By Abby Weingarten
An academic and activist, Dean Bill Woodson, Ph.D., joined New College in 2019 after 11 years as a resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota. During his time there, he often hosted townhalls, facilitating candid conversations between police and community leaders in response to fatal encounters with law enforcement.
So, when the civil rights uprising following George Floyd’s murder erupted in late May, Woodson (the College’s dean of outreach and engagement, and chief diversity and inclusion officer) was in direct contact with his Minneapolis colleagues—from politicians to police chiefs. He had worked with them for years, and even included their interviews in his 2018 thesis, Underrepresented: The Experiences of Black People Who Pursued Careers in Minnesota Law Enforcement.
“In 2014, I was looking for a topic for my dissertation. It was the summer we lost Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice—and the national discourse about law enforcement and the black community was center stage,” said Woodson, who served as the assistant dean at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis prior to moving to Sarasota. “There was this deep antagonism between the black community and law enforcement—a long history of abuse and brutality, often with little or no justification. A spotlight was being shone on that, but really no solutions were emerging.”
Woodson set his sights on creating solutions. Drawing from his corporate, academic and organizational leadership background (he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota; a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Harvard University; a master of business administration degree from the University of Michigan; and a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Brown University), Woodson began hosting community forums to address the issues.
“At the time, there were events and protests but there wasn’t a dialogue, so I started hosting these townhalls, bringing law enforcement and community leaders in the same room, giving police leadership an opportunity to respond to the question, ‘This system looks broken to us. What are you doing to help not have this happen in the future, and to help us believe that we should have faith in you?,’” Woodson said. “I was also able to engage both academics and law enforcement leaders, who were developing new paradigms, on how to move things forward.”
During this period, President Barack Obama issued an executive order, assigning an 11-member task force to address some of the same problems Woodson sought to investigate through his doctoral research. This report, entitled The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, detailed in-depth recommendations for law enforcement, and also included a sharp focus on rebuilding public trust and improving police-community relations.
“Our first townhall was initially being organized in response to the decision by the Hennepin County attorney that the officers involved in the death of Jamar Clark would not be charged,” Woodson said. “But then, we had another fatality: Philando Castile.”
Following Castile’s death and that first townhall, Woodson–with input from fellow academics, community leaders and law enforcement officers–drafted a letter to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in July 2016 entitled, Citizens’ response to the death of Philando Castile; and a way forward for law enforcement in Minnesota.
He wrote: “There is a significant body of evidence indicating that societal implicit bias, and a perception of the black male as being more violent, more dangerous, and more prone to illegal activity, often leads to black men being stopped on suspicion of criminal behavior… As a result, the black community predictably experiences a greater level of fear when law enforcement initiates contact, compared to whites.”
Woodson went on to recommend that police departments use implicit bias training, de-escalation protocols and other tools to reduce the incidence of violence in police-citizen encounters.
“What should be trivial, routine interactions with law enforcement should not escalate like so many of these fatalities have. It doesn’t start with a bank robbery or someone taking a potshot at somebody else. It starts with a broken taillight. It starts with somebody selling loose cigarettes. It starts with somebody jaywalking. How does that turn into a fatality?,” Woodson said. “And that’s the problem we’re still trying to solve in 2020. We’re really trying to improve the degree to which policing is reflective of the desires and the expectations of the community, and to reestablish a level of faith that you’re going to be safe in the presence of law enforcement.”
Like his former colleagues in Minneapolis, Woodson is frustrated. But when he reads a news story in the city’s papers about a police officer taking a knee or marching with the protestors, he is deeply moved. The dialogue he helped further is reaching a critical point, and Woodson hopes the conversation continues to strengthen.
“People around the world are seeing that this is a pattern of behavior. This is not just about George Floyd,” Woodson said. “This is about a function that’s supposed to protect people’s lives but is endangering people’s lives. There is a pressing need for reform.”
Woodson grew up in Washington, D.C. and spent many summers in Newtown, Sarasota’s historically black community. He was a small child when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. When Woodson was between the ages of 10 and 15, the police stopped him about once every six months to ask him where he was going. As an adult, he would randomly be pulled over for odd reasons, like driving with an out-of-state license plate on the interstate. He knows how it feels to be targeted, and when New College students come to him with the same concerns, he mentors and empowers them.
“It can be a crushing weight on people’s spirits, what is going on in the world. One of the things I talk about is, if you’re doing everything you can do to make a positive impact, that’s a way to take back your power and not feel like you’re powerless in the grips of the system,” Woodson said. “I tell students, ‘As community members, you have the right to speak out about how you want to be policed. You have the right to go into a police station and share your concerns. And if you don’t want to go alone, I will go with you.’”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.