Cultivating Thriving Communities: Fostering Dignity Through Equitable Representation

Diverse group of adults in a community center

Although not a new phenomenon, over the last decade the public has witnessed a number of victims of color die at the hands of police officers. This has magnified an ongoing conversation about the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, as well as what it means to cultivate peaceful communities.

Watch a recording of the event.

A two-part roundtable discussion hosted by the AIR Equity Initiative explored efforts to enhance equitable public safety and policing experiences that promote safe communities for all. Part one of this discussion led with the question, “What is your vision of a peaceful community?” The second part of the series pushed the conversation forward by asking, “How might we cultivate peaceful communities for all?” In this discussion, panelists highlighted the importance of deep and meaningful engagement with communities to strengthen research, practice, and investment strategies in public safety and policing.

Nicholas Sensley, founder and CEO of the Institute for American Police Reform and an AIR Equity Initiative grantee, moderated the discussion. Roundtable panelists included Nancy Cantor, a member of the AIR Board of Directors and chancellor of Rutgers University, Newark; Phillip Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and professor of African American Studies and Psychology at Yale University; and Iliana Pujols, policy director at the Connecticut Justice Alliance and a youth policy consultant with the American Youth Policy Forum.


Putting the Public Back into Public Safety

Learn more about how the AIR Equity Initiative is addressing justice in public safety and policing.

Sensley, a former police chief in California, emphasized that change in the public safety and policing space must be “from the community up and the community forward,” a concept Cantor described as “putting the public back into public safety.” Cantor explained that communities are ecosystems affected by multiple dimensions of inequity, such as housing, education, employment, health, and environmental justice. Therefore, she said, diverse representation, engagement, and empowerment of all parts of the community are essential for addressing inequitable public safety and policing experiences.


Pujols cautioned that community partnerships and collaboratives avoid the common pitfalls of tokenizing community representatives and fostering relationships that are purely transactional, which can cause more harm than good. She called for an honest assessment of the barriers to community-police engagement and being “realistic about the past.” She added, “There [are] a lot of things to be hashed out and discussed when it comes to the history behind policing, and how they serve primarily communities of color.”


Redefining the Issue

Policing is how we have chosen to deal with our most vulnerable when their crises’ result in … our inconveniences.

- Phillip Goff

Another layer of involving community members in addressing public safety and policing lies in reconceptualizing the issue as more than just “policing” or “individual-level bias at the officer level,” Goff said. Rather, he offered, the issue is structurally and institutionally rooted in America's history of slavery. There also is a need to acknowledge and account for how factors such as housing, mental health, and education can contribute to crises that cross into public safety and policing. Goff noted, “Policing is how we have chosen to deal with our most vulnerable when their crises’ result in … our inconveniences.”

Reframing the issue as structural and institutional can help stakeholders gain a clearer understanding of both how a community has experienced this issue in the past and what needs they have now. In practice, this helps facilitate greater community ownership that favors restorative over punitive approaches—helping to address root issues, streamline the scope of police duties, and better align municipal spending and resource allocations with community needs, Goff said.


Working with Communities, Not on Them

“[I]f we're going to have peaceful communities, we have to believe in the community and believe in its power,” Cantor said. In the quest to cultivate peaceful, thriving communities, whether it is through research, practice, or investment, communities should be engaged as partners, not subjects.

[I]f we're going to have peaceful communities, we have to believe in the community and believe in its power.

- Nancy Cantor

Cantor gave an example of how community organizations and members are working together to bolster research and improve practice by contextualizing crime data to inform the development of more effective public safety solutions. Community organizations involved in the Newark Public Safety Collaborative help to improve the quality and actionability of research aimed at understanding and reducing violent crime in Newark, New Jersey. Community members receive data about where and what types of crime is occurring in the city and engage with the Collaborative to develop community-relevant solutions. Such efforts have led to the development of solutions to increase public safety in specific areas that need them.

Pujols echoed Cantor, arguing for “putting [people[ who have shared those [lived] experiences and have actually been impacted by the system at the forefront of the work and having them be part of decision-making conversations.” She also suggested that funders can play a role in ensuring community members have an active part in these efforts by paying careful attention to the partnerships they support, the impacts of the work, and how the initiatives will hold themselves accountable for the outcomes they say they will achieve.

Moving Forward

The topic of public safety and policing is contentious, but the notion that individuals and communities, regardless of race or place, have a right to equal treatment under the law should not be. The two panels offered evidence that we are falling short of this goal and outlined evidence-informed approaches to move toward realizing this ideal. Some of the steps for moving in that direction include:

  • Establishing a shared understanding of the history of policing in this country and its negative impact, particularly for communities of color, to accurately contextualize where we are today;
  • Developing a common understanding of the issues we face—with an emphasis on addressing the root causes;
  • Increasing alignment around values and priorities to measure and act on the things that matter; and
  • Truly listening to communities, taking care to incorporate the voices and experiences of those who have been marginalized and overlooked.

The AIR Equity Initiative invites you to continue with us on this journey and share this discussion with your colleagues. Are there other steps that you would add to this list? Connect with us on LinkedIn and Twitter using the hashtag #AIR4Equity to keep the conversation going and share your thoughts and experiences.