Bridging the divide happens when words meet action
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The signature on the President’s Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities issued on June 16, 2020 was still wet as Minneapolis officials announced their intent to defund the city's police force in the wake of nationwide protests. The order would emphasize community engagement at the local level in response to the wave of unrest that had already devastated communities nationwide following the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Specifically, the order mandated the federal government to focus on “programs aimed at developing or improving relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, including through community outreach and listening sessions, and supporting nonprofit organizations that focus on improving stressed relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

As two Marine veterans who have been part of Operation Gratitude’s community-based volunteer efforts and movement to forge strong bonds between our nation’s military, first responders, and the people they serve, we couldn’t agree with this approach more. In fact, we have seen it firsthand right here in Washington, D.C., where relationships were improved by creating opportunities for the community to serve those who serve them. Over the past three years, we have watched communities thrive from such interactions and open pathways to connecting people through relationships, not just the role or official function they serve in times of crisis.

In order to build on that success, on Sept. 11, 2018, our grassroots nonprofit formed the BRIDGE Council, an action-oriented advisory group of Fortune 100 companies, nonprofit leaders, and civic partners, with the goal of bridging the civilian-service divide through meaningful engagements. As discussions around George Floyd’s death revealed the need for more purposeful engagement, we expanded the Council by welcoming community organizers, metropolitan police chiefs, and local government officials to help identify actionable next steps to bridge divides and create an environment that breeds empathy and understanding.

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For those of us taking part in these roundtable discussions, action means actively listening and genuinely trying to understand and highlight some of the underlying causes for the civilian-service divide. This includes not only the issues we raised in this Military Times op-ed but also the difficult realities of racial discrimination and injustice. Without these honest and raw conversations, we will never accomplish our ultimate goal - a nation of communities united by our humanity above all else. A key action identified by the roundtable was the need to actively listen to and understand citizens with diverse viewpoints, to include young Americans who have had little-to-no interaction with members of the military and first responders. In addition to hearing different perspectives, we came to better appreciate what made every community unique and why one solution will not fit all.

Action also means continuing to host large and small service projects across the country, whenever possible. With each such meaningful engagement, we will build a diverse and inclusive volunteer corps, where Americans of all walks are joined by a common cause and feel welcome, while getting to know both the people who share an interest in building up their own communities as well as those who serve and protect them.

One shining example took place three years ago when we connected the sheriff’s department with local volunteers at a church in Wilmington, where tensions between law enforcement officials and the Black community ran high. The deputies and parishioners came together with their families for a ‘Deputy of the Year’ ceremony. This not only provided a forum for all parties involved to see each other in a more approachable light, it also placed greater focus on what everyone had in common. Both the pastor and county sheriff agreed that the event had a profound impact because it “redefined perceptions” and “built relationships;” and that doing it together as a community was an “amazing thing.”

We have seen more of the same at dozens of community-wide engagement events in cities like Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where one of the stated goals was to defuse tensions that existed between police and the communities they serve. We saw divides bridged in New York City, Nashville, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, San Diego, and every month at our headquarters in Los Angeles. Whether at neighborhood gatherings, churches, community centers or schools, meaningful interactions must be part of the solution.

The Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities reaffirms the core objective of Operation Gratitude mission: to bridge the civilian-service divide through meaningful engagements, repeated over time in communities nationwide -- until those communities are strengthened and united. It is now up to the administration to ensure that the order’s imperative is carried out at every level, from senior leaders across all sectors to the lowest common denominator in local communities around the country. To that end, Operation Gratitude and the public-private, action-oriented partnership of the BRIDGE Council will continue to listen, lead the way, and stand ready to facilitate these relationship building events in any and every community throughout the nation.

Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit. Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired Marine chief warrant officer who now serves as the chief advocacy officer for AMVETS and advisor on the BRIDGE Council.