Series on Police Reform incites hope of starting more conversations at Bethel University.
By Chloe Peter | Contributing Writer
Gloria Portillo sat in a classroom full of other history students, where the topic of the day was history of poverty and economics. As the only person of the color in the room, the professor continued to call on her for opinions.
Normally, Portillo stayed quiet in class. This time, she didn’t have an option. She shifted in her seat as she explained her thoughts, the several sets of eyes on her becoming overwhelming. The more she expressed her opinions, the more she wanted to shrink into herself.
One student brought up “building the wall.” Another suggested that people of color who live in places where crime is high or are living in poverty should just go out and get better jobs or transfer to better schools. Portillo watched and listened as the rest of her class took sides and started to argue.
“You’re the one that looks different, so you’re expected to share,” said Portillo, a junior business major who identifies as Latinx.
Portillo is not the only student who feels uncomfortable with the racial tensions at Bethel – she has had many friends share similar experiences on Bethel’s campus and hopes that a guest speaker series on police reform in Minnesota which started Sept. 23 will help change that.
“If Bethel wants to continue to diversify as they repeatedly promote in brochures, which has come across as tokenism, then as an institution it needs to keep moving forward,” Portillo said.
The virtual series, which held its final session Oct. 14, included four weekly talks. The first given by the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The second given by a former police chief. The third, a Minneapolis city council member. And, lastly, state senator Jeff Hayden, who represents the district in which Floyd was killed.
Andy Johnson, associate professor of psychology, came up with the idea for the series after realizing how much misinformation had been spread around police reform following Floyd’s death in May. Through the online sessions, his goal is to provide the Bethel community with a wide variety of opinions about police reform.
“We wanted to teach students about working together as a team and gaining experience with controversial topics,” Johnson said.
Tanden Brekke, assistant director of community engagement at Bethel, helped put up boards over the windows and doors of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church after he heard white supremacist groups would be targeting historic black churches in the area. Not long after, Brekke got a call from Johnson about the idea to create the series about police reform.
“This series will not fully unpack [issues with police and racial tensions], but it will get people more involved and more informed,” Brekke said.
Johnson and Brekke hoped that, by opening these talks up to the entire student body, it would open the door for new opportunities in discussing topics like police reform and race from a Christian point of view.
“We, as a Christian school, don’t have the luxury of being isolated or pretending that we’re not connected to the rest of the world,” Johnson said.
While Bethel created a George Floyd Memorial scholarship for incoming students with Black or African American heritage in August, the announcement was met with opposition from alumni and community members who voiced concerns about Floyd’s criminal history in relation to Bethel.
Shortly after, President Ross Allen announced the Bethel University Institutional Action Plan for Diversity and Racial Healing, which is expected to be shared with the community soon.
In Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together, one of the values listed includes “human life in all diversity and fullness, recognizing that women and men of all races, ages, and ability levels reflect the creative genius of our Maker.” Portillo hoped more conversations would be started along these lines and that more students will become involved after hearing about the series on police reform.
“If Bethel wants to continue to uphold this specific part [of the covenant], then [it should] get the students talking about this, no matter how uncomfortable it gets or how distant the issue is from one’s [white] everyday life,” Portillo said.