Bettering community ties through multicultural liaisons
Nick Grossman could see it was the perfect storm.
Tensions were high on the Iowa State campus in early September 2015. Not only was it the annual Cy-Hawk game, when the ISU football team played its in-state rival Iowa, but the then controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump was visiting the game’s tailgates as well.
As Grossman, an Iowa State police officer, and fellow officer Detective Dwight Hinson, watched over the football officials, little did they know what was happening outside of the stadium’s gates. The simple act of ripping paper in the parking lot would be the first in a series of events that would launch the officers’ careers in another direction.
Despite Grossman’s radio sitting on his shoulder at full volume, the chaos created by thousands of fans, dozens of protesters and numerous presidential candidates in the tailgate lots was lost in the static buzzing in his ear.
It wasn’t until two days later, when Grossman worked his next shift for the university police department, that he got the full picture of what happened that day.
Students Against Bigotry, now Leaders United for Change or LUCHA, was protesting Trump’s negative comments about undocumented immigrants in the United States. And after watching the demonstration, one woman said a comment in support of white supremacy and ripped one of the student’s protest posters.
The simple act thrust the state of racism on Iowa State’s campus into the spotlight.
An open forum for students with administration members quickly followed the events of the Cy-Hawk tailgate, which revealed that many students of color did not feel safe and supported on campus. To help remedy this in part, LUCHA then suggested the creation of a multicultural police liaison program to better strengthen the relationship between students of color and ISU police.
With the backing of Student Government, the administration and the ISU Police Department, three officers were named as the new multicultural liaisons. Grossman, Hinson and officer Natasha Oren all volunteered to be multicultural liaisons and are working to develop the program along with others from the police department and the university.
To start their new roles, the three officers met with Kenyatta Shamburger, director of Multicultural Student Affairs, to discuss the needs of students. They also planned to reach out to various multicultural and students of color organizations to discuss what they would like to see out of the new program.
Carrie Jacobs, deputy chief of investigations and threat management services, said Iowa State administrators hope student groups will help drive what the multicultural liaison officer program will look like and exactly what the three officers’ roles are within the groups’ communities. Jacobs said the first thing ISU Police hopes to accomplish is to get the word to student groups about who the liaison officers are and figure out how they can help.
“I think this is what the students are wanting. They are wanting people to attend their functions. They are wanting people to engage in more conversations because they have concerns, and the only way to get at the problem is to talk about it,” Hinson said.
Hinson said he hopes to use sensitivity training as well as education — both teaching to and learning from students — while working as a liaison. He also envisions the program including seminars and presentations for students, faculty and staff on the subject of race, sex and religion.
“I think each group is going to have different things they’re going to want from us,” Jacobs said. “So the first thing we’re going to need to do is get together with these groups and find out what they need.”
Since the program was created during the fall, Hinson said the program has been slower to get off the ground than the officers would like. However, he said ISU Police wanted to take its time to ensure the program was well trained, transparent and inclusive.
The officers met with professionals and experts around the university who deal with diversity issues as well as attended the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity.
The Cy-Hawk tailgate protest and the ISU student activism to help create a more supportive, inclusive and safe environment for multicultural students is mirroring a larger national movement across college campuses.
Perhaps the most notable of the movements at universities happened during fall 2015 at the University of Missouri, even triggering an ISU Supports Mizzou protest at Iowa State. In response to discrimination at their school, students of color at Missouri protested and called for their president to resign.
Shamburger said issues of “isms” — whether it be racism, classism, ageism or other forms of discrimination — are not new at colleges around the country. He said, rather, the issues were elevated at Iowa State after the Cy-Hawk game and with the presidential election.
“I don’t think that this is a new fight,” Shamburger said. “I think it’s things that have been present for a while, and more and more people are now paying attention to them because I think in some instances it’s a little more prevalent or a little more open than it has been previously.”
