Chicago conversations on MLK Day lay groundwork to rebuild battered trust

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Confidentiality. Respect. Honesty. Inclusivity. These are vital to building trust among people, and they were the ground rules for Chicago’s “peace circle” conversations hosted by Public Allies and others that brought more than 140 people together in January.

Outside the temperature hovered around 0 degrees, but inside Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center, 140 people gathered to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the warmth of human conversation.

Among the attendees were a dozen members of the Chicago Police Department, an organization that in the last year has found itself under intense media scrutiny for a series of scandals concerning alleged abuses of power.

The event, organized through a partnership between Public Allies Chicago, Community Justice for Youth Institute, and Bridging the Divide Program, presented a daylong opportunity for Chicago youth, community members, and police officers to build trust by participating in confidential small-group conversations, also known as “peace circles.”

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A Chicago Police Officer has opportunity to listen to a community member’s point of view.

“We don’t want to pretend that these conversations will solve the problem,” says Cory Muldoon, Public Allies Chicago Deputy Director. “But this is definitely a part of the process, and they help all of us to identify the realities that need to be addressed.

“We chose to honor the legacy of Dr. King by bringing people together and allowing them to communicate with each other in ways that are not possible in other settings.”

Kathy Bankhead, a former prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, expressed optimism about the power of the conversations to sow a small seed of trust among differing groups.

“I think that this conversation,” she says, “knowing what it’s like from the police officer’s perspective, learning what it’s like from the community’s perspective, the young person’s perspective, what it feels like on the street for both those parties, and having us all come together to talk about that, I think that that really is the beginning of making a difference.”

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Our AmeriCorps Allies Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Kahari Sylvian-Blackburn participated in the daylong peace circles. Trina: “It was good to hear police officers, U Chicago social work students, young people in guidance programs, all in the same room and talking about their vision for our community.” Kahari: “Today was very positive, it gave a lot of different generations a platform to speak on the same topic together, and relate to each other.”

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