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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Graduate Students Take Part in Semester-Long Simulated Advocacy around Racial Justice

The human rights movement has a stake in every part of society. While we often emphasize its global or transnational dimensions, the ways in which human rights are promoted and protected locally and nationally are just as important, for they underscore what advancements we can and must all make in our very own communities. With this in mind, it is worthwhile to consider one particular group’s experience in studying racial justice in the Twin Cities. This is their story:


Under the guidance of Program Director Barb Frey, a team of 15 dedicated graduate students took part in a human rights advocacy seminar this past semester, working on a case study aimed at bringing greater awareness and support to the local Black Lives Matter movement. The class, equipped with a diverse set of skills and experiences, tasked itself with addressing the problem of police discrimination against the African-American community.  The students first immersed themselves in learning about the scope and nature of human rights violations related to policing in the Black community.  The group took into account the formation and history of the Black Lives Movement and considered how they, as human rights advocates, could play a positive role in eliminating excessive use of force against black communities. The shooting of Jamar Clark, a young African-American man, by two white police officers, provided them with a specific case to examine.

Ethnically and nationally diverse, the class began the semester aware of the fact that none of them had walked in the shoes of the African-Americans living in North Minneapolis. To gain a better perspective, the class reached out to different groups in the community, including the Black Liberation Project, staff members of the Robert Jones Urban Research and Outreach Center of UMN (located adjacent to the 4th precinct police station), and community leaders, including Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, President of Minnesota’s NAACP, and Don Samuels, North Minneapolis resident and member of the city’s School Board. It was from this outreach and consultation that the students began to understand their role in the movement as researchers, as facilitators, and as auditors.

While the first part of the class was dedicated to gaining a better understanding of the situation, the next step was putting into practice what they had learned. Forming a simulated non-profit organization, “Sonder,” (a word that has been defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”), the class split into three groups, each of which worked to form a draft proposal that for review and simulated funding pitch to a foundation program officer.

The first group understood that, to make effective change, the movement must have a source of data to support their claims, which to this point does not exist. Their proposal, therefore, was to begin a pilot program to document and study fatal police office shootings in the local community—a three fold project. First, they sought to create a reliable and replicable model for collecting data on the facts surrounding police shootings that result in a death, as well as the procedures the followed and the ensuing investigations Second, they aimed to identify, through direct engagement, the local community’s expectations regarding policing and investigative procedures. Finally, using the information they have gathered, they believed it vital to construct a searchable database of the recommendations and investigative procedures associated with fatal, police-officer-involved shootings.

The second team, in comparison, emphasized the social dimension of the movement and sought to begin a reconciliation project. Titled “Bridge,” the goal of their proposal was to bring together the law enforcement and black communities of North Minneapolis to foster a better relationship and to dismantle dangerous norms, perceptions, and mistrusts that have developed over the decades. A community-driven program, this group believed that they would best serve as a facilitator of weekly discussions, beginning a series of positive interactions centered on education, partnership, and collaboration. 

The final group worked to leverage their contacts with transnational actors to bring added scrutiny to U.S. police investigations.  Thus, the “Minnesota Protocol in the United States project” provided directly to the research and recommendation process of bringing the United States—and by extension Minnesota and Minneapolis—into compliance with The Minnesota Protocol: a set international human rights standards for the investigation of extrajudicial killings and deaths in police custody. These guidelines were created by the local NGO, The Advocates for Human Rights, and have seen much success around the world in measuring the adequacy of investigation procedures in potentially unlawful killings.

As the semester came to a close, it was time for the students to put their proposals and weeks-long research and investigations into practice through a simulated funding proposal process. Each team met with visiting expert Mark Lindberg, University of Minnesota alumnus and Director of the Relief, Recovery, and Development Branch of the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, who played the role of the Ford Foundation program officer.  Mr. Lindberg led each team through an examination of their programmatic ideas through a series of questions touching on their capacity, their philosophy, partnerships, and projected deliverables.

The semester project made an impact on those involved. As one student noted, “We have gained a better insight into the ways in which Black Lives Matter not only has created change in our local community but also has brought about a greater awareness of the many important dimensions of the issue that must be addressed.” While each individual in the course spent much of their time working in a single group on a single aspect of police brutality, they perhaps most importantly learned that the effective promotion of human rights requires pressure from all directions.  Successful advocacy includes facilitating discussions, building a collective vision, reviewing laws, policies and procedures, gathering adequate information, collaborating with affected communities and other actors, and leveraging for change based on our strengths and assets. 

This class has planted some seeds for positive change in human rights-based policing in African-American communities.  Everyone involved now understands better the challenges facing the Black Lives Movement and has some new ideas and motivations for solidarity with it.