Community-Led Efforts to Create Safe Communities: Diversity, Dialogues, and Directions for Moving Forward

Back to Spring 2021: Volume 110, Number 1

By Valerie Lemmie, Kathy Quick, and Brian N. Williams


How can community groups and governmental organizations – with their disparate kinds of knowledge, experiences, and values – work together on mutual concerns about safety? Readers of this journal need no reminder of the saliency of this question. Communities across this nation and the globe seek safe spaces in which people can actualize their fullest potential. Residents, law enforcement professionals, and community and government leaders seemingly have a mutual interest in public safety, so there should be opportunities to act in complementary ways to create safe communities. Yet, community members increasingly question public institutions’ legitimacy, with many distrusting their government, particularly local police. Officer-involved shootings, accusations of police misconduct, and social movements such as Black Lives Matter are constantly in the news.

Many community members see disparate treatment and feel unsafe around police, which disconnects and divides them from government and fuels mistrust. Police feel called to serve and protect the community, even to the extent of placing their own safety at risk, and increasingly experience public distrust and resentment about how they do their job. Relationship-building is often recommended as a path forward from this morass. Still, it is hard to have a dialogue about the issues and options because people are divided on what the priorities are for safety, fearful of one another, and doubtful that there is a way forward. We do not want to overstate these problems, nor to conclude that community members’ and law enforcement professionals’ attitudes are necessarily in conflict with each other, but rather to acknowledge that these conflicts and tensions make complementary action increasingly difficult.

Civic engagement opportunities around public safety are problematic, promising, and faced with many obstacles. All parties—community members and public officials—know they need each other to create communities where everyone feels safe. Here, we share lessons from one surprisingly hopeful effort: a series of learning exchanges about public safety held in 2018 at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.

All 39 of the participants had been part of some prior dialogues about community-police relationships. By their own accounts, these dialogues were refreshingly different in that they emerged feeling respected, hopeful, and renewed in their commitments. Thus, they are a microcosm of what might be gained – under certain conditions – through deep dialogue. In this article, we share some lessons learned about using deliberation to reach new understandings of why some people don’t feel safe and how to address these fears.  We found new relationships and ideas for complementary actions to co-create safer communities, seeing this not just as the job of police, but as a job for the entire community.

Design of Dialogues

A few aspects of our learning exchanges seem especially relevant to the positive and unexpected outcomes we experienced. Our convener, the Kettering Foundation, has researched democratic problem-solving and the co-production of public goods by community members and public institutions for more than 40 years. The personal, professional, and research knowledge each of the three authors and the Foundation bring to this work helped inform these dialogues. The Kettering Foundation also has a long history of convening groups to engage in extended, deliberative dialogue for mutual learning through shared inquiry. Our sessions were guided by a set of questions about how the participants had been experimenting with community-led efforts to create safe communities. We asked what they had tried, why they did what they did, how it was working, what they were learning, and what they wanted to try next.

In these exchanges, as participants learned together, the learning community within the exchanges resembled opportunities for boundary-spanning work they were doing – or might do – at home.  This dual learning model—communities learning from other communities and their work at home—added a richness and vitality to the discussions that encouraged innovation and experimentation. The learning exchange community provided support to its members, including a shoulder or hug, encouragement, and the confidence to keep working through the tensions and conflicts that arose to find common ground on the shared problem of creating safe communities defined not by crime statistics alone, but by community members working with one another and public institutions to define what safety looked like in their respective neighborhoods.

The learning in the exchanges and the trust that developed among participants facilitated our convening/support role in several fruitful ways. First, our purpose was explicitly to explore how communities might work through the mutual mistrust that burdens community members’ relationship with government. Thus, we were neither setting out to fix the problem nor simply to analyze it without seeking solutions, but rather to engage the experiences of others with open curiosity. We were particularly interested in reconsidering ways to re-center these relationships with community members as coproducers or complementary actors in public safety, rather than as customers or subjects of policing. For example, leaders of a community organization that served immigrants spoke about the progress their community had made by both redefining safety to include physical safety and freedom from hostility and fear and by having law enforcement recognize and validate immigrants’ commitment, engagement, and capacity to improve safety for everyone.

Given our overarching intention, three specific aspects of the dialogues’ design helped facilitate our learning. First, we prioritized involving communities where community-led initiatives to redefine safety and improve community-police relationships are underway. Second, we intentionally sought diverse perspectives. The communities invited represented the geographic regions of the continental United States, the demographic diversity of its populations, and urban, suburban, and rural areas through the inclusion of contrasting communities from the states of California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and South Dakota. Each community sent an intentionally mixed group of formal leaders (elected and appointed local government officials), community leaders, local law enforcement professionals, and sometimes academics from their local universities. Our group of 39 participants was collectively diverse in terms of gender, race, immigrant identity, age, and sexual orientation. Third, we interacted through slow, deliberative dialogues to speak across differences, diversity, and disparate life experiences so that we could gain from everyone’s knowledge and facilitate mutual learning.

