On August 9, 2014, police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, fueling a firestorm of nationwide debate about policing and power that had already been sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. Two days later, Isela Xitlali Gómez ’13 began her new job as the Richfield (Minnesota) Police Department’s community liaison, a role that asks her to keep the lines of communication open between officers of the law and the citizens they serve.

“The timing wasn’t easy for me,” admits Gómez, an American studies and Latin American studies major who grew up in East Los Angeles and Ontario, Calif. “I went into this very naively thinking ‘I’m going to change the world,’ but that first month, it was hard to understand my role between these spaces. From 9 to 5, I’m working with the police department, and after five, my social circles are very progressive, with friends who are working on all of these issues. It’s confusing, but in terms of timing, this may be a golden moment. No one can avoid these issues now.”

Gómez works for the Joint Community Police Partnership, a collaboration among several Hennepin County suburban police departments, which is aimed at breaking down barriers between mostly white police forces and an increasingly multicultural Minnesota. In Richfield, the inner-ring Minneapolis suburb where Gómez works, the population shift has been swift, nearly doubling the percentage of students of color in area schools over the last decade, and quadrupling the percentage of foreign-born residents between 1990 and 2010.

Richfield has many undocumented families, says Gómez, “and the challenge when it comes to law enforcement is that people might be afraid to call the police because they’re afraid of being deported.” Gómez first became interested in the intersection of police and immigrant communities while working as an advocate at Casa de Esperanza, a Minnesota-based nonprofit working to end domestic violence in the Latino/a community. “If you’re the victim of a crime and you’re afraid to call for support, it affects an entire community.”

A viola player, Gómez planned to study music at Macalester before encountering a cultural divide that made her choose a different path. “Macalester was the first time in my life when I felt like a minority,” she says. “Growing up, I was in a community that looked like me—Mexicans and first generation Mexican Americans—so I never associated myself with the term person of color. Coming to Minnesota, it was hard to hear for the first time, and to be questioned constantly about who I am … by people who don’t know anything about where I come from.” As she wrote in The Mac Weekly shortly before graduation, that knowledge gap was often painful: “The reality is that ‘community service’ to me is not about ‘helping’ a group of people who are victims, but about being part of the liberation of the community that raised me and fought for me to get to Macalester in the first place.”

Speaking her truth is important to Gómez, who was recently chosen for the 2015–16 Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose, a selective fellowship at Minneapolis’s Loft Literacy Center that pairs emerging Minnesota writers with mentors in their disciplines. Over the next year Gómez will be working closely with writing mentors Carolyn Holbrook and Joni Tevis on a body of creative nonfiction that she says “lays its roots in the spaces between jazz, mariachi, taco trucks, and chili cheeseburgers, oceans and desert, and now snow.

“I believe art can be healing,” she says. “So even though I haven’t worked in the arts since I graduated, I’m devious enough to try to get it into my [daily] work when I can.”

One such project was “Voices Heard,” an unusual partnership among a couple dozen Bloomington and Richfield police officers and area high school students of color, many of whom “haven’t always had positive experiences with law enforcement in their lives.” For six weeks, the group committed to meeting regularly to share family stories, personal narratives, and poetry, all of which came together in an informal community performance at the Bloomington Civic Plaza last fall.

That night, after a community pasta dinner, a student and a police officer acted out a scene in which the cop assumes a Hispanic kid must be a hood—not the homecoming king. A police officer who served in Iraq shared how his fear of being policed by a corrupt force still influences his own decisions. An officer and a young man whose fathers had both disappeared found common ground sharing stories about their stepfathers, who became loving role models.

“Personal storytelling is powerful because when people commit to hearing you, that allows you to open up and hear someone else,” Gómez says. “What I try to remember every day is that government is here to serve people, and if the public has an issue, you have to acknowledge it and honor it. Before we can reform institutions, we have to be willing to understand history and power and privilege.

“We don’t have to come to agreement,” she adds. “But we do have to listen to each other.”

LAURA BILLINGS COLEMAN is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.

January 22 2016

Back to top