by Zoe Weil
I am a humane educator, a person dedicated to creating a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world through education. This past week’s killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers underscore the necessity of educating a generation of solutionaries who have the capacity and the will to prevent such violence from continuing into the future.
This morning I did what I want students in classrooms to do. I explored the interconnected systems that perpetuate violent deaths to determine major points of leverage to address them.
On a white board I visually created a mind map linking the many interconnected systems that contributed to the deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers and the subsequent death of five other police officers. Here’s what it looked like:
In the center are the seven deaths. The surrounding boxes represent systems. The bullet points represent some of the problems within those systems, and the lines show where there are connections between the systems and the deaths.
I then considered what were the major leverage points for preventing violence in the future, (specifically toward black men by some police officers and toward police by some mentally disturbed and enraged black men), and I put a star in those boxes.
While I wanted to put a star in the gun control box (because I believe that meaningful gun control will ultimately prevent the preponderance of violent deaths), I know that this won’t happen without first addressing other systems. (And possibly, if these other systems are addressed effectively, gun control measures might not even be necessary.)
Not surprisingly, given my life’s work, I put a star in the educational system box. I also put stars in the political system box; the justice, legal, and prison systems box; and the police training system box.
Why these systems?
First and foremost, the educational system is fundamental to all the others. Without excellent and equitable education that ensures that every child graduates not only literate and numerate, but also with proficient critical-, creative-, strategic-, and systems-thinking skills, and with deeply fostered values of empathy, integrity, responsibility, and kindness, we cannot hope to create wise, compassionate, systemic changes.
Education is the most significant key to ending racism; to transforming our political system into one that is functional, collaborative, and solutions-focused; to developing research skills and teamwork for problem-solving; and ultimately for ensuring that all the other systems on the mind map are equitable, healthy, and sustainable.
The political system offers another leverage point, because if we can shift from polarization toward problem-solving; from gerrymandering toward collaboration; from ceding political office to the highest bidder toward real democracy, then we stand a chance of creating better and more effective laws that balance the protection of individual rights with the protection of our citizenry as a whole.
The justice, legal, and prison systems rose to the top because the U.S. currently incarcerates 25% of the world’s prison population, even though we have only 5% of the world’s population, and our lower levels of social services and mental health care for those living in poverty mean that prisons become the places we often institutionalize the mentally ill.
Further, race-related inequity in prison sentences; prison time for such infractions as failure to pay fines; sentences for minor drug offenses; and a host of other factors that lead to prison time, perpetuate inequity, injustice, rage, fear, and poverty. And with our penal system’s punitive focus, rather than a rehabilitation and educational focus, already-disenfranchised inmates face high recidivism rates. And because these ex-inmates are easily able to obtain guns upon release, the fear that leads to police shootings in confrontations is exacerbated.
Changes in police training – an area with which I’m admittedly least knowledgeable – seem to me to also offer significant opportunities for positive shifts, especially under the leadership of primarily black police officers, such as former police chief Donald Grady II.
You may or may not find that my leverage points reflect your own thinking. That doesn’t matter.
What matters is that, individually and collectively, we engage in this systems-thinking, strategy-oriented, and solutions-focused process, and that we teach young people to do this in schools.
What matters is that we resist simplistic either/or responses and avoid pursuing information that only reinforces our already-established beliefs, confirming our existing biases and preventing new and better ideas from taking root.
I offer the following humane education-inspired steps that each of us can take today, tomorrow, and in the weeks, months, and years ahead so that events like those that occurred this past week become rare instead of routine. None represent brand new ideas; none are panaceas, and none offer quick solutions. Yet collectively I believe that they offer us a meaningful path toward building a less violent future.
A. Commit to listening and learning
1. As a privileged white woman, I offer this heartfelt plea to other white Americans: commit to listening to the voices of black Americans who live with the legacy of centuries of racism, oppression, and injustice. Resist the tendency to assume that because racism isn’t as acute as it was during slavery or Jim Crow, or that because we twice elected Barack Obama to the presidency, that it no longer exists and isn’t a significant factor in the deaths of black men by police.
2. Seek out, listen to, and converse with people who have different perspectives than yours, and don’t assume that they are racist because they are focused on the shootings of the Dallas police rather than on the black victims of police shootings, or that they are un-American if they are focused on gun control and holding police accountable. No name-calling. No vitriol. Listen, learn, and share your perspectives with respect, so you can learn from and challenge each other.
3. Seek out media that does not confirm your existing bias. Commit to reading, watching, and listening to differing perspectives.
B. Commit to finding solutions and taking action
1. Create your own mind maps with groups of people with varying perspectives and ideas. Determine your own points of leverage. Choose one area and create an action plan to take concrete steps to influence change. Follow through with your plan.
2. Engage in democracy. This may sound trite and simplistic given the problems with our democracy, but we have no democracy at all if we don’t engage with it. Contact your elected officials. Express your specific suggestions and ideas for change. Support collaborative- and solutionary-focused candidates with viable policy platforms and realistic plans for reaching out to others for feasible positive changes.
3. Participate in the educational system. You do not have to be a teacher, school administrator, student, or parent to have a voice. Every citizen has a role to play in transforming education so that it is solutionary-focused and helps students harness their own capacities to address racism and violence in the U.S. (and beyond).
Until and unless we prepare students for their critical roles in solving these pervasive and entrenched problems we will be limiting our most powerful capacity to create a more just and healthy future.
4. Put your particular skills and knowledge to use. If you are in law, law enforcement, or corrections, direct your knowledge and expertise toward meaningful solutions rather than side-taking. This may be difficult and feel risky, but now is your time to be a hero. Speak out with your best ideas.
If you are a teacher, create lesson plans to bring these thorny, complex problems to your students so they can work together to find answers through good research, deep thinking, and committed problem-solving.
If you are a social worker or psychologist, bring your expertise to help the public understand and resist our tendencies to polarize, think simplistically, and confirm our own biases. Bring people of different races and backgrounds together to listen and learn from one another and build bridges of understanding, empathy, and solidarity.
Whatever your work, profession, or field of expertise, commit to using your knowledge in a positive way to help our country come together with real answers, not soundbites.
Last night I drove past a church with a sign out front that read: “Pray for the families of the victims in Dallas.” I wanted to simultaneously shout with frustration and cry with sorrow.
That a church of all places would ask us to pray only for the families of the Dallas police and not also for the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, broke my heart and, momentarily, dashed my hopes for change.
Especially now, we must enlarge our capacity for empathy.
Yet even if this particular church were to have written on its sign, “Pray for all the families of the victims of this week’s terrible violence,” I would have still felt frustrated.
We must do more than pray. We must act.