Community Members Say Empathy Is Key In Understanding Racial Tensions

Jul 12, 2016

President Barack Obama visited Dallas Tuesday in the aftermath of the killing of five officers protecting a Black Lives Matter protest last week. His comments since the event last Thursday have addressed racial tensions in that city and around the country.

Tackling issues of racial tensions has been part of a community dialog in DeKalb in recent months.

collage of recent gatherings of Beloved Community
Credit Beloved Community of DeKalb

Reggie Bates, a recent graduate of Northern Illinois University, was active in many organizations during his time at NIU, serving on the Student Association board and earning the title of Homecoming King. He says racial injustice is not just an urban problem. He says he has experienced many emotions in recent days.

“First, you are worried. And then, as things continue to happen, you get angry. And then you see a couple of good cops who finally stand up, right? Things become more optimistic," Bates said. "It’s a roller coaster of emotions that take place. And for me right now, as a young black male -- especially being an educated young black male -- right now, I’m honestly excited. Because it takes these moments that creates the change that you really need.”

Bates was heavily involved in the Black Male Initiative, which works to increase graduation rates among male African-American students.

Montgomery Proffit is a junior communications major who grew up on the south side of Chicago.

He says he does not want to stay in a place of anger.

“We’ve had a lot of sparks. Trayvon Martin was a spark. All the police shootings that happened in years past were sparks. I feel like what has happened this week was the accelerant that we needed to unify.”

Hospitality As A Backdrop For Conversation

Both men are involved in community conversations organized by a group called the Beloved Community, inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

People of different faiths and backgrounds have been meeting over potlucks to discuss issues facing the community. Titles aren’t promoted at these events. So police officers and political leaders often attend but don’t stand out. Organizer Beth Campen says that has been intentional to facilitate honest talk. She says that, by the end of the night, a person may not realize it was the mayor or the police chief they were talking with.

“We’ve all had ‘aha’ moments at different times. And we get even more ‘aha’ moments," Campen said. "They don’t happen if we’re not in touch with each other and talking to each other. So hope, to me, has always been an important thing -- no matter how dark things are. But then, I’m not African-American. You know, when I look at that, and I think, ‘Well I have hope, but I don’t know how it feels to be my friends.’”

Reggie Bates says there is a uniting trait in creating a common understanding.

“Honestly, empathy. You know, that is a very, very huge token. And if you cannot be empathetic – if you have not had these experiences – then it’s just simply humbly trying to understand those experiences,” Bates said.

  “Conversation truly opens up the door to change. Make sure you leave that conversation with a call to action. You know, ‘What do we do from here, me and you?’ Not generalizing it, because we do that oh so much -- especially on social media, where one person speaks for the entire nation. It’s like ‘No. Speak for yourself. What can you do? What can you and whoever you are personally talking to do to make something better?'”

-- Reggie Bates, Beloved Community

Montgomery Profitt says he hasn’t lost hope in a more peaceful future.

“I’ve always believed that I always have to elevate, really," he said, "so I’ve never lost that fire. There’s always been a fire inside of me. I don’t know how or how it keeps going, in all seriousness. But it stays inside of me.”

Finding The Right Words

The events around the country have led to confusion for some as they process how to open a dialog among people of different life experiences. Reggie Bates says part of the solution involves being open to sharing life experiences.

“We care too much about ‘Man, what are you going to think? What are you going to say?’ You have to go for it," he said. "You know, there’s a quote that we use: ‘Uncomfortability is the gateway to growth.’ It’s just that simple. You have to embrace that uncomfortable moment. Because if you live your life comfortably, you know, the entire time, then you have not grown. Well, you’ve just wasted life. You’ve not developed anything. What are you going to give somebody if you have not learned anything?”

Beth Campen says there is also a responsibility to go beyond conversation alone:

“But you know, if you don’t take a stand, it doesn’t matter how -- whatever it is you are in your head and how you think you are -- because you’re afraid it’s going to hurt your kids; you’re afraid it’s going to hurt whatever. You have to make a stand,” Campen said.

She believes the model being used in DeKalb focusing on the "hospitality" behind each conversation could be used in other cities across the country.

The Beloved Community will hold a community gathering later this month at Hopkins Park. Organizers say the focus isn't about counting how many people are in attendance, but making sure there is a space to keep the conversation going.