It’s a beautiful, challenging and often devastating time to be alive. As my journey at the University of Michigan comes to an end, I cannot help but reflect on the ever-changing circumstances of our social, political and economic environments. With winter settling in, our country continues to reckon with lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, housing shortages, supply chain issues, a national refugee crisis and ongoing discussions around fatal police violence that disproportionately impact communities of color.
When I first began the Master’s of Social Work (MSW) program at the University in the fall of 2020, I felt ill-equipped to serve, advocate for and work alongside Ann Arbor community members and organizations. After the murder of George Floyd, with the 2020 election looming, communities across the country took to the streets to call for racial justice and police reform. I felt heartbroken, helpless and confused about how I could be an ally. Collectively, we are asking how we can transform the idea of public safety so that it includes entire communities and rejects carceral logic rooted in white supremacy.
As a first-generation college student raised in a rural community, I came to the fields of sociology, anthropology, community health and social work with little knowledge regarding the colonialist history of policing. I was astounded to discover the sheer magnitude in which communities of color are demonized, criminalized, institutionalized and murdered at the hands of carceral systems and practices. Now that I’m in my last semester of graduate school, I have a solid understanding of the intersections between mental health, the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) and the criminal-legal system.
As a social worker interested in mental health, I am especially struck by the stories of Angelo Quinto, Walter Wallace Jr., and Ricardo Muñoz. All three of these men were experiencing mental health crises when the police escalated the already present state of fear and uncertainty, which ended in their tragic deaths. Quinto was in his home when the police ripped him from his mother’s arms and smothered him to death. Wallace was roaming the street outside his home when officers fired over a dozen bullets, hitting him in the shoulders and chest. His mother begged the police not to kill her son, who later died at the hospital. Muñoz was exiting his home when police shot and killed him within minutes of their arrival. His sister originally called a crisis intervention service, who in turn suggested she call city police instead. In all three cases, family members called 911 requesting mental health aid.
Over the past year, there have been occasions in which I contemplated whether or not I should call 911 for assistance. One situation in particular weighs heavy on my mind. A neighbor’s piercing cries seep through my apartment walls night after night. Her parents knock frantically on her door, pleading for her to answer. They come to my door asking about their daughter’s whereabouts, disclosing that they are worried about her mental health.
This is just one of several examples in which I had to ask myself, what would the role of the police be if I called? Whose safety am I worried about? Should I intervene or let the bystander effect unravel? If I do intervene, but am uncertain how to help, who can I call that is skilled in upholding safety and coordinating care services? As I weigh my options, I often find myself feeling defeated. My social work training has taught me how to navigate an array of systems, services, and crisis situations, but I understand my limits and know that a skilled team providing immediate one-on-one intervention would be better equipped to mediate crises in a loving, intentional and non-violent manner. If such a team were available, Angelo Quinto, Walter Wallace Jr. and Ricardo Muñoz might still be alive to hold their families in a tight embrace.
More than 1 in 5 people who are fatally shot by police have experienced mental illness. In addition, police are more likely to shoot and kill unarmed black men who exhibit signs of mental illness compared to white men exhibiting similar behaviors. So, what can we do to bolster the voices of communities that have been historically and systematically marginalized and silenced? To prevent excessive use of force and eradicate police terror in communities of color? To ensure everyone has access to services and resources that prioritize safety, healing and recovery?
While COVID-19 has made it challenging for us to leave our homes safely, I encourage you to seek opportunities to step outside of the classroom and engage with community members to learn from their collective wisdom, uncover opportunities for healing and advocate for community-based initiatives. Consider joining one of the numerous action groups available to and made up of U-M students. Care Not Cops is a student organization that supports alternative methods of care, safety and human relation. They offer courses and other resources for learning about criminal justice and mental health issues. Liberate Don’t Incarcerate is a group of community organizers that value decriminalization, decarceration and shifting resources and power back to communities. Join other students in the fight to end the Department of Public Safety and Security on campus. Or tune into public meetings with the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission or the Ann Arbor City Council to stay up to date on the latest alternative efforts in crisis response and other initiatives to end police violence.
These are not easy tasks. There will come a time when you feel exhausted and overwhelmed, when you cannot resist the urge to retreat to the confines of your comfort zone. Lean on your peers, colleagues and mentors for support because the world needs you to harness your emotions. Be bold in light of fear and adversity. Take a leap of faith in the fight for racial and social justice. Change work happens when we listen to and show up for communities.
While you’re hard at work and living your best life, I encourage you to conduct your own research so you can problem solve and make decisions that inform action. Be sure to ask questions frequently to acquire knowledge, eliminate confusion, strengthen relationships, demonstrate humility and gain empathy for perspectives that vary from your own. Utilize your breadth of knowledge and the power of your voice to create a society that values and protects communities of color. Address root causes of societal problems by employing culturally responsive, trauma-informed and person-in-environment perspectives and practices.
No matter where you are on your career journey, your role in cultivating safe and healthy communities is invaluable.
Change is on the horizon. Let’s move toward it together!
Mariah Meyerholz is a Master of Social Work student and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.