Leaning into a Difficult Conversation with Portland’s Chief of Police

As the next step in the Waynflete Dialogue Project, the Portland Chief of Police Michael Sauschuck will speak  at an Upper School assembly on Tuesday, November 15. Two students, Najma Abdullahi ‘18 and Josh Lodish ‘17, will interview him on stage about the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation and in Portland. The assembly will be followed by an advising lunch dedicated to a dialogue about the issues raised in the assembly and what Chief Sauschuck had to say about them.

The assembly will take place one week after the highly contentious presidential election, a date that many are hoping will mark a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, while the election has highlighted painful divisions in our country and likely exacerbated them, it did not create them. Instead, it revealed multiple rifts that will exist long after the election until we find the means and muster the will to heal them.

One off the many divisions that has emerged is the racial divide in our country exemplified by the tensions nationwide between the police and the communities of color. At the funeral this past summer in Dallas for the five fallen officers, President Obama characterized the divide and challenge the nation faces as a result in this way:

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.

As a citizen, I take note of the fact that the President of the United States is concerned “that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.” As an educator, I worry about the effect of such divisions on the mindset of our young people. I wonder, with so much animosity and the threat of violence being expressed on this and too many other issues right now, how can we as adults guide the young people in our charge so that they can experience a legitimate sense of optimism that the center will indeed hold and that their futures will be bright?

The answer, it seems to me, is to engage youth as directly as possible in the real work of holding the center and creating a better future. We can do this by teaching them how, in the words of President Obama, to open our hearts to each other so that:

we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us…. With an open heart we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes… With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

Seeing the world through the eyes of others, recognizing the richness inherent in our different experiences, steadfastly avoiding the overheated rhetoric that turns fellow citizens into enemies – those are the goals of dialogue and describe the intent of the Waynflete Dialogue Project on which the school has embarked.

In Michael Sauschuck, we in Portland are fortunate to have a Chief of Police who wants to build bridges between law enforcement and all of the communities that his department serves. He told me that he wants to acknowledge problems, address concerns, and work collaboratively and transparently with community members towards solutions. He is especially interested in talking with young people and addressing whatever questions and concerns are on their minds. In short, in his visit to Waynflete, Chief Sauschuck is inviting our students into dialogue with him on one of the most difficult challenges of our time. In so doing, the Chief is sowing the seeds of a legitimate optimism that we can create a better future together not only in our youth but also in those of us who bear witness to the conversation.

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