Both Richard Greelis (“We can’t avoid talking about bad behavior,” July 14) and Robert Simon (“I’m a black cop. Here’s how recent events and reactions look to me,” July 19) are right — from their own, very different, perspectives.

Both explain some of the underlying causes of the horrific events of the past few weeks. Both writers are truly dedicated public servants who care deeply about public safety and justice. I know, because I worked with each of them for years.

But I am disappointed that neither points to a path toward a solution.

I would urge Greelis, Simon and other caring individuals to move beyond rationalizations, justifications, accusations or simple admiration of the problem. We need leaders to facilitate a meaningful discussion of how we move our community to a place where each and every one of us, irrespective of the circumstances of our birth or our race, have an equal chance to flourish and fulfill our dreams.

As a community, we need to build a level path by which everyone has equal access to the tools to develop their full potential. Gov. Mark Dayton was on the right track in promoting universal access to preschool, access to medical care, and investments in our minority communities, and in diversifying the seats of power.

But that’s not enough. We need to earn the trust of communities that are currently disenfranchised.

I spent most of my career as a front-line prosecutor; now I volunteer at a food shelf. The psychology of the disenfranchised has, as its core, distrust — developed quite simply as a survival instinct. Many families — despite hard work, intelligence and dedicated effort — simply cannot escape the cycle of poverty. People become mired in hopelessness, certain in their belief that the rest of society does not give a damn about them.

It starts when the child enters school and finds it to be a nonlevel playing field, where the children of the “haves” will most always surpass them due to their unique access to the tools for success — adequate food, shelter, clothing, school supplies and parents with time to assist their children in school work. Children in poverty see the system as rigged against them and they can appreciate the injustice. By their teenage years many have given up on dreams; others have grown hostile toward a system that appears to enslave them to a lifetime of poverty.

When ordinary people came to their court appearances on offenses, many had absolutely no trust in police or prosecutors. They assumed our goal was their further persecution. Spending many years just talking to people in court about their situations and the root causes of the behavior landing them in court, I learned that communities of poverty often see mainstream society as the enemy. Some individuals chose to break the law because they believed law served as a tool for their further disenfranchisement.

At this time, when many of us are truly motivated to take a hard look at our communities of poverty, we need to make some major adjustments to the playing field, starting with the children born into poverty. We need to earn the trust of minority communities, not simply by words but by political action.

So what do we need to do first? Take the risk of getting together — all of us — and identifying how to provide all with access to the tools of success. Our faith leaders might be uniquely situated to host these discussions. Then we must put words and ideas into action, which takes work, risk-taking and, most of all, money. We need to lend our support to Dayton’s initiatives by talking to our legislators on both sides of the aisle. We need to find the funds to provide all of the segments in our community with not just their basic needs, but the fuel to fulfill their dreams.

 

Sandra H. Johnson, of Minnetonka, is the former Bloomington city attorney.