Magazine Feature

The Power of Storytelling

Building trust and connections between community members and police

By Kiesha Warren-Gordon

Fall 2020

I am a Black woman working and teaching within the field of criminology. My students at Ball State University are predominantly White and have had few interactions with Black, Indigenous, and people of color. I feel that it is important for me to disrupt stereotypes my students may have by introducing them to Black people who hold positions of power within the community. Critical service learning (CSL) is a tool that helps me address this issue.

Through CSL, I bring together my students and community partners to address community problems. Unlike traditional service learning, CSL works to (1) redistribute power, allowing community partners to have a voice; (2) incorporate a social change component; and (3) develop authentic relationships. These components enable my students to have transformative experiences.

I employ this approach because it deepens relationships between community partners and students as they share long-range goals and community values. CSL also helps to meet partners’ needs. Unlike traditional service-learning courses, CSL requires community partners to commit time and resources to and invest emotionally in the project. The university must examine the impact on the community partners and assess if they are truly benefiting from the partnership.

My community engagement work focuses on the Whitely neighborhood in Muncie, Indiana. The majority of Whitely’s approximately 2,500 residents identify as African American, and many live below the poverty line. This community has faced many problems—such as experiencing high crime rates, being a food desert, and, at one point, having failing schools—but it has proved its resilience by creating an outreach program and getting its members to work together.

I first began working with the Whitely community in 2017 as a member of its safety committee, made up of community members, city officials, and criminology experts. I attended monthly meetings where I met community members and gained their trust, a vital component of the CSL model.

In fall 2018, a fellow committee member approached me regarding a video that had appeared on social media, showing an interaction between a police officer and a young Black man in another community. The Whitely community felt that the video displayed police misconduct, which magnified community members’ distrust of the police. Whitely community leaders immediately met with the chief of police to discuss the video.

Because I had previously partnered with the community, my fellow committee member asked me to have my students work with community leaders to develop a program to bring the community and police together. This type of project would require extensive relationship building beyond even what I had already established with the Whitely community and would require student involvement beyond the traditional sixteen-week semester class.

Whitely community leaders told me that residents did not know what their personal rights were when it came to interactions with the police. They also did not know what police were allowed (or not allowed) to do in their interactions with the public. Community members were also concerned that their voices were not being heard in interactions with the police. The project with my class would help build trust and improve communication.

The project required buy-in from the Muncie Police Department, the Ball State Police Department, the mayor’s office, and other local agencies. I also had to ensure that the project would meet learning outcomes for the students, such as demonstrating an understanding of culturally sustaining and responsive practices. Once everyone was on board, Whitely Community Council leaders Ken Hudson and Frank Scott and I decided that the class would work with the Facing Project to tell stories of interactions between police and community members and help us bridge the gap between the two groups.

Founded in Muncie by Ball State alumnus J. R. Jamison and author Kelsey Timmerman, the Facing Project is a nonprofit that partners with community groups, classes, and other organizations nationwide to create understanding and empathy through storytelling. They provide tools, a platform, and inspiration for individuals and communities to share their stories, connect across differences, and begin crucial conversations. Writers and storytellers collaborate with participants on first-person narratives that are converted into books or performances and are archived in the Facing Project collection at Ball State University.

When seeking volunteer storytellers from the Whitely community, we did not frame our request for positive or negative stories but instead asked for “individuals who have had an experience with the police that had a lasting impact on their lives.” We used similar phrasing to recruit police officers “who have had an experience with community members that had a lasting impact on their lives.” We also decided that students and community members should organize a community forum to provide police and residents with an opportunity to engage with each other. I worked with Hudson and Scott to develop the course syllabus, and we agreed on assigned readings, due dates of papers and projects, and dates of community engagement events.

We decided that the project would be divided into two semesters, one for the storytelling project and one for the community forum. The students in the fall 2018 Human Services in Criminal Justice course would collect the Facing Project stories, and students enrolled in the spring 2019 Capstone course would develop the community forum. This would allow students to take part in both projects if they chose.

The author (far right, in red) with her spring 2019 Capstone class, which helped organize a community forum between police and residents.

In fall 2018, twenty-one students enrolled in the Human Services in Criminal Justice course. At the beginning of the course, Hudson and Scott visited the students to provide an introduction to Whitely, and they led the students on a tour of the Whitely community soon after. During the semester, students took public transportation to Whitely. This gave them a true sense of how many people in the Whitely community must travel, as well as a firsthand look at the effort and time it takes to shop and get around when you live in a food desert.

The Facing Project provided facilitators who helped students gain the necessary skills to develop questions for interviews with community members. They also walked the students through the narrative process of telling the stories. The community partners recruited participants from the community, and the chiefs of the city and university police departments recruited officers. We ultimately recruited twelve participants.

Students worked in teams of two to conduct interviews, coordinating times to meet with the storytellers in public settings. After the students had collected, transcribed, and edited the stories, they sent the pieces back to the storytellers for an accuracy check. Another group of students in a graphic arts independent study course then developed the layout for a Facing Project book featuring the stories, with support from the university’s Graphic Design Services department. The university printed 1,500 copies that were handed out in the community and during the spring 2019 forum.

In the book, one community member told how an interaction with a police officer who had arrested him ten years before helped him turn his life around. “One of the officers said to me, ‘You are going to be all right,’ and he prayed for me. After they took me to jail, I stayed for about two weeks. I had been in jail before, but this really woke me up,” the community member said. “To this day I still have contact with that officer. Now he is my pastor. . . . I wasn’t arrested; I was rescued.” The community member explained that he is now active in the Whitely community, working “beside the police to keep our youth out of trouble and help them form a good positive relationship with our law enforcement.”

