Learning about leadership in the St. Paul midway

Taking a wide-lens view of life, photo courtesy of Pixabay

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page, June 21, 2020

“In parts of our society, there appears to be a turmoil of trust and a crisis in civility. There also appears to be a very sweeping, debilitating and destructive narrative of if you are not with me, then you are against me. Sadly, this narrative has found refuge in our communities, our politics, our faiths, the media and, yes, even policing.”

While these words aptly describe our current environment, they are part of the commencement address Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo delivered at Concordia University, St. Paul, a year ago.

Their pertinence reminds us we are a divided society with differing views on many issues, with race, governance, and policing in the forefront at this moment.

Last year Arradondo said, “There is a tremendous lesson in seeking first to understand, then be understood.”

If there was ever a time to pause, listen, and learn, it is now.

Arrandondo leads the police department known now for the death of George Floyd, in a city now known for the ensuing chaos and change.

The chief favors “servant leadership,” a way of thinking observed by leaders who are drawn to first serve, then lead.

He’s not alone.

Positioned between St. Paul and Minneapolis, Concordia University is home to a Criminal Justice Leadership program that was addressing headline issues before citizens demanded and elected officials undertook reforms these past few weeks.

Taught by professionals in the field, the program is preparing the next generation of leaders in law enforcement and the broader criminal justice arena, says Janina Cich, professor and department chair.

Cich, who spent nearly two decades working in law enforcement as a civilian and uniformed officer, took her life experiences to the academic arena. She and her colleagues revamped the program to nurture servant leaders with emotional intelligence who aspire to be change agents in their communities.—–

With a focus on internal and external stakeholders, they study real-life scenarios, analyzing how they would respond to and communicate about situations they might face in their professions. Lessons are transportable to their workplaces.

Several years ago, Cich assembled an executive criminal-justice advisory board composed of community stakeholders. Tasked with identifying skill sets lacking in criminal justice positions, the board concluded communication, ethics, and cultural awareness were critical areas of weakness.

The areas of weakness became a focus of the curriculum, with self-reflection as a foundation.

Students identify the values upon which they were raised; their current values; and their profession’s values. They address bias and cultural awareness, looking both inward and outward, assessing the broader impact of decisions, actions, and communication on particular scenarios.

“We’re helping students identify how to be creative thinkers and problem solvers and also be strong in their conviction and leadership while attending to the many stakeholders these decisions affect,” Cich says.

Because the curriculum includes current difficult topics, students may be addressing them in both their workplaces and in their studies. Some discussion focuses on personal responses and how they impact the individuals in their work.

Scenarios like the George Floyd killing prompt reflection and discussion, such as, “How are the other officers showing up as informal leaders? How are they showing up with humanity and grace? How are they attending to life?”

“It’s been a delicate balance in our department,” Cich says.

She explains,  “We are taking this whole-lens view and trying to figure out how are we showing up, not just as ‘I’m a cop and I want control and I want you to listen to what I have to say,’ but also, “How can I respond to you in a way that is humane and empathetic and understands you’re in a crisis that you can’t handle right now, which is why I am here?”

“We’re seeing an evolution of officers,” Cich says. “We’re seeing people retiring out who had a whole different idea of what policing was because the communities back then were different than they are now.”

Seeds are being planted. But change is a process.

“As a society, we’re talking about reform,” she says. “We’re seeing that. We can’t make it happen overnight. But we can change the system by working collaboratively, by the community working with police and the police working with the community, because we are all one.”

In his commencement speech, Arradondo said, “The most devastating and destructive harm we as adults can inflict upon our children is removing hope from their journey.”

He was right. We all need hope that communities, families, and organizations – fractured and fearful, weary and resolute – will find their way through the current turmoil.

But, in this unsettling time, when emotions and expectations are on overdrive, we also need steady and thoughtful leadership, delivered through a wide lens, not a narrow one.

Cich is hopeful.

“I think change is happening. That’s really what we’re pushing for, to be agents of change, not only in our lens view but in our professions. That’s why we take a whole system view.”

“Our program is not just about cops,” she says. “We have expanded the conversation to many professions within the criminal justice system, which could be advocates, corrections, probation or anybody that has an influence in working with people. We’re in the people business.”

“We’re making change, even if it’s one person at a time,” she says. “That’s what officers do out on the street. They make change, one person at a time, one crisis at a time. Sometimes to create a movement you just need one person to start.”

~~~If you would like to read more of Caryn’s work, you can purchase a signed copy of her award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” filled with inspiration and insight on living the “better” choice, here.