'Courageous conversations' can transform community - Albuquerque Journal

‘Courageous conversations’ can transform community

Cathryn McGill, founder and director of the NM Black Leadership Council, has worked for more than a decade to transform the International District. Photographed in June 2020. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Part two of a two-part series

For the past year or so, the New Mexico Black Leadership Council has been laying the groundwork to achieve a goal of “ultimate transformation” of the International District and its residents.

As a key step, the group, led by founder and director Cathryn McGill, has worked to establish a relationship with the police officers who patrol the neighborhoods.

“If you look at what is going to make the kind of resilient and thriving community that all of us desire, how does that happen in the absence of communication?” McGill said.

That means having “courageous conversations” – a trademarked framework for a dialogue on matters of racial equity. As McGill explains it, the pillars of the conversation are to stay engaged, be civil, expect to experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept a lack of closure.

Tensions over policing in Albuquerque are nothing new. But they flared anew last month when a Black teenager died of smoke inhalation inside a house on the southeastern edge of International District. SWAT team members threw tri-chamber flameless CS grenades into the home after they said 15-year-old Brett Rosenau and 27-year-old Qiaunt Kelley refused to exit. The house caught fire in the early morning hours of July 7, and when firefighters entered they found Rosenau dead.

His death was met with backlash from the community and hundreds protested in the weeks that followed as they criticized the actions of law enforcement.

Because Rosenau died while police were taking someone into custody, the incident is being investigated by the Multi-Agency Task Force and the results will be forwarded to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office. It will also be the subject of an administrative investigation to determine if any policies were violated and will be examined by APD’s Force Review Board and the superintendent of police reform.

In addition, APD Chief Harold Medina sent a letter to Attorney General Hector Balderas on July 12, asking his office to conduct an independent review of the case.

Because of their existing relationship – NMBLC meets weekly with members of APD’s Southeast Command – the tragedy became the focus of a July 13 meeting at the NMBLC office, 1258 Ortiz Drive SE. Among those invited were representatives of the city’s Community Safety Department, Violence Intervention Program and Equity Office, along with other community leaders from the International District.

I had a chance to ask McGill if she was satisfied with the conversation. The short answer is “no” because police officials wouldn’t share specifics about what happened, citing the ongoing investigation. APD on Friday said that a tri-chamber canister thrown by a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team member “cannot be eliminated” as the cause of the fire, which Albuquerque Fire Rescue has ruled as accidental.

That information wasn’t available during the July 13 sitdown.

True to courageous conversation standards, a lack of closure didn’t keep McGill from moving the conversation forward. If police couldn’t provide the information she and other stakeholders sought, what could the group talk about?

So the conversation became about how to help the victims of the fire – the family of the dead teen and the family that lost a home – and APD’s standard operating procedure.

“Let me understand that,” McGill said, “so when we get this explanation that could be 120 days out, we know what the framework is. We know what should have happened, then we’ll be able to evaluate if that did happen.”

These conversations, in addition to establishing mutual understanding, help NMBLC hold the department accountable for its actions. They’re also an entry point to earning the trust of the communities NMBLC wants to serve.

“We’re still learning and making ourselves worthy of being able to approach people who have been promised so many things and had so many broken promises and have, perhaps, different origin stories than we do,” McGill said. “If we say we want to serve and fill needs in the community and we want things to be transformed, then we have to keep talking … but what we do is connect that to accountability.”

McGill describes NMBLC’s work as “non-attributable victories in gaining access to equity.” Take the first letter of each word in that description and you get “navigate.”

The non-attributable victories may not be apparent to the person walking down the street. “But what we’re doing way in the background in many cases is saying, ‘We’re going to address these situations,’ hopefully to obviate tragedies from occurring, prevent them, and if they do ultimately happen – and they will – then we have a way to respond to them as opposed to react.”

NMBLC and the Albuquerque Police Department are on the same page with a desire to have a relationship. “The goal is to make sure we always have communication and that we’re not trying to establish the relationship after an incident; that we have relationships before an incident,” APD Chief Harold Medina told me last week. That established relationship seems to have helped keep the deadly fire from becoming a flashpoint.

However, it’s important to note that NMBLC’s aim is to have a dialogue with police, not insulate them from criticism. And McGill acknowledged a productive relationship is a two-way street.

The communities of the I.D. have a role, she said. “We have to actively participate, if we choose to, and there are going to be people who don’t choose to on both sides of the equation. Right now, we’re sort of trying to figure out how to negotiate that muck and mire, if you will, to get to ultimate community resiliency. That’s the transformation we’re seeking.”

A brighter side

Some of NMBLC’s work is gritty, street-level outreach – knocking on doors and telling people about available services or assistance they might not be aware of. But the organization also emphasizes cultural vibrancy and positive youth development. Supporting the Black community in New Mexico has become more important in the wake of a national reckoning over systemic racism spurred by the unjust killings of Black people like George Floyd. But NMBLC’s goal is to help all members of the International District, many of whom do not fit neatly into what NMBLC calls the “tricultural myth” or the idea that New Mexico is a harmonious blend of Anglo, Hispanic and Indigenous people.

So NMBLC and the New Mexico Family Asian Center started an annual “True New Mexico” art show last year giving youth who self-identify as Black/African American and Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian a chance to showcase works of art reflecting their “True New Mexican story.”

McGill has been a driving force for change for more than a decade. She’s the founder of NMBLC precursor, the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee. In 2011, it organized the Roots Summer Leadership Academy, a free three-week camp open to students aged 8 to 16 from all parts of the International District.

The camp is multicultural, attracting people from all walks of life, including students experiencing homelessness and those from refugee communities.

Zavier Thompson, 21, was part of the inaugural camp in 2011 and participated each summer after. He credits the experience with fanning his passion for music. On summer break from the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y, where he studies music technology and business communications, Thompson attended the camp’s closing ceremony at First Unitarian Church July 19, which included a song-and-dance performance by campers.

He was there to show support for a program that had a profound influence on his life, but also to reconnect with McGill, who he credits with creating a “safe space” to learn, grow and experience “a sense of community.”

Thompson remembers almost being “star struck” seeing another Black person in Albuquerque as a kid. The camp put him in touch with other Black youth, many of whom became lifelong friends. And the camp provided a sense of cultural pride that had been lacking in his life.

The camp’s mission is to teach leadership skills and bring out students’ different strengths via an education steeped in the arts, with a curriculum that meets all state Public Education Department standards.

So, while some of NMBLC’s work is behind the scenes, some of it is celebrated and beloved by communities that too often appear invisible to their fellow New Mexicans.

Journal community engagement editor Andy Smith writes columns based on conversations with diverse individuals and groups throughout our community. He can be reached at asmith@abqjournal.com. Coming tomorrow: A potential flashpoint – the death of a Black teen during a standoff off with police in the International District – becomes the focus of a “courageous conversation” between NMBLC and APD.

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