Michael Patton-Lopez headshot

The Pacific Oaks community comes to terms with the Chauvin verdict

Dean of Students Michael Lopez-Patton reflects on a student forum held on the occasion of the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict.

At Pacific Oaks College, we live every day according to our core values of respect, diversity, inclusion, and social justice. Therefore, we commonly gather as a community to respond to pressing matters of our times. We strive for ways to inspire our students to learn how to find their voices and learn to become advocates for others. When events transpire that affect our community on a core level, we want to provide venues to discuss openly and freely.

With last month’s verdict looming in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, I believed that, as part of my role as dean of students for Pacific Oaks College, we must provide the community an opportunity to come together to express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns about the events unfolding in Minneapolis.

We began planning the event once the trial of Derek Chauvin was underway. We knew this would be a topic that people in the Pacific Oaks community would be keen on addressing.

One year ago

Last spring, we had held a similar forum to discuss George Floyd’s death, and the issues of social justice that were highlighted by that tragedy. While many at the gathering were reacting to George Floyd’s death as a social justice issue, we also had people in our community who have family members in law enforcement and have strong views regarding the safety of officers. The result was a productive discussion that allowed everyone to safely express their feelings and emotions on the issue.

We were in the process of finalizing a date and time for this forum when we learned that the jury was about to deliver a verdict, so we immediately scheduled the discussion for the following evening. President Jack Paduntin released a statement less than an hour after the verdict was read. He clearly stated Pacific Oaks’ position on the verdict. We felt it important to take a stand.

Navigating virtual gatherings

Because of the current environment, we held the event on Zoom. While it is our preference to gather in person, video conferences do have advantages, including the fact that, for these events, we make it clear that participants do not need to be on camera if they don’t feel comfortable. Also, the chat function provides more reticent participants with the opportunity to share without having to talk. In those cases, we have someone read the messages aloud to give voice to the words.

It’s important to say here, as well, that we don’t record these forums. We opened with a disclaimer that this was an open dialogue, a safe space for participants to share what they are feeling. Sometimes, opposing viewpoints are shared. At these times, our core value of respect is essential as we remember that those holding these opinions should be heard and respected. Our growth occurs when we are exposed to different viewpoints that may not change our minds but can lead to gaining greater empathy for the circumstances of others.

The importance of being heard

We had 45 people attend the event. In the past, we have had higher attendance, but this event was organized on short notice, the news was fresh, and emotions were still raw. I began by reading Dr. Paduntin’s statement. Then I opened the dialogue by asking, “What burdens are you carrying right now?”

This was the moment members of our community could say out loud what they were feeling or experiencing. The purpose was not to come up with a solution but to make sure everyone felt heard, which is a big step in coping with serious emotions. Most reactions trended less toward anger and more toward dismay and sadness for the state of social justice in our community and our country.

I was very impressed with thoughts expressed from both sides of the aisle. Some tears were shed. One participant shared that the jury had delivered partial justice but, in the same breath, also said they felt for both the Floyd and Chauvin families, as both had children who would bear the burden of this crime. A parent of color pointed out how her experience was different from others who could simply tell their children to “have fun” when they left the house, while she had to worry that her children know how to survive, given their background and appearance.

What was learned

In the end, the forum was not a healing moment per se, but it was a step toward healing, allowing many to say, “These are things that I carry, and these are my concerns. These are real fears that I have.” For them to share those out loud, for us to acknowledge that they’d been heard, to recognize the commonality of feelings, to let folks know they’re not alone in their thoughts and fears, and to advance the concept that when you share, we share it with you. It’s not just yours by yourself anymore.

The event was a step toward healing insofar as some who feared that an acquittal of Chauvin would mean a continuation of the status quo now hoped the guilty verdict would set a precedent for change in how law enforcement interact with the community.

Most of all, we hoped to convey the message, “You’ve been heard, and you’re not alone.”

There were pauses between speakers. We didn’t fill the quiet spaces with talking. We gave moments of reflection after someone spoke so that we could ponder this heavy topic. We closed the session by providing participants information about mental health services that are available free of charge to our students because we did not want to expose our community to intense emotions and attitudes without providing resources to process them.

Upon reflection, this forum encapsulates who Pacific Oaks College is. Each day, we urge our students to find their voices. They have all experienced times when they were voiceless and times when they felt powerless. We teach them how to be heard and how to be a voice for others. I ended by reminding everyone in attendance that this was not the first public forum of its kind and, sadly, was not likely to be the last. However, I assured them that when those moments came, we would gather again as a community to speak and to listen.

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