More specifically at Iowa State, multiple students of color voiced concerns over their safety on campus at an open forum in September 2015. Nautalia Black, a member of LUCHA, felt passionately about student safety and said she was a driving force behind the suggestion and creation of multicultural police liaisons.
“It just kind of snowballed into ‘You know what? We’re not going to let this be a moment. We’re going to turn this into a movement,’” Black said.
While Black said she personally did not have any negative experience with law enforcement, many students of color or of other cultural backgrounds have to worry about whether they can trust police. Black said to improve this, officers should foster a sense of community and improve communication between multicultural students and police.
Jacobs agreed communication is key to improving the relationship between ISU Police Department and multicultural students on campus, especially in situations when there may be a language or cultural barrier as well as previous negative experiences with police.
Jacobs said one of these instances could be when international students get pulled over, they may get out of their car and walk toward police. Jacobs said this is sometimes an expectation in other countries, but is often taken as a safety threat by police officers in the United States. Additionally, she said members of the ISU community could have just a general fear of the police.
“It would be absolutely arrogant of me to sit here and tell you ‘well, we have a 100 percent safe campus and I can’t imagine anybody ever feeling unsafe,’” Jacobs said. “That simply is not true because my personal experiences are going to be a lot different than somebody else’s experiences, and we really need to bridge that gap because there is a gap and there is a need.”
In an effort to ensure each of the liaison officers would be working “from their heart,” Jacobs said the position was filled on a volunteer basis. ISU Police did not assign any of the three officers to the new program because it required additional time and effort outside of their normal duty hours.
Although newly appointed as a multicultural liaison officer, Hinson has served as an informal liaison to students of color for several years by speaking with student groups regularly. Both Oren and Grossman are new to the role.
New or experienced, ISU Police wanted to make sure all the officers in these new multicultural liaison roles have open personalities, are good listeners and are, in themselves, a diverse group.
Grossman said although he is a white man, his experience with international students at Iowa State would be much of what he contributes to the multicultural liaison program. Grossman also said he had traveled all over the world, another reason the new program piqued his interest.
“I do think this is a very progressive step,” Grossman said. “As long as you’re staying in touch with the community and, you know, you’re really able to view and hear a good cross-section of what the complaints are, I think that’s the important thing.”
Both Student Government and LUCHA decided its biggest goals for multicultural students on campus were for safety, education and empowerment. Despite much of the program needing to be designed, the creation of the liaison roles is a major step forward to achieve these goals for Iowa State.
Michael Snook, the 2015-16 speaker of Student Government’s Senate and current finance director, said police should be the “epitome of safety.” He said if the police department and multicultural community can form a better relationship, it should help these students feel safer on campus.
Student Government decided to get involved and recommended the creation of the multicultural liaison officer program to ensure multicultural students were being heard. To consider the program a success, Snook said the conversation about multicultural students’ relationship with police does not stop. Rather, it continues.
“Are we having those conversations in 10 years because another incident has occurred and we’re being reactive again?” Snook said. “Or are we continuing to meet because we know that this is not going to be over in five years, 10 years.
“We need to be continuing to meet and constantly working to improve the student experience for marginalized communities at Iowa State,” Snook said. “And that’s an ongoing effort so we should be meeting in 10 years. I think that’s what would be classified as a success.”
The role of the multicultural liaison officer remains a part-time position that the officers do on top of their duties as regular officers over a year after the program's inception. The officers would like to have a full time MLO, but currently the budget restricts this.
In an attempt to make their mission known, the three members of the MLO program – Natasha Oren, Dwight Hinson and Nick Grossman – have gone out of their way to speak to the diverse groups all around campus.
They kicked off this outreach with an open forum where they were faced with harsh criticism from ISU students and staff who didn’t trust the police. Some of these students were international students who came in with a perception of the police strictly taken from the news.
This past year, the multicultural liaison officers have constantly looked for trainings and conferences that could add to their perspective and make them more accountable in their position. One of the highlights, according to Natasha Oren, was when they attended the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, which was the largest training that they received.
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