In fall 2014, Sandra McGee was at her Des Moines church when she found herself asking African American teenagers what they thought about the spate of killings of black males by law enforcement across the United States.
“They said that they literally expected to be killed by the police,” McGee recalls. “They had this huge fear.”
McGee, a Des Moines native, social worker, and community advocate, decided to do something about it. She organized forums addressing the relationship between local and federal law enforcement and the African American community in Des Moines. The Enhancing Relationships forums brought together constituencies that hadn’t talked regularly—and are widely credited with creating more understanding and trust between the groups.
It’s also the main reason why McGee, a clinical assistant professor in the UI School of Social Work who teaches at the Iowa Center for Higher Education campus in Des Moines, was selected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Omaha field office to receive the 2017 Director’s Community Leadership Award. McGee will accept the award at a ceremony April 20 in Washington, D.C.
“Dr. McGee is an ideal candidate for this award through the tremendous contributions she has made to her community,” says FBI Special Agent in Charge Randall Thysse. “Her dedication and service to her community is unparalleled, and we want to show her how much we appreciate all she does for her community.”
McGee grew up on Des Moines’ west side in a multiethnic, mostly working-class neighborhood. She says relations among neighbors were harmonious, with seasonal communal events that included a wintertime in-home affair where the children made gingerbread houses.
On the surface, community relations with the local police appeared cordial—even peaceful—despite civil rights protests that erupted in other cities during McGee’s childhood in the 1960s. But the perceived calm masked an unease that existed between law enforcement and the African American residents of her neighborhood.
“It wasn’t necessarily community-wide, but it was certainly obvious that my brother and father and some of the black men in the community were treated differently by the police,” McGee says. “We observed that and witnessed it.”
So, when McGee heard the concerns from African American youth in Des Moines about police shootings of black males, she felt compelled to act.
“I’m not a fighter, quite frankly, but I am someone who’s not afraid to take on an issue that I’m passionate about,” says McGee, who earned a master’s degree in social work from the UI. “This was one that was really important to me because I could not shut off those young voices. I just wanted them to have a different experience than what we were seeing on the news.”
She leveraged her contacts with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Des Moines, the FBI, and the Des Moines Police Department to determine a framework for how law enforcement could better connect with the African American community. And, she utilized her expertise and experience in social work to conceive the idea of hosting a forum to bring together law enforcement personnel, African American community members, and social workers.
The first gathering, Enhancing Relationships Forums: Moving Change Forward, was held on Jan. 28, 2015. Just a few months earlier, a series of highly publicized shootings of African American males had occurred, including the deaths of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio.
McGee stressed the positives that could come from the forum.
“We really wanted to talk about enhancing relationships because whether you have a relationship that is negative or positive, you have a relationship,” McGee says. “We wanted the conversation to be about enhancing the relationships rather than continuing the conversation about being divided.”
Eighty participants emerged from the discussion with a better understanding of each other’s concerns and steps they could take together to foster better relationships.
“What was most eye opening for me was to hear the thoughts from a different perspective and realize that not everyone feels as comfortable as they should, and that inspires us to think about what we can do better for our community,” says Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert, who participated in the forum.
“We were able to talk,” says Jonathan Whitfield, pastor at Corinthian Baptist Church, which hosted the forum. “The greatest thing that came out of it was we became faces we know, and people we can call. We came away with names.”
Participants convened a second forum in April 2016 to continue the dialogue. Apart from the forums, African American youth and police officers meet periodically in Justice Circles to talk about law enforcement and other subjects. Youth have gone on ride-alongs with police, and Des Moines Police held a job fair that drew wide interest in the African American community, especially among young people.
“The whole atmosphere changed. We started taking selfies with police officers. Kids were running to police officers to get hugs. Officers were putting their hats on kids,” Whitfield says with a chuckle.
The conversations, large and small, have continued. And with that, McGee became a respected voice in the community.
Lillie Miller, an African American lieutenant in the Des Moines Police Department, says McGee has been inspiring and calls her a role model.
“You know, she doesn’t have to do the things she does,” says Miller, a UI graduate who has been on the Des Moines police force since 1999. “I think she sees something that needs to be done, has a passion for things, and then goes out and does it.”
McGee says she’s humbled by the recognition and the FBI award. She felt it was her duty as a social worker and community advocate to create respectful, meaningful dialogue.
“Taking a stand to move change forward is our professional obligation,” she says.