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Advocacy starts at the local level

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Kendra Craighead
Special to the Campus Times

Sign making, chanting and marching – these are the three basic signifiers of a protest, but on March 18, The March Against Hateful Borders used sign making, chanting and marching to promote community, advocacy and collaboration for local activism.

Adjunct professor and graduate from the University of La Verne, Thomas Allison, and ULV graduate and former faculty member John Patrick, organized the March Against Hateful Borders, which took place at Grand Park in Los Angeles.

Patrick, who grew up in San Dimas, is now teaching speech and debate for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Patrick and Allison worked together as students and faculty here. And in the wake of the Trump administration’s executive orders that promised to build a wall and block travelers from countries like Syria, Patrick connected with Allison once again.

“I was driving and I had been down in L.A. to do a conference and it was the day when President Trump announced he was going to pay for the wall by putting a tariff on Mexican goods, and … I got to a point where I knew there just had to be some type of action,” Patrick said.

Patrick asked Allison if he knew of any groups already involved in trying to stop Trump’s proposed anti-immigrant policies.

“There will be people organizing because we are going to set it up,” was Allison’s response to his former colleague.

“It was just a quick text conversation, Thomas is like my energy of activation, he is really good at making things happen, and I am good on the vision end … working with other people keeps me motivated,” Patrick said.

Advocacy Begins

Locally organized and brought to the streets of Los Angeles, last month’s March Against Hateful Borders advocated for the value of immigrants and was a direct display of resistance against the Trump administration’s plans for a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, and Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the Muslim Ban.

The march was not about making a political statement, but about encouraging dialogue, which is something that the Social Justice Advocacy Project firmly incorporates into its platform, organizers said.

Sometimes social issues—police brutality, domestic violence—can feel really far away and removed from the small communities in which we live. We hear about these issues all the time on the news; domestic violence, discrimination, racial profiling, hate speech and police brutality. And while we are all well aware that these issues exist, sometimes it is easy to feel as though they are not close by.

Allison is the founder of a non-profit, West Covina-based activism group, the Social Justice Advocacy Project, which partners with local police departments, provides pro bono legal assistance through organizations like the House of Ruth for victims of domestic violence and works with local after-school programs to help implement and provide speech and debate courses for children.

Although the Social Justice Advocacy Project was not organized in response to the 2016 election, Allison and Patrick believe that activism can help evoke meaningful change, especially on a local level.

The Social Justice Advocacy Project also addresses issues of domestic violence, racial profiling and police violence.

“I realized a lot of what we were doing in court wasn’t helping people outside of court, so I needed to figure out a way to help people outside of the court room,” Allison said. “I wanted to attack the social problem that leads to the legal consequence, rather than just handle the legal consequences.”

Allison came up with the idea for the Social Justice Advocacy Project in 2012 during a time when he was handling a lot of cases pro bono. One of the biggest aspects of the Social Justice Advocacy Project was opening dialogue between communities and their police departments.

Azusa Police Chief Steve Hunt found Allison’s approach effective.

“At the time when Thomas was reaching out to us, we had lost brothers in Texas, and there was controversy concerning the use of violence and force by police,” Hunt said. “Rather than coming in and accusing us of what we weren’t doing, he wanted to hear about what we were doing and it was very refreshing.”

The Social Justice Advocacy Project operates on a 15-point platform that includes: diversification of law enforcement, education on law enforcement, citizen review panels, truth and reconciliation, voter access and the prohibition of voter disenfranchisement laws.

Hunt said that he was intrigued by Allison’s 15-point platform, and thought it was a positive way to “open doors” and allow the Azusa police department to be more “available” to the community, and while Hunt said that he believes “some topics may be uncomfortable” they are necessary to discuss.

“The thing about the advocacy project to me is, if we emerge from this with people who pay attention to the website and people who pay attention to the group, and we can direct their attention to support a sane and humane immigration policy, that would be good—something that offers long term advocacy,” Patrick said.

Creating Conversation

Although protesting, typically, does not offer long-term plans for change, it is a means of generating awareness.

The March Against Hateful Borders is a different kind of advocacy than the Social Justice Advocacy Projects’ usual work, Patrick hopes his work with Allison will help to inspire others to become involved on a local level.

“Unless the people who have the same interests as us in border policy, unless we can get those people active in government and moving through the political hierarchy nothing is going to change; part of the problem with the government is that it is still saturated with white men at the top,” Patrick said.

Allison said protesting is just one way to bring change.

“I felt a compulsion telling me to reach out to the police chiefs. I wanted to talk to them and understand where they are coming from, you know, facilitate a program – a dialogue – so that what is happening throughout the rest of the country doesn’t happen within this region,” Allison said.

If the relationship between citizens and law enforcement is ever going to improve, Allison believes it will be when rationality commands action, rather than perpetuating a narrative of “us vs. them.”

“Cops are good guys,” Allison said. “There are some bad ones, just as there are bad ones in every profession; being a cop, it’s a human based profession, but it’s our job as people in a democratic society to hold them accountable.”

Some of the difficult conversations Hunt and Alison have had deal with racial profiling and police officers’ use of unnecessary force.

“We want our communities to be connected, active and engaged,” Hunt said. “We need to have some of these difficult conversations in order for that to happen.”

“We need to support them (police) and make them feel comfortable doing their job, which is protecting us,” Allison said.

Allison explained that, in order for police and the community to find common ground both sides need to approach one another with a willingness to listen.

“We still have some topics that we need to really work through (including) racial profiling… Any profession has the potential for bad apples, that’s why you have policy, procedure, and law, so you can find the bad apples and remove them,” Hunt said.

