Three things I learned teaching the Tucson Police Department about the LGBTQ+ community

-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

I am good at leading professional learning. My activities are tailored to my audience. I bring snacks. I balance content time and processing time. And, most importantly, I reflect on each session, seek feedback from whomever I can find who’ll talk to me about what they just experienced, and put that feedback into practice as soon as possible. I’m not good at basketball, making my bed, playing the bassoon, or many other areas of human endeavor, but I do know that many leaders have told me that they have learned how to be a better presenter from participating in something I was facilitating.

So, while humility is an area of growth for me, you’ll understand why I thought I was adequately equipped to teach a one hour course to 28 small groups of police officers from the Tucson Police Department on strategies to interact effectively with LGBTQ+ Tucsonans. 

Many thanks to the Pima County Community Prevention Coalition for funding this work.

If your job involves helping someone learn something new, I have a hunch you’ll connect with what I learned leading professional learning at the Tucson Police Department.

Teaching is about the learner.

The goal of my presentation was to increase Tucson Police Department officers’ familiarity with key LGBTQ+ vocabulary and to support them with strategies they could use in their work to interact more effectively with LGBTQ+ citizens. 

Early on in the planning process with Sgt. Ericka Stropka, Lt. James Wakefield, and currently, Lt. Stacie Shaner, I realized that my understanding of what police officers do every day was incomplete. Thankfully, Sgt. Stropka invited me to ride along with officers from the Substance Use Resource Team Unit. I kept in touch with the officers I met, and asked them for feedback as I was planning the presentation. 

I was also able to rehearse my presentation on zoom to a large group of officers from the Tucson Police Department as well as deputies from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. As challenging as leading a class via Zoom can be, I paid close attention to how officers and deputies engaged the presentation, both on screen and via chat. 

And, while the learning outcomes for the session stayed the same, how I approached the topic changed dramatically. Instead of exploring scenarios I had found and ‘fixing’ them, we brought officers’ own experiences with LGBTQ+ Tucsonans to the center of the work. From there, some officers noticed that they had no one in their lives that they knew of that identified as LGBTQ+, and others had many LGBTQ+ family and friends. We connected their own lived experience of negotiating negative stereotypes as police officers to the stereotype threat that LGBTQ people experience everyday (Helpful hint: If you have a friend who works in law enforcement, they’d rather you leave that out when introducing them to your other friends). Finally, we identified one or two small strategies that they could put into place that either supported something helpful that they were already doing (asking people how they’d like to be referred to if their identification doesn’t agree with who they are), or perhaps added on to something that wouldn’t be too hard to do (introducing themselves with pronouns when interacting with the public).

While the goal of the session was to create a safer community for LGBTQ+ Tucsonans, ultimately the training had to be about the law enforcement officers in the room. Every session helped me understand who Tucson Police Department’s officers were as learners and equipped me to design learning that was relevant to them. And, the more officers could see themselves represented in the learning, the better they were able to engage the work.

Values are at the center of everyone’s work.

A few days before the trainings began, I sent a survey to a small group of Tucson Police Department officers. I asked one key question: “To be a good officer, it’s essential to be [one word answer]. Here is what officers shared:

  • Empathetic
  • Kind
  • Respectful
  • Compassionate
  • Resilient
  • Flexible

I am convinced that values drive action, and the more that we make our values explicit, the easier it is to live our values out loud. Because I presented strategies as small actions that line up with their own core values as officers, the fact that the content was a surprise mattered much less. By centralizing the officers’ values, strategies such as adding personal gender pronouns to their introduction script became less about me and what I wanted them to do and more about who they were and who they aspired to be.

Uncovering, discovering, and recovering values is important at all levels of learning. If your work involves teaching, consider using some version of the question I asked officers early on: “To be a good [identity], it is important to be [one word answer].” Aligning the work with what the group values most—and exploring what happens when values collide—is a powerful way of examining what motivates our day to day actions.

No one cares what the teacher knows.

Sometimes, I’m leading professional learning or training activities with groups that have sought me ought for specific expertise that they are completely ready to implement and make part of their practice. However, what more typically happens is that a leader or a leadership team decides that it would be helpful if their colleagues knew more about something. In this case, the range of commitment to the topic is much wider.

While I had gotten to know several officers in the Tucson Police Department prior to the training, for most officers, they were meeting me the first time at my class. Furthermore, they didn’t ask to spend an hour with me (and three hours with two other trainers), and they all had valid reasons for looking disengaged at the start.

But what I noticed was that sharing my family pictures, asking about their work, validating their own experiences with stereotypes, and mainly, just being responsive to the human beings in front of me, I was able to build bridges that allowed me to challenge deeply-rooted and unhelpful strategies effectively and respectfully.

Teaching isn’t about what the teacher knows. Rather, good teaching is about helping learners accomplish something that matters to them.

Teaching is transformative.

Teaching is an endeavor in transformation. After several of the trainings, I heard back from several officers who’d used some of the strategies we worked on together about how walls between them and LGBTQ+ Tucsonans seemed to come down as a result of practices they’d learned in my session. 

As intensely aware of how fraught my work with law enforcement is when many of my colleagues, family, and friends strive to end policing as we know it, I’m encouraged that I can say with integrity that this project has at least created some incremental level of safety that didn’t exist before.

However, I’m also noticing how this project has transformed me. What began in my mind as a project to equip police officers with knowledge and skills related to LGBTQ+ citizens is now more about envisioning the kind of world where officers respond to fewer domestic violence calls, queer teens are no longer more likely to experience homelessness than all other youth, and people have access to the services they need when they are ready to take advantage of them. At least for now, a stronger partnership with law enforcement is likely to be essential for those of use engaged in making this vision real.

This project with the Tucson Police Department has helped me reflect on three key aspects of effective learning: Keeping the learner at the center of the learning, aligning the work with our values, and accepting the transformation that happens when we help each other learn something new. I am grateful for this opportunity and I am optimistic that this dialogue can continue.

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