Community Conversations: MIT Students and Police

In his Charge to the Graduates of 2015, MIT President Rafael Reif once again called on the graduates to “hack the world” to make it a little more like MIT: more humble, more respectful, more generous and more kind. More rigorous, inventive, and ambitious. One of the examples he shared was he students who took the spirit of “Black Lives Matter” one step further by reaching out and meeting with the MIT and Cambridge Police, so they could learn from one another. This blog entry tells that story.

Less than one month after the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore Police officers, MIT students, MIT Police, and Cambridge Police met in a facilitated community conversation over dinner on May 7. The event was the initiative of MIT junior Alyssa Napier and received the support of many campus groups including the Black Students’ Union, the MIT Police, the Ombuds Office, the MIT Chaplains, the Office of Minority Education, the Student Activities Office, and the Institute Community and Equity Office. It was the concluding event in a series of Black Lives Matter events held at MIT this academic year.

The riots that erupted in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death shocked and dismayed many people, as did last summers’ riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Strains in the wider US society have impacted college campuses including MIT. The response by the MIT community has been to use its problem-solving and learning-by-doing skills to make a positive contribution to relations between police and people of color (black, Hispanic or Latino, Native American, Asian American).

The Community Conversations event was facilitated by MIT Ombudsperson Toni Robinson and was oriented around helping students and police better understand each other as human beings. Campus and Cambridge police officers shared their experience growing up and on the field, in trainings they receive and give, and in how that affects what happens in their policing. Students shared their experiences with the police; in one instance, a black student shared what it was like being the grandson of a policeman. Participants listened thoughtfully to each other and learned across their differences. The Cambridge Police were especially pleased to participate in a respectful dialogue with students of color, as this kind of constructive opportunity is out of the ordinary for them. The vulnerability, honesty and kindness shown by all was uplifting.

Attendance to the event was limited and the room was packed with about 30 people. Although I was unable to attend the event, the post-event debriefing made clear that the event succeeded in its goal of increasing understanding and decreasing the tensions and mistrust that results from stereotyping. It was the first significant organized dialogue between police and students at MIT in many years. Participants left with a sense of hope and excitement about continuing work to build bridges of understanding this summer and next academic year. Future events will follow.

Community Conversations was a great example of “One Community Together In Service” at MIT.

Event sponsored by BlackLivesMatter:OneMIT

1 Comment

  1. Mark Reed

    As a white man with Tourette’s syndrome, I too have been stopped by police for no apparent reason. Although I certainly don’t claim that my hardships are the same as those endured by black men in America, I like to think that one blessing of my hardships is that I can better understand and empathize with various groups of oppressed and marginalized people. Here’s my story:


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