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Sultan panel at Bristol Community College

Sultan moderated a panel about unpacking assumptions at Bristol Community College.

Photo courtesy of Aisha Sultan

Demetrice Phillips is telling an auditorium filled with students about a sensitive disagreement he has with his wife.

Whenever news breaks about another police officer-involved shooting anywhere in the country, she wants him to talk to their two young boys about what to do if they are ever stopped by the police. They are African American children, and she worries about their safety.

Phillips isn’t ready to have that talk with his sons, ages 8 and 3.

He’s a professor of business administration at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, where he’s sharing this story as part of a panel.

He’s also a cop.

He says his day-to-day experiences with his fellow officers are so different than what he sees in the news. “They are fathers, husbands, just like me. We’re not looking to harm anybody,” he said.

He understands his wife’s fears, and is well aware of the controversial incidents involving police officers. But he’s not ready to go there with his children.

This was part of an emotional and difficult conversation, which I was invited to moderate, about race, identity and the assumptions we have about other people. Previously, I guided the same kind of discussion at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

Both times, I was struck by the diversity of perspectives leading the discussion. A white woman talked about her response in incidents when her partner, a woman of color, is mistreated in front of her. A white mother talked about how she feels when she sees her biracial child ostracized. An African American woman shared her experience with a high school classmate who went off on her, using the n-word multiple times. She says she “read her like filth” in return. The principal refused to punish the classmate for her verbal attack and racist slurs because she had reacted to them. A middle-aged white man, a veteran, talked about having vastly different political views than most of his peers and family members. An immigrant learning English described the reaction one of her fellow students had when she scored the highest on a math exam.

“How is that possible when you can’t even speak English?” the classmate asked.

Each person revealed complex, often painful experiences, based on the assumptions and alienation that most Americans are reluctant to discuss. It makes sense that these conversations were hosted by community colleges, which by their missions, admit any and all people who want a higher education. They are set up to be inherently diverse, and the statistics bear this out.

About 8.7 million undergraduates were enrolled in public two-year colleges in 2016-17. In fall 2017, 44% of Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, compared with 35% of black students and 31% of white students. Overall, 34% of undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Maria Cormier, a senior research associate at CCRC, said that some level of tension is bound to surface when people coming from so many different backgrounds and walks of life come together to learn. The students themselves tend to have more life experience and complex lives outside of school.

“It’s fair to say community colleges increasingly realized that, in the face of low completion rates, there needs to be some acknowledgment of the challenges facing their students,” she said. This includes addressing issues like food and housing insecurity, and improving the environment around diversity and inclusion.

Martha Parham, senior vice president for public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said equity is directly tied to student success.

“That’s a big part of our agenda,” she said.

Sharing personal experiences help advance that understanding, and community colleges can lead the way for other higher education institutions to foster those connections.

Phillips told the audience about taking his children to birthday parties and athletic events and encountering other parents’ assumptions.

Once, he dropped his eldest daughter off at a birthday party and came back a short time later. A white mother of another guest met him at the front door and said, “What are you doing here? Who are you?”

He explained that he was the father of a guest, and her demeanor changed.

“Before I was a police officer, I’m a black male,” he said. “It’s kind of a weird world I live in.”

We experience it in different ways, but we all live in this weird world together.