Photo by Simone Secci / Unsplash

Sharon Brisolara holds a masters in Human Service Administration and a PhD in Program Evaluation and Planning, with concentrations in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies, both from Cornell University. She is an educator, writer, program evaluator, and Resilience and Equity Coach. Her monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout discusses the equity challenges facing our community through a variety of lenses including poetry, research, resilience coaching, and sociology.

Years ago, I remember sitting on the lawn with one of my professors as she told me about a science fiction novel she’d read.  Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the book featured a small, scrappy band of humans faced with the daunting task of rebuilding society. As she shared the story, it became clear that what was most critical to the society’s survival was not the knowledge they had accumulated but the questions they asked. Their most crucial tool was a willingness to look at current challenges in new ways.

Those of us gathered on the lawn were studying program evaluation, a discipline dedicated to using applied research methods to examine social programs. We knew that in order to evaluate such programs we needed to deeply understand the people involved as well as the ultimate purpose of the work. Asking questions, actively listening to the responses, and critically examining any potential biases were foundational to that journey.

Critical inquiry, or the ability to ask good questions, is foundational to many of the 21st century skills that educators in the United States work so hard to nurture in students.  And it’s essential to being able to explore equitable responses to seemingly entrenched social injustices. Powerful questions open up space and allow us to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.  They unearth assumptions, including our own, and challenge our thinking about the way things are and what “should be.”

Powerful questions and the willingness to think differently have been behind social innovations of all types: from the internet to Impossible Burgers, from child labor laws to marriage equality. Below all such inquiry lies our grappling with the kind of society we want to have and the kind of people we choose to be as we live within it. Engaging in this process is fundamental to a functioning democracy.

Such grappling is will be required to meet the challenges of the present moment. One such challenge is consideration of how much our society has asked of law enforcement. There are many reasons we find it difficult to have real conversations about new approaches to public safety. Engaging in new questions takes courage and requires vulnerability.  It is certainly easier to critique or tear down than create. Professional roles are embedded in and supported by structures and systems that have been in place for a long time. As individuals, we often nurture the creation of particular ways of seeing the world; our religious and political views shape how we view human nature and so on. It is easy to surround ourselves with like-minded people. It is understandable that we dig in and defend our positions.

Yet there is so much to be gained by reframing the way we approach problems and honoring the questions that have arisen.

What do we mean by public safety? Who counts as the public? What do we mean by accountability and how fairly is such a focus applied?  Do we, as a society, believe in fundamental human rights, those set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If so, are we excluding anyone from these rights? From the definition of human?  Regardless of how we got here, what kinds of powers, responsibilities, rights, and protections are appropriate for police officers charged with protecting all in a just and equitable way? What kinds of powers, responsibilities, rights, and protections are appropriate for other members of society, whether or not they are well, housed, working, wealthy, or US citizens?

Behind these and other specific questions is a call to take a deep look at the individual and societal consequences of our current approaches and the recognition of the inequities that exist as a result. What is, or isn’t, currently working and why? What is gained and lost by our current way of doing things? Who is advantaged and disadvantaged? What approaches would provide a safer society for everyone regardless of status, race, ability, or mental health?

Even when our positions or perspectives differ, we may find that we are driven by similar questions. We can choose to think in new ways and across divides about old problems, a process we sometimes call imagination.  Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Imaginative questioning is a way into the listening, speaking, and reflection needed to justly address the societal problems that face us.  If we desire a better future, we are best served by allowing ourselves to ask big, bold questions of each other and to hear what lies behind the concerns of individuals with disparate perspectives. Civil Rights activist Dolores Huerta put it this way, “When you have a conflict, that means that there are truths that have to be addressed on each side of the conflict. And to resolve that, you have to get people on both sides of the conflict involved so that they can dialogue.”

As you read these words, I hope you see an invitation to dialogue and imagination. An invitation to engage with others in asking the deeper questions that can help clarify possible solutions. An invitation to a way of inquiring that takes into account a wider range of perspectives, needs, and experiences.

What questions do you think our communities most need to reflect on respectfully together?  What are you willing to explore in service of a more just and equitable society?  I look forward to reading your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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