Connecting through conversation: School of Communications hosts film screening, forum to encourage community dialogue

Led by Communications Dean Rochelle Ford, the School of Communications held a June 11 screening of “Walking While Black” and a community discussion to connect law enforcement, Alamance County leaders and diverse communities through conversation.

Following a screening of the documentary “Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer,” community members gathered on June 11 for a conversation in Snow Family Grand Atrium.

The School of Communications hosted its first event in Turner Theatre since the state’s stay-at-house orders this spring, inviting a small group of community members to watch the documentary “Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is The Answer” and engage in a community discussion on June 11. The conversation, led by Communications Dean Rochelle Ford, aimed to increase and improve dialogue, communication and healing between local law enforcement and the diverse communities in Alamance County.

James Wilkes, senior pastor of Elon First Baptist Church, participates in a community forum on June 11 to discuss improving communication and understanding in Alamance County’s diverse communities, while also building relationships with law enforcement.

Attendees included Doug Dotson, interim director of campus safety and police at Elon University; Jeffrey Prichard, chief of Graham Police Department; James Wilkes, senior pastor of Elon First Baptist Church; Michael Woods, a community member and one-time candidate for the Elon Board of Aldermen; and Melanie Sill, executive director of the North Carolina Local News Workshop and former news executive.

The invitation event began with a screening of the 90-minute documentary film by A.J. Ali and Errol Webber that examines racial profiling and the daily struggle it creates for minority communities. “Walking While Black” features nearly 30 interviews with members of communities across the country, including current and retired law enforcement members, as well as community leaders, social workers and psychologists. These individuals discussed the effects of racial profiling on American communities and tragic instances in the history of police-community relations, which include the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and the five members of law enforcement who died in a July 2016 shootout in Dallas.

To adhere the North Carolina COVID-19 Executive Order, attendees sat at a distance from one another during the screening and subsequent conversation. Following the documentary, attendees participated in a frank, honest conversation in the Snow Family Grand Atrium, discussing issues relating to community policing, systemic racism, the needs and challenges of Alamance County, as well as personal experiences with racism and racial profiling.

During the 75-minute conversation, Wilkes offered one of the event’s most poignant moments, discussing the moments he’s faced discrimination and racial profiling. The senior pastor of Elon First Baptist Church spoke of a harrowing experience of getting pulled over in Greensboro at night for no apparent reason. Then, he was asked to step out of the car, and the officer – a white male – insinuated that Wilkes may have been drinking. Quite unlikely, considering Wilkes does not drink.

“I remember in that moment, I questioned, ‘Is this it?’ Is this going to be the end?’” Wilkes said. “I hate to say it but, for black men, our goal is just to make it home safely. My Caucasian friends, they don’t have that same fear that I do. They just don’t. “

Ford and Woods both shared personal anxieties relating to their college-aged children, and the real possibility that they may be targeted by law enforcement due to their race and skin color. “I fear for him,” said Woods regarding his son.

Doug Dotson, interim director of campus safety and police at Elon University, spoke about the value of community policing and building relationships with Elon community members.

The discussion moved from personal experiences to how to the community leaders can positively impact their spheres of influence. Dotson and Prichard called for a need for increased community policing, with Dotson explaining he hopes to start conversations with incoming students, particularly students from underrepresented groups.

Prichard detailed his department’s commitment to community engagement, noting “it is one of the things we feel strongly about,” he said. But he explained it is a program he wants to increase further, beyond the one dedicated staff member he has now.

Wilkes pressed upon the law enforcement officials in attendance about the importance of police officers being a part of the community, not just passersby.

“If I only see you in my area when there is a problem – when there is something wrong – how can I trust you?” said Wilkes regarding a lack of police presence in his community.

For Ford, she emphasized the need to develop media literacy initiatives and programming that help community members identify accurate news sources. And all attendees expressed apprehension of social media news sources in general.

Dotson and Prichard agreed that they needed to share the “impactful” message from the documentary and discussion with their staffs. Each spoke with Ford about offering a screening of “Walking While Black” to their respective departments, and a need to bridge gaps, build relationships and develop trust with community members.

“We can’t be naïve enough to think that there is not an issue,” said Dotson, noting that law enforcement organizations need to understand the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the community outcry. “We have to realize that and recognize that.”

This intimate screening and conversation with six attendees and Dean Ford mirrored a larger event held at the school as part of the National Day of Reconciliation in September 2019. The school will host a second screening of “Walking While Black” and discussion for invited community members on Tuesday, June 16.