Sparking a Conversation Around Policing in NYC

  • Njoki Gitahi

(Excerpted from New Yorkers experience policing differently depending on who they are and where they live. Some communities are patrolled; others are profiled. When your neighbors’ experiences are starkly different from your own, it can be almost impossible to understand their perspective. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a state branch of the ACLU, hoped to spark a dialogue around race and police tactics in over-policed communities, and to engage voters on this divisive issue before New York City’s mayoral election. But the NYCLU also understood that traditional slogans and billboards weren’t enough to spark deep personal conversations and effective political action—the city needed real talk. The organization engaged IDEO to help create a city-wide, nontraditional campaign. In talking with New Yorkers, the NYCLU advocates and IDEO designers honed in on two simple truths: Transformative conversations happen only when people feel safe enough to listen—and to speak. And people become more compassionate listeners once they themselves feel heard. In a time of entrenched interests and growing social conflict, listening can be a radical act. Together, IDEO and the NYCLU designed Listening NYC, a grassroots campaign to promote interpersonal listening, meaningful discussion, and collective action around policing. At the center of the experience is a deck of Conversation Cards that encourage New Yorkers to share their stories and hear those of others. Simple prompts like “I believe the role of police is to _____,” and questions like “A cop stops you in your neighborhood. What do you do?” empower people to find common ground. Through straightforward but structured activities like these, many New Yorkers who enter the Listening Room expecting to disagree instead find themselves sharing stories and opinions in ways they never imagined. The NYCLU has sent Conversation Cards to celebrities, influencers, and every member of the New York City Council. Sending postcards to Mayor de Blasio and Conversation Cards to the city council led directly to passage of the Right to Know Act—legislation that incorporates some of the NYCLU’s proposals for police reform. Today, the impact of Listening NYC has moved beyond city limits. The NYCLU’s Syracuse chapter is introducing the pop-up installation there, while in Boston, mayoral candidate Tito Jackson has promised a visit from the Listening Room if elected. To keep dialogue flowing, the ACLU plans to distribute Conversation Cards nationwide.