Shared Problems and Success Stories

These dialogues resulted in constructive and productive conversations about conflicts, tensions, challenges, obstacles, and opportunities. With all of our diversity – our different geographic regions of the country, the histories of our particular places and the demographic groups and their contexts of community-police relations, the population of the communities, and the recent and long-term history of policing – there was much commonality across communities in terms of anxieties and hopes for mutual safety. Here, we highlight three shared problems that consistently emerged – mutual mistrust, trauma, and the difficulty of maintaining optimism – and one shared success story, the value of rebuilding relationships through intentional action.

Mutual mistrust. Representatives from each community spoke to the mistrust that is evident on both sides of the police-community equation. The issue of trust – the fragility of it, the terror each side feels about not being able to trust the other, and the grief they feel over not being trusted – came up constantly. Some spoke of this mistrust from a historical perspective, including its historical origins, while others noted contemporary connections and present-day manifestations. Some had direct experiences that fostered this mistrust, while others had indirect experiences. Examples were shared that highlighted the mistrust, the perceived causes of that mistrust, and the resulting cynicism that ripples from the places that lie at the intersection of experiences and pain.

Trauma is a contagion experienced by all participants. There are trauma and concern on all sides – from community members, survivors of violent community-police interactions, officers, public managers, faith and other community leaders, etc. – about safety, trust/mistrust, and the rise of openly experienced and increasingly openly expressed fear and hostility. Our observation from the dialogues is that these feelings often go unrecognized, or perhaps are seen but dismissed because no one wants to diminish another’s pain by implying a false equivalence (e.g., Black Lives Matter “versus” Blue Lives Matter).

Flagging and fueling optimism. Another topic that surfaced consistently across our learning exchanges was the difficulty of maintaining optimism. Participants all expressed the challenges and resulting doubts that accompany their efforts. Burnout was expressed as being part and parcel of community-led efforts. This suffering from what many described as a type of compassion fatigue was mitigated by attending and participating in the learning exchanges. The exchanges served as recharging stations where participants could openly discuss the challenges and grief involved in this work, encourage others’ efforts, and celebrate and learn from successes. For example, the whole group strongly encouraged one of the participants, a community organizer, to run for public office for the first time, which he successfully did.

Value of intentionally taking the lead from communities to strengthen relationships. Community and governmental representatives shared various intentional efforts to engage with others who had a common desire to enhance public safety and public order. These efforts required presence, commitment, and openness from law enforcement but were especially successful when they were community-led. One community-based organization hosted a viewing party of the movie, The Hate U Give, with a series of follow-up discussions. A participant from another community facilitated the co-designing and collaborative painting of a mural that depicts police-community relations over three points in time: past, present, and future. Participants spoke to and highlighted the need for moving beyond shared strategic thinking and planning into shared strategic action. These examples reflect the creative ways in which community members named and framed the problem that faced their communities and then acted to engage others in assisting their efforts to understand the problem from different perspectives to address the problem.

Some Paths Forward

Several meaningful lessons have been learned from this experience. One is the stunning commonality of experience just described, despite the diversity of participants’ professional backgrounds and communities. Importantly, one of the learnings about improving community-police relationships is the value of sustaining intentional actions to rebuild relationships. This is critical to keeping the community in the lead or mutually constructive partnership with law enforcement.  Here, we share a few additional observations about how the learning exchanges provided new insights and hope for creating safe communities, as defined and understood by residents, along with a stronger degree of community-police collaboration and cooperation.

Intentionally engaging diverse, sometimes oppositional, viewpoints. Their work was facilitated by having multiple participants—representing government, police departments, and communities—for each jurisdiction.  The jurisdictional teams worked together at home, providing leadership in helping to define safety as a community responsibility; expanding the network of community member and institutional participation in naming the problem behind the problem (public safety may have been the chief concern, but the problems associated with this issue like a history of exclusion and mistrust also had to be addressed); framing options for consideration; convening deliberative forums (they may have named these meetings differently); acting together as a community to redefine safety as a shared responsibility of both community members and public institutions, and learning together as a community how to achieve and sustain this shared responsibility in what they achieved.  Their individual stories on the barriers, obstacles, struggles, and tensions they faced and the tradeoffs made to find common ground are best shared by them.  But in the safe space provided in the learning exchanges, coupled with joint learning that took place, they developed the fortitude necessary to work through the tensions and conflicts inherent in this work and not become immobilized by them, to identify acceptable tradeoffs and find common ground upon which to move forward to create safe communities.

