As Champlain raises and addresses the issues of systemic racism and police violence, it is helping define a path forward for a new model of public safety that is rooted in social and racial justice.

As we reopen our campus for Fall 2020 and work through pandemic-related plans, my mind has also been on the protests here in Burlington, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and developments in the other pandemic we face of racial injustice in our country.

What we have witnessed in Kenosha and in cities across the country, repeatedly, graphically, and tragically, defies belief. The aftermath of these events has been devastating. The raw anger, fear, frustration, and exhaustion of protesters. The unimaginable tragedy of lost lives and grieving loved ones. And the deepening polarization of our country dimming hope for a way forward, particularly around the role of police in our society, with our citizenry split into seemingly intractable paths. 

There are a few bright lights in this darkness. I have been moved by the outpouring of community members—including many here in Burlington—raising their collective voices to speak out against the systemic racism and police violence that disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities. I have also been impressed with the response of the Burlington Police Department so far and urge them to continue to seek ways to find avenues of collaboration with the citizenry. And last week, Governor Scott signed an executive order that offers promising progress for public safety reform.

In this time of chaos and uncertainty when it often seems that our current structures and systems are failing us, how do we find hope, opportunity, and common ground? And what is the role and responsibility of higher education, and Champlain in particular, to drive to solutions and action? Where can we contribute our institutional strengths and expertise?

Champlain has a unique opportunity to be a convener for raising and addressing these questions and helping define a path forward for a new model of public safety that is rooted in social and racial justice. This fall, building on work done over the past two years, Champlain is launching a Center for Community and Social Justice. Housed in our Education & Human Studies Division, the Center will fuse Champlain’s expertise in criminal justice, social work, and other disciplines across the College. We intend to bring to the ongoing conversation the importance of viable alternatives to current training practices for public safety and the value of technology as an enabler of de-escalation and mitigation of violence in engagement with citizens. The Center will be a catalyst for bringing together voices—particularly of community members that are most affected by our current systems and structures—to create a vision and action steps for a more just society.  

In addition to being an incubator for longer-term solutions through this new Center, we also have an opportunity to act in the short-term to affect change in our current police structures. We are in the process of revising a proposal that we plan to submit to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to run a police academy. Our proposal is for a police reform initiative that transforms police hiring, training, protocols, and practice. It embeds a social justice curriculum and emphasizes de-escalation training, cultural competency, community outreach, and diversity and inclusion. We aim to ground law enforcement and safety in an academic environment, with a collegial pedagogical style, rather than a paramilitary, discipline-oriented model. And our commuter-based format would make the program accessible for recruiting and hiring a diverse population of students with an emphasis on women and minorities. 

We know that there are many strong opinions on these issues on our campus, here in Burlington, and in Vermont. Over the next months, we will have an opportunity for community discussion. We also want to engage with partners in our Vermont community and beyond to help inform our curriculum and opportunities. In July, we signed on to the City of Burlington’s Declaration of Racism as a Public Health Emergency, and we committed to expand our relationships with community organizations to support the advancement of racial justice work within our current structures. 

We recognize the need for change that is not incremental, but transformational and actionable. I am committed to working with our students, faculty, and staff to listen, discuss, and inform these actions. Together, we can reimagine a new vision for community justice and public safety, and the creation of safe, healthy communities for all.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande