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We could have been Ferguson
Black citizens, law officers gather, listen to concerns at 'Beloved Community' meeting
Beloved Community - TRAINING 3
During training, Beloved Community facilitators and organizers, clockwise from left, Dr. Stacy Smallwood, Dr. Mary Felton, Sheila Francois, the Rev. Jane Page and Danyel Addes, hold a small-group listening session for practice. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

“What were your feelings or reactions to incidents like the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland?”
Imagine Statesboro and Bulloch County law enforcement officers sitting down with African American citizens, including high school and college-age young people, to answer questions like that. Imagine that everyone gets time to speak uninterrupted and that the focus is on listening rather than responding.
Imagine more localized questions including, “What are your perceptions of relationships between law enforcement and African American communities here in Bulloch County?”
An eight-hour day of facilitated group listening took place a week ago at the Statesboro Food Bank. In all, 42 people attended the August 1 gathering. Besides the organizers, there were 14 officers from the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, the Statesboro Police Department and Georgia Southern University Public Safety, as well as 14 community representatives, including seven in the student age bracket.
This is neither a grant project nor the idea of any outside organization. It was started locally and planned over the past eight months by the Beloved Community Steering Committee.
Three people with records of community service launched the committee. The first to suggest it was Joe Bill Brannon, at 77 the unpaid, full-time operations director of Statesboro’s Food Bank.
After the death of Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old shot Aug. 9, 2014, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Brannon thought that something was needed to ease tensions here.
“We could have been Ferguson, you know,” Brannon said. “I wanted to see somebody start a proactive process of some kind. I wanted somebody to do something so even if we had an incident like that happen here in Statesboro, at least we could have a clear conscience that we were trying to do something.”
He talked to the Rev. Jane Page, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro. Next they brought in Johnny Tremble, the Food Bank Inc.’s president. A deacon at Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church and well known as a retired principal and an educator of teachers, Tremble became the first African American on the committee.
Next they began talking to law enforcement.
“I figured that the ones who were going to be most reluctant were going to be law enforcement, but they were the most enthused because they saw right away the benefit,” Brannen said.

In search of hope
The steering committee grew to 18 members. One is Dr. Stacy Smallwood, who is a black, relatively young, assistant professor in Georgia Southern University’s College of Public Health.
Reports from around the country of the deaths of black men at the hands of police had grown personally overwhelming, Smallwood said. While plans for the project here were nearing completion, Samuel DuBose was shot to death July 19 by a white University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, who has now been charged with murder.
“The media is only reporting what is happening, and these are things that many people have known have been happening for the longest but now there is actual evidence to support the claims that many people have been making,” Smallwood said.
So he came to the process trying to restore some hope, he said. He described the listening sessions as an effort “to actually expose the problems, to talk about them, to get them out into the open” and not just discuss them in “our own little silos,” those limited circles of similar people.
“So what I saw last weekend was a group that was brave enough to open up that conversation, to broach difficult topics in the hopes that we can work toward a healthier community here,” Smallwood said. “That really is a lot of reason to inspire hope.”
He served as one of the seven facilitators for the small-group discussions. Each group also had a note taker.

Leading the discussion
Herb Walters from Burnsville, N.C., head of the nonprofit Listening Project, trained local facilitators in his method the Friday before the event, and oversaw their work the next day.
In the 1990s, Walters helped guide a two-day discussion in Croatia after ethnic warfare between the Serbians and Croats. He has since been involved in many projects in the Southeast.
His uses strict rules that forbid participants from criticizing or questioning one another’s statements or beliefs. Each person in a group of four gets three minutes to answer a specific question. Later, each small group reports to the full group.
Beloved Community Steering Committee members invited a reporter to the Friday evening training session with Walters, but not to the actual listening sessions the next day. Some thought that a news media presence would inhibit participants from speaking their minds.

Law enforcement views
Chief Deputy Jared Akins of the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office was both a steering committee member and a participant in the Saturday sessions.
“Anytime you have a chance to sit down and let folks give you an honest opinion about what they see and how they perceive different things you always walk away with a different take on things,” Akins said. “Our take as law enforcement was that we weren’t there to convert anybody to our way of doing things.”
However, the officers did have some things they wanted to explain about the policies they have to follow, how they have to handle situations, he said.
Akins learned that the Sheriff’s Office needs to make the public better aware of how complaints about officers’ actions are handled, he said.
“We have a very strict process with Internal Affairs and the complaints process – the Police Department does also and so does GSU – but I think that’s one thing that a lot of people just didn’t have an understanding of, so we realize now that we probably need to put that out there a little bit more,” Akins said.
The concluding large group discussion yielded “some pretty good working solutions” to improving the trust between the department and the community, Akins said. He mentioned the National Night Out, July 31, presented by several local police agencies, as an example of ongoing efforts.
Cpl. Justin Samples, the Statesboro Police Department’s public relations officer, is also a Beloved Community Steering Committee member. He wasn’t able to attend the sessions, but four other SPD officers did. Samples also noted that the department has taken steps of its own.
“We do a lot with the community programs that we have here at the P.D., but there’s always room for improvement, and there’s always more that the community can do as well,” Samples said. “We have an open-door policy here, and if they have questions or concerns, we’re open to hearing them.”
The Statesboro Police held a special town hall meeting in March. More recently, the Youth Citizens Police Academy concluded. Now, the annual Citizens Police Academy for people age 18 and up will begin Sept. 15, with a Sept. 1 deadline for applications. It doesn’t produce actual police officers, but provides 11 weeks of two-hour sessions, 6-8 p.m. Tuesdays with dinner provided, for people who want to learn more about how the police operate.
It usually fills to its 20 student capacity, Samples said.

Reaching more people
Another steering committee member, Sheila Francois, 24, brought a dual perspective.
She’s the Georgia NAACP’s state youth and college political action chair, but also the Statesboro Police Department’s first Georgia Southern University public relations intern. She graduated in May but continues in the role of unpaid liaison between the police department and GSU students.
Soon after the death of Michael Brown and prior to her role with the police department, Francois organized a campus forum called “Truth has No Color.” The Beloved Community effort serves a purpose beyond that forum and other events held in response to specific violence, she said.
“We’re striking different people to have conversations, to be open, with hopes of ultimately, over some years, that once we get enough people on board we can move change,” Francois said.
So far the project has succeeded in its goal simply because people listened without verbally attacking each other, Francois said.
“Yes, we listened to each other, but I don’t know if we got a better understanding,” she said. “I don’t know if this really affected anyone. We will only know over time.”
Steering committee member Danyel Addes, Georgia Southern’s coordinator of civic and community engagement, referred the early organizers to Walters’ organization, and reported the information on last Saturday’s attendance used in this story.
Mostly, people learned that they could communicate with each other, she said.
“There were some individual things that people learned,” Addes said. “For example, some of the officers talked about hearing community members’ perceptions that there is a problem, or that they were fearful at times, and that being something that felt significant, sitting across from people and hearing them say that.”
Twenty individuals and organizations gave money to make the program possible, Addes said. The cost, according to Brannon, was about $2,000.
Now the committee will hold a Wednesday debriefing for all participants as they plan for where the effort goes from here. Also, a potluck social is being planned.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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