. He proudly serves as a Grand Rapids City Commissioner, and is the first black Commissioner to serve the Second Ward. Joe earned his bachelor’s degree at Oakland University, and has a MA in Ministry Leadership from Cornerstone University.

To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness. – Emile Durkheim

In Grand Rapids there is a cloud. Not just any cloud, but I’ll call it a mushroom cloud. When one thinks of a mushroom cloud, a nuclear explosion is what comes to mind. Mushroom clouds can be caused by powerful conventional weapons and even volcanic eruptions.

What has erupted in our beloved city is the voice of the people. Simultaneously, the voice of the police force has erupted too. The powerful weapon of choice being used is words. Words injure. Words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, like an arrow released from a bow. It’s been said, “Words are powerful. They can create or they can destroy. So choose your words.” This tells me that we have a choice as a city, as a complex community. We have a choice in how we’re going to respond to these eruptions.

For many of us who have spent decades in the work of community change and systems change, what we’re seeing in Grand Rapids is nothing new. In fact, we’re seeing this play out in cities across the country. The narratives of all involved are similar to the narrative playing out across the country. The people want to have voice in how they’re being policed and law enforcement wants to be respected and lauded for doing their job. There’s just one problem that seems to stand in the way of real progress: the inability to give credence to history, the lived experience of a marginalized people, and the practice of empathy and mutual respect.

I do not present these impediments as a means of making excuses. No, I present them as a means of trying to provide context so that we can get a better understanding of how we got to this place of eruption, this cloudy disposition that we finds ourselves in. What do you do with the historical context provided by Yale law professor and author Stephen Carter who says, “most historians nowadays accept that among the direct precursors to the modern police force were the slave-catching patrols of the old South. That doesn't mean that other events had no influence. It does mean that we need to understand the patrols to understand where we are now.”

Do we ignore those words or toss them into the trash as fodder for race-baiting or do we acknowledge them as valuable pieces of information that help to inform our current state? In this same 2015 Bloomberg View article entitled, “Policing and Oppression Have A Long History,” Mr. Carter concludes with the kind of attitude that should be infectious when he says, “As I said at the outset, my point certainly isn't to criticize police forces of today. But it's crucial for all of us, of every color, to recognize how each new incident of brutality constitutes a fresh and painful brushstroke on a canvas that the nation has been painting for centuries.”

What do we do with the lived experience of historically marginalized people, especially African Americans, who have experienced generations of being over-policed? What do you say to someone who has had limited, if any, positive interaction with law enforcement as they’ve grown up in a poor neighborhood?

I’ve actually taken the time to speak with and engage residents throughout our city regarding their feelings towards police. It was no surprise that the responses varied. There are many people of color who see the value of police. They recognize the very difficult job they have to do and there’s a sentiment of empathy and sympathy. The consistent or recurring theme that I’ve heard is that they only wish the police would be willing to engage more and not be so “fearful” or “afraid” of people of color.

There’s a feeling that Black people and other people of color are being stereotyped. This brings me to something the police recently intimated in their press release concerning the rebuttal of the Traffic Stop Study regarding the type of community conversation they long for, one where there’s “mutual respect for everyone, as humans, as neighbors and as people with common goals.” Their desire is to engage in these conversations without any “emotional outcries,” and I tend to believe that an essential and necessary part of healing is when one can speak and be heard, even if it's riddled with emotion.

I would offer law enforcement the same license: speak, be heard, even if it’s riddled with emotion. Your lived experience as a police officer is fraught with trauma, stress, and constant scrutiny. It can’t be easy for you, but as I’ve also heard during my conversations in community, a police officer is a public servant and policing is a job. The people want to identify with you as a fellow human, and they desire to be seen in the same way.

This is where empathy comes into play. Empathy and the commitment of not violating one’s dignity is where I believe we can find real, tangible solutions. As an elected official, one of my responsibilities is to create and oversee policy that provides the best opportunity for citizens to experience their desired quality of life. I see intrinsic value in policy, but I see even greater potential in the power of people together, in community, working towards the creation of a space and place that values equity, justice, and peace.

I’m in constant pursuit of peace, not just for myself but for my community and all who inhabit it. There are some who believe this is unattainable, a community where police and residents of all ethnic backgrounds, religions, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and socio-economic status are free to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Where there’s the assumption that others have integrity.

If I had it my way, the urban core of Grand Rapids would be devoid of police presence because of an unwavering commitment by the people to police our own communities. Not only should we aspire to do this, but we must also commit ourselves to creating real opportunities for our children and for others in our community to thrive. We have to engage in the work of community change by first of all being present in the community. We must avail ourselves and lend all of our gifts, talents, and resources collectively to provide uplift for any and all who desire to do and experience better. I believe if there were greater prosperity and access to opportunity in the urban core of Grand Rapids, there would be a reduction in crime.

Perhaps in the eyes of many this goal is unattainable, but as for me in my role as head of your Grand Rapids Urban League and Second Ward City Commissioner, I’m committed and unapologetic in my pursuit of helping to create a Grand Rapids with less clouds, especially the mushroom variety.