Jason Sole wants to help us talk to one another about race, and I'm taking him up on that.
Sole owns a consulting firm (jasonsole.com) focused on youth justice, and is an adjunct professor at Metro State University, where he brings law enforcement students into prisons for an eye-opening and, he hopes, compassion-building exercise.
He travels the country to moderate public safety forums, including a recent conference with more than 300 protesters and police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and was a panelist at a Minneapolis listening session on the "outrageous disparities" between whites and people of color in the criminal justice system.
A husband and father of two young children, Sole also is a former three-time felon who draws wisdom and guidance from his past and present.
"I'm no stranger to that side of the criminal justice system," said Sole, 36, who used a 2013 Bush Fellowship to find ways to reduce recidivism among juvenile offenders. "It helps me to see my work from a holistic perspective."
I asked Sole, a frequent source for this column, how we might tackle this hot-button topic after a tragic year. Racial tensions erupted in the streets and online after the police shootings of black teenager Michael Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the choking death of Eric Garner and the murders of two NYPD police officers.
Sole encourages us to ask ourselves these five questions:
1. "What's allowing me to hold on to my biases?" Sometimes, the answer is fear, of other people or the unknown. Other times, those biases remain because they're reinforced everywhere we go, from work to family gatherings to the TV shows we watch to our houses of worship. "Many people have been taught something for so long that it's hard to let go," Sole said.
2. "Are my thoughts of others based on perception or reality?" Sole laughed when I guessed the answer is "95 percent perception," but he'd rather not throw out numbers. Still, he agrees that perceptions rule, "often based on misinformation and mis-education." Too often, we use one example of bad behavior to generalize about an entire group of people.
He suggested that we take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (www.understandingprejudice.org) on race and discuss the results with others in a safe environment.
3. "Do I benefit from an unearned privilege?" Such "privilege" can be measured in how someone is treated while applying for a loan, attending school or visiting the doctor. "I always question whether I'm getting the best care," Sole said. "I'm not sure if it's different from if I were white."
But Sole isn't just referring to "white privilege." Straight people still enjoy many privileges that people in the LGBT community do not. "And as a man, I get opportunities over my female counterparts all the time," he said. "If we take a close look, we can probably see it in every facet of society. I don't want to beat up on anybody, but things have been structured in one way for a long time. You have to be able to walk in someone else's shoes, and have this narrative, to get it."
4. "Am I willing to have discussions with people who don't look like me? Worship like me? Identify like me?" Some people will never change, Sole said. That means they'll always be in the "no" camp. But Sole is heartened by many people who push past deep discomfort to get to yes. That includes Sole, who admits that he held anti-gay views growing up African-American on the tough streets of Chicago. "That's how my community shaped me," he said.
"But through my honesty, people have come up to me and been able to say, 'I've been afraid of people like you,' and we've had productive discussions. I'm aware of my own imperfections. We all need to step into that discomfort and sit with it, to admit our biases and work through them."
5. "Are there policies and procedures in place that benefit me but exclude others?" Sole encourages employers and teachers, especially, to take this one to heart. Are you helping and mentoring only those you know or who look like you? Could you be more willing to take others under your wing and say, 'Hey, I'd like to offer you a wonderful opportunity?' "
Everyone will stumble with these questions, Sole said. "But we have the opportunity to make things right. As Martin Luther King Jr., said, 'We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.' "