One police officer described how he formed relationships in the community. When he worked at the jail, he got to know some of the inmates and let them vent their frustrations to him. He explained that after he was hired by the police department, “I’d go out and see some of the guys I met at the jail and would just stop to talk to them. . . . Some of the younger guys around them were kind of standoffish for a little while until they got to know me. . . . They learn that you’re not out to get them. You’re just there to make sure the neighborhood’s good, make sure nothing’s going on.” He continued, “In order to bring justice to families or to clean up the crime in the streets, we need help. We need help from the community.”

At the end of the semester, Hudson, Scott, and I sat down with students for a final reflection session to gauge what students had learned. Students were surprised that none of the stories from community members or police had negative overtones and that both groups had been eager to share their stories. The students also discussed how this learning experience dismantled their stereotypical thinking that all Black people dislike the police.

Twenty students, five of whom were in the fall course, enrolled in the spring 2019 Capstone course. We divided the class into four groups, which oversaw advertising for the forum, securing sponsorships, developing the program of events, and creating informational materials for attendees. The students worked with members of the community, university police, and city police to carry out each of the tasks. The students spent the first five weeks of the semester learning the theoretical and policy implications of police community engagement. For example, they considered the differences between CSL and traditional service learning and looked at how policies that police are required to follow can affect community engagement. The rest of the semester, students worked with their groups to carry out their responsibilities for the forum.

Hudson and Scott did not want to host the forum on the Ball State campus because parking and navigating a college campus can be intimidating for people who are not familiar with it. Instead, students secured a donation of meeting space from Cornerstone Center for the Arts in downtown Muncie, which is easily accessible by public transportation from Whitely and has ample parking nearby. In addition, students reached out to the Culinary Arts program at Ivy Tech Community College and received 150 box lunches for the event, sponsored by various donors.

The students and community partners wanted to have a series of panels with guest speakers who could address the importance of police-community relations. They invited various members of the local criminal justice system, as well as Officer Tommy Norman from North Little Rock, Arkansas. Norman has more than one million followers on social media and is known for his approach to community policing, in which he spends time getting to know community members and working to support their basic needs. Norman described his approach in a 2017 speech to the Camden, Arkansas, Chamber of Commerce: “If you see my police car in North Little Rock, it’s probably going to be empty because I’m not going to be inside of it. I’m going to be sitting on a front porch. I’m going to be having dinner with a family. . . . As a police officer, your badge should have a heartbeat and not an ego.”

Students also worked to develop informational materials for the forum. The community partners requested a pamphlet to inform citizens of their rights when interacting with the police. The pamphlet also explained why the police use certain procedural practices when engaging with citizens. Police officers, attorneys, judges, and a member of the prosecutor’s office vetted the pamphlet for accuracy.

About eighty people attended the community forum. As they entered the venue, they received a bag that contained the Facing Project book, the police engagement pamphlet, and informational materials about the City of Muncie. The forum offered panels that focused on police-community engagement, juvenile justice issues, and broader criminal justice issues. In addition, during a question-and-answer session, a trained facilitator managed the dialogue between community members and panelists, which included officers, judges, and attorneys. Attendees could also take part in the Muncie Police Department’s police simulator training, which replicates real-life scenarios in which users learn to make appropriate decisions regarding a range of use-of-force options. The simulator enables citizens to learn, from a police officer’s perspective, how and why certain tactics are used based on various encounters.

After the forum, students and community partners debriefed on the event. Our partners expressed gratitude to the students for their professionalism and commitment. Students reflected on how working with community members changed their ideas of what a community can do when it is organized and willing to make changes. Some students expressed excitement about creating new friendships during the process.

Members of the university’s Office of Immersive Learning also attended the forum. They continue to support my classes’ work in the Whitely community, helping to ensure that the community’s needs are met. The community forum has since been formalized into an annual program, “Better Together,” which engages police and other agencies in dialogue with residents over community issues.

Using the CSL model has been the highlight of my career. It has allowed me to work with community partners to create change and to provide transformational learning experiences for my students.

In an article I recently coauthored with Hudson and Scott in the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, both community leaders reflected on their experiences working with my students. Hudson recalled that “students often start off very uncertain of me and the community. However, as time progresses, they begin to become more comfortable with me, and they become more honest regarding their attitude toward the community.”

Scott wrote that the students “get to know me and my community members as people, not just stereotypes. I enjoy working one-on-one with the students and having the opportunity to change someone’s ideas regarding living and working in predominantly Black communities.”

After the fall 2018 semester ended, one student emailed me to say, “I loved getting to interact with all of the people we interviewed. You are a wonderful example for all of your students on what it means to be involved and give back to the area. I’ll carry the lessons I learned in your class for the rest of my life.” A few years later, I still receive notes from students expressing their gratitude for having the chance to work with people they once perceived as “other” but now see as friends.

Many thanks to Jim Duckham, director of public safety at Ball State University; Al Williams, associate director of public safety and assistant chief of police at Ball State University; the Ball State University Police Department; the Ball State University Office of Immersive Learning; and Indiana Campus Compact.

Photos courtesy Ball State University. Aerial photo courtesy Ball State University Archives and Special Collections.


  • Kiesha Warren-Gordon

    Kiesha Warren-Gordon

    Kiesha Warren-Gordon is an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology and director of the African American Studies program at Ball State University. She is also a senior faculty fellow for Indiana Campus Compact.