As a general rule, clichés are boring, trite or too simplistic to be used in writing, especially when describing important issues. Another prescription for writing is to avoid using rhetorical questions, as they are overused and rely on popular assumptions. But, after encountering “The Conversations We Should Be Having,” a podcast hosted by Tanisha Johnson and Elliott Moya, cliches seemed like an important starting place.
Johnson and Moya come from different backgrounds and represent two unlikely groups of conversants. Elliott Moya is the chief of police in Elliot, Maine, and Tanisha Johnson is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seacoast. And like the title of their podcast suggests, the two of them have been talking, critically, to each other. But what future good can come from simply talking?
When George Floyd was murdered, over 90 million Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality, particularly towards Black Americans. These protests sparked pledges from politicians and inspired performative events at sporting occasions and televised dramas intended to raise awareness. Long-lasting legislative changes intended towards reforming the judicial system seem to have sparked nationwide resistance and acts of resentment from many segments representing law enforcement officers, but little actual change has occurred to the U.S. judicial system that seems to hold an outsized appetite for consuming Black lives.
From California to Maine, a new dawn of racial reckoning seemed to be on the horizon as place names were changed, monuments and figures central to enslavement were toppled and history’s varied legacies were re-examined with the sensitivity of a society ready to reflect multi-cultural values. But the legislative efforts and nationwide attention to police and race-based interdiction was sadly short-lived.
Locally, New Hampshire debated rolling back the bail reforms. The council that Governor Chris Sununu formed to examine the legacy of race and policing in New Hampshire was disbanded without having any of their recommendations adopted. And, now, along the New England’s seacoast there have been a rash of public anti-Semitic, anti-Black and anti-immigrant incidents involving white supremacists.
Enter Project Empathy. Project Empathy was started on the Green Acres Campus of the Baha’i community in Elliot, Maine, bordering Portsmouth. The brain child of Najee Brown, Project Empathy was intended to highlight the tenets of oneness celebrated by their faith. However, as Johnson stated, “they got me. And, so, the project evolved.” Johnson brings her background of 15 years in social work with her to these conversations. Originally from New Jersey, she came to her nonprofit organization career seeking to better impact the lives of children.
Elliott Moya is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., a Hispanic veteran who later moved to Springfield, Mass., after leaving the Air Force. His call to public service began shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He has always loved the “sense of camaraderie, the personalities and shared purpose” he found in the Air Force. He continues to enjoy those he works alongside. When he began Project Empathy he says, it personally felt right. He sees his personal priorities as: “First, I’m a family man. That is where I put my passion. I’m a cop also, the chief of police. … I also see myself as a social justice activist.”
He also is positioned as an ambassador representing the views of law enforcement officers with his personal goal of reversing some of the negative narratives about policing. “So often,” says Moya, “we find ourselves reacting to big city problems in our small towns. I want to reverse the ‘down the pipe’ [approach to providing justice] and be a leader, a model for how we can come together in our small communities beyond our labels and talk to each other.”
Johnson agrees. “Elliott and I were able to click. We had a ‘vibe.’ Ultimately, an interchange.” Moya would later call what they had established a “team,” says Johnson. Together, with the help of the Green Acre Baha’i community, Moya and Johnson continue creating episodes of their podcast.
Past topics covered include the “Black National Anthem,” “All Lives Matter,” “The History of Policing in the US and its Relation to Enslavement,” and the slogan “Abolish the Police” — with both sides getting equally heated with each other.
“Elliott would get mad and be ready to walk out, but he wouldn’t. I would tell him, we have to model this uncomfort. We have to show how we can disagree and get mad, but not walk away from the conversation. We have to sit with our discomfort and talk about it so we can move to what comes next,” says Johnson.
Moya adds, “I would see officers too worried to act and concerned about the unknown — good people who didn’t know how to act or talk, but didn’t want to do the same old things. Some of them were able to do complete 180’s with education and shift their perspectives.”
Other times, the solutions to the racial inequities in policing are less clear. For example, in Episode 6, “Unity vs Uniformity,” Moya and Johnson discuss the term “unity” and its contemporary contexts: “Unity has this connotation of ignoring the differences,” Johnson says. Moya counters, “Does history sometimes hold us back from moving forward saying, it’s there, I respect it, but we gotta figure out a way to move forward?” To which, Johnson has no clear answer.
To what end is “The Conversations We Should Be Having” focused, not only as a podcast but as a model led by two disparate community leaders? Moya and Johnson consistently question themselves, their roles and their personal outcomes. Maya says, “I don’t feel like I am a bad person, I am making myself vulnerable. I don’t want to put myself through that, but it’s for the greater good.” In Episode 5 of the podcast, “How do We Promote Unity,” he asks, “Why am I putting myself out there. Why am I defending myself?” He then recalls one person who answered the question for him, saying, “I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if you hadn’t.”
Season 2 of the podcast is now in production. “I believe this is a model that can be scaled, that can change the world,” says Johnson.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.