Advocacy Serves the Community

The Social Justice Advocacy Project holds forums, offering opportunities for police departments and the communities they serve to engage with one another.

“You have people who live in the shadows and never talk to the police, but they have issues with the police – if you hate me and I don’t know you, how will I know that you hate me? How do I even care that you hate me? What am I going to do about it? Well…there is nothing that can be done,” Allison said.

Hunt has even spoken in several of Allison’s classes at ULV to speak at several of his classes, offering his own perspective and experience on policing.

“Getting that police officer perspective is huge,”Hunt said adding that it is not common in media, partly due to various departments’ communications protocol.

“Police officers are trained to look for behaviors, not to look for race or to racially profile, they are trained to look for violence or criminal activities,” Hunt said.

“The Social Justice Advocacy Project really brings to the table the conversation that people need to hear, and also what police officers need to hear, so that they can understand the fear some people – black people, minorities – have, and how that fear is very real to them. We may not always understand their perspective on things.”

Hunt said that a big demographic of the community that he and Allison wanted to more heavily focus on are the young adults, the junior and high school students, to help give them a better understanding of police officers and as Hunt said, to try and “humanize what we do.”

“What is so powerful about education is it teaches us to look at both sides of things – this is a way, without the formal education process, that we have to allow us to be willing to listen to the other side,” Hunt said.

Robert Ruiz, director of forensics and debate coach at ULV, is also director of education for the Social Justice Advocacy Project.

“I design the programs on the educational part of the project with Thomas,” Ruiz said. “We are still in the infancy stage on getting really mobilized.”

Ruiz’s wife, Jennifer Ruiz, also a ULV graduate, is on the Project’s board. “As soon as I saw Robert getting involved, and everything Thomas had planned, I really wanted to get involved myself,” Jennifer Ruiz said.

Ruiz said that finding people who want to donate their time to teach volunteer speech and debate programs are not hard to find at ULV, especially since there are so many students who want to give back to the community.

Another program of the Social Justice Advocacy Project is working to implement speech and debate classes in public schools and after-school programs.

“The city of Pomona has one area that I am looking into right now,” Ruiz said.

“It’s an arts district where they have weekly programs for underprivileged kids—they do slam poetry, but I am trying to get them to do speech and debate, and I want to do it in English and Spanish.”

Jennifer Ruiz said that one way she gets the word out on the project is by posting flyers or newsletters in her office, but she tries not to post anything that might be see as too political.
“The advocacy program was not in response to Trump, but because of the Trump administration we are now advocating for the marches and keeping people involved,” Jennifer Ruiz said.

“I think when you raise awareness, whether for race, religion or economic diversity, it’s all about bringing our community together.”

Ruiz wants to see speech and debate become an integral part of local, public youth programs.

“My hope is that the speech and debate portion of the social advocacy project just eventually spreads to so many different places to where people can say, ‘if you want to get involved and you want to be a better speaker there is a program here,’ no matter what city you’re in,” Ruiz said.

Building Bridges

Allison’s wife, Brittany Allison, is also integrally involved in the Project. She helped draft the 15-point platform, and has been the face of the Social Justice Advocacy Project by reaching out to the local police departments and other non-profit programs.

Brittany Allison not only called and set up appointments with the police chiefs, but also had to explain the project and its platform to them.

Brittany Allison was an education and theater major at ULV before graduating in 2010. She will receive her masters in education from ULV this year.

“My involvement in the advocacy project started last summer, late June; the nation was experiencing so many police related killings – Alton sterling, Philando Castile died, five policemen were shot down, so there was this burden falling on the nations shoulders, and for Thomas and I, it felt like a tangible mourning that was happening,” Brittany Allison said.

Brittany Allison does a lot of work in organizing the project’s volunteers.

“If we want to take our advocacy and reform anywhere, we first have to know it will work in our own backyard,” Brittany Allison said.

On top of everything, Brittany and Thomas Allison have become new parents.

“I think becoming a mom clarified that need to help. I am white, I have white privilege, there were times I knew these issues existed but they were very distant because I didn’t know anyone affected by those issues,” Brittany Allison said. “Giving birth to a mixed race baby, I don’t want to have to be worried when our daughter is older… I don’t want her to be living in fear or in a divided community.”

Brittany Allison said that the one thing she really admires and loves about the Social Justice Advocacy Project is that it is not about notary, because it believes in reaching out and helping other organizations and their client base, rather than trying to make its own.

“We don’t want to make enemies because that’s not how activism works,” Brittany Allison said.

“I think that is when activism fails, when you start attacking the other side, but when you’re positive and peaceful, you can bring people together.”

The March Against Hateful Borders was not about making enemies, but creating a space for voices to be heard in the hopes that someone would listen.

“My hope is that this message is going to somehow get to people who aren’t registered to vote,” Patrick said. “By directing people towards becoming a registered voter, that is what keeps our society non-violent.”

Bradlee Johnson is a recent 2016 graduate of ULV with a degree in speech and communication, who took many classes with Allison during her time as a student.

“I think for smaller communities like La Verne, Pomona, Azusa or San Dimas, they still matter, because ultimately the problem, it translates to bigger areas,” Johnson said. “Go and protest, but ultimately what is the goal? Are you just making a lot of noise or are you going to do something about it? Holding up a sign is not going to get everyone to listen.”

For more information on the Social Justice Advocacy Project visit advocacyproject.org, for more information on the activism behind the March Against Hateful Borders, visit defyhatefulborders.com or facebook.com/defyhatefulborders.

Kendra Craighead can be reached at kendra.craighead@laverne.edu.

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