Getting to “we” through a pathway from acknowledgment to relationships. The obstacles and opportunities for getting to “we” was another lesson learned from the exchanges. The destination of “we” – the first word of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution – implies an imperative position that is crucial to forming a perfect union. However, there are historical issues at play that hamper our ability to arrive at a desired future of a more perfect union, for example, slavery and race-based policies and practices during the Jim Crow era of legal segregation and intimidation. The same could be said of contemporary issues such as mass incarceration and an under-appreciation of the diverse experiences of others who share the same space, place, and time. To reach this desired state requires intentional and deliberate efforts to replace the traditional “power over” approach to governance with “power with” or shared governance.  It requires constructing a process that facilitates effective communication to bridge gaps. This process travels a path from acknowledgment, understanding, and acquaintanceship to relationship, recognizing shared interests and partnership. It facilitates trust that connects the two parties and rests upon a foundation of respect for differences.

Re-centering citizens. The preceding point brings into focus a new vision of what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship is often understood in terms of formal legal status, voting, jury services, or having rights and responsibilities connected to government services and policies. A citizen-led effort to create safe communities arises from a different conceptualization of citizen as someone who embodies what it takes to make democracy work as it should. In this view, a citizen is a person who is responsible for and passionate about the quality and care of a community, who understands their truth with a recognition of the truths of others; and is willing to engage with others through democratic and complementary actions to address community problems.

From this perspective, the key questions become: What does a “we” or “with” strategy (citizens and government learning and working in complementary ways) look like in a given community?  How do we create spaces for civic learning that nurture, develop, support, and sustain the work of citizens in communities? How can we help government staff and elected officials value community assets and resources and align their work with the work of citizens, and vice versa, when mutual mistrust is pervasive? How do we ensure public institutions work with citizens to develop structures, systems, and strategies that work for all community members, when in the not-so-distant past, government actions may have worked against them? Satisfactory answers to these questions can move the collective needle forward and facilitate a progression from empathy, acknowledgment of pain, sympathy or feeling the pain of others, compassion, or acting in a complementary fashion to address the pain shared by both parties. This progression can bridge the gap between local law enforcement and the public and facilitate complementary action and co-production of safety.

Slowing down to enable vulnerability and empathy. Vulnerability and empathy were intrinsic to the moments of grace that allowed our exchange participants to see the possibility of things getting better. Deep listening was key. So was being able to see the complex, ridiculous, wounded potential of our humanity. It was when we were real with each other – in conflict, in tears, in hope – that we really learned and moved forward our shared and individual community work for mutual safety. We got to this point by building relationships and trust, and a few aspects of our approach seemed to help this. The same participants were invited to all three meetings over a period of 10 months (and a subsequent meeting via Zoom) to facilitate.

We observed that participants became more forthcoming and deepened their insights through sustained interactions and periods of quiet reflection. Participants were encouraged to speak their truth with the understanding that their truth reflected their life experiences. Consistently, the facilitators asked participants to share the various approaches taken within their jurisdictions to address safety as a community rather than an institutional problem and to speak from their direct experience. We did not rush, and indeed often spent an entire morning or afternoon sharing and learning from one another through exchange on a single, meaty question, such as “What is one thing you’ve been trying to do to improve trust, and what have you learned from it?” The time we spent together, the inquiry-oriented agendas, the facilitators’ efforts to foster safety and bravery, and individuals’ vulnerability together enabled open, authentic, candid, and at times, controversial conversations.


We hope that readers may benefit from the lessons we have learned by bringing these same approaches in their own work to create safe communities, we hope with the same success. As researchers and facilitators of the Kettering Foundation exchanges, we supported participants’ capacities to lead change for safer communities by taking the necessary time to build participant trust and a learning community; encouraging participants to tell their stories and develop empathic listening skills (walking in the shoes of others); providing a safe and brave space where they could each share doubts, fears, and vulnerabilities; and practicing what they were learning in the exchanges and at home. The participants developed relationships of trust in a community of learning, encouraging, and supporting experimentation and innovation at home.  By learning together, exchange participants were more confident and better prepared to promote democratic, co-produced public work to create safe communities.

By extension, in your communities, making progress on defining safety as a shared community value involves building trust between citizens and government. It requires honesty and reflective listening, mutual respect for others’ experiences and views, re-imagining options to co-produce shared safety, finding common ground upon which to build democratic institutions and responsible citizenship, and a set of democratic practices to realize these understandings. It also requires relentless patience and optimism, both of which are hard to sustain in the often painful and fraught context of safety but are supported through ongoing relationships.  Most of all, it requires a commitment to creating a culture of democratic civic engagement and complementary public acting. 

Valerie A. Lemmie is Director of Exploratory Research at the Kettering Foundation, immediate past chair of the board of the National Civic League, and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Kathy Quick is Associate Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Co-Director of the Center for Integrative Leadership, both at the University of Minnesota.

Brian N. Williams is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, author of Citizen Perspectives on Community Policing, and coauthor of Race, Policing, and Public Governance, which is scheduled for publication in June, 2021 by Cambridge University Press.

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