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TO TELL THE TRUTH

TCU professors seek ways to improve communication between civic leaders and Black constituents.

On Oct. 12, 2019, Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew at her family home in Fort Worth’s Hillside Morningside neighborhood.

She was unaware that a concerned neighbor had called the Fort Worth Police Department, which sent officers to investigate the report that a door to her house was open.

Thinking she heard a prowler outside, the 28-year-old Black woman grabbed her handgun and peered out the window.

Bodycam footage revealed that Aaron Dean, a white officer who had graduated from the police academy 18 months earlier, shot Jefferson once through the glass. Dean was charged with murder, and he is awaiting trial.

The tragedy grabbed worldwide headlines and sparked protests throughout Fort Worth. Police in riot gear locked down City Hall. As demonstrators marched through the streets, protesters decried police violence.

Many members of the Black community said they felt unheard by city officials, which only amplified their anger, frustration and fear.

BSCOC faculty members (l-r) Julie O’Neil, Jacqueline Lambiase and Ashley English are researching ways to improve communication between government officials and marginalized constituents.
PHOTO BY Leo Wesson

 

“The truth is that many of us are tired,” Pastor Bryan Carter of the Concord Church in Dallas, which hosted Jefferson’s funeral, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We are tired of talking to our children about police, tired of crying mothers, tired of funerals, tired of checking the box, tired of hoping the jury will come back with a just verdict.”

A few months later, Julie O’Neil, associate dean for graduate studies and administration in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication and professor of strategic communication, began working with colleagues Ashley E. English and Jacqueline Lambiase to find ways to improve communication among civic leaders, the police and marginalized residents.

“Good public relations is about building relationships, listening, dialoguing, engaging,” O’Neil said. “We thought it would be a unique contribution to look at listening and city government and Black communities.”

Supported by a grant from the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, the three scholars are studying civic listening in Fort Worth and around the nation.

In the spring and summer of 2020, they spoke over Zoom with 25 Fort Worth residents, including community activists, pastors, educators, small-business owners, retirees, attorneys, nonprofit managers, elected officials and local government employees.

During these hourlong, one-on-one conversations, the professors explored the experience of Black residents and activists with the city in the wake of Jefferson’s death.

How did the residents perceive the city’s listening architecture and processes, meaning did the city government have systems in place to effectively listen to residents’ concerns? Did they feel the city took the concerns of its Black people less seriously? And how might the city improve its listening processes for communities of color?

“We don’t see a lot of research that looks in a systematic fashion at the experiences of Black stakeholders,” said English, an assistant professor of strategic communication.

The interviews became emotional at times, particularly following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Tears were shed by participants fearing for the lives of their Black children and grandchildren.

The researchers also heard disdain for the three-minute public comment period during Fort Worth City Council meetings. Complaints focused on the restrictive nature of the system; explaining problems and proposing meaningful solutions can often take more than 180 seconds.

At no time during meetings can residents have an official, on-the-record dialogue with council members, either.

Many also expressed frustration at feeling policed during City Council meetings. Impassioned speakers were sometimes warned that they were speaking too loudly or that they needed to exercise more decorum.

Some of those interviewed raged against perceived displays of pseudo-listening.

“You say you’ve come to listen, but your social media people are taking pictures so you can post that you’re there,” English recalled hearing from several community members. “It was really important to the younger generation that the city leaves the publicity team at home and actively engages and authentically listens with a posture of humility.”

For Lambiase, professor of strategic communication, “My takeaway is just how much trauma was experienced by the Black community in Fort Worth after an incident like Atatiana Jefferson’s murder.

“The experiences of brutality may not have happened to them individually, but they felt it.”

Sadness and disappointment flowed through many of the interviews, English said.

All three professors spent months analyzing themes and other qualitative data.

“We heard a lot about a lack of basic human caring on the part of the city,” O’Neil said.

Participants also held the professors accountable, expressing hope that their findings could effect real change rather than simply become fodder for an academic journal.

To that end, English, O’Neil and Lambiase have reached out to their network of public relations scholars and other communication leaders around the country. The goal is to build a national movement among local governments to more actively listen to the constituents they serve.

“Listening is not a thing that communicators necessarily do well, which is ironic,” Lambiase said.

She wants to help civic leaders “focus not only on content creation and pushing information out but also on how they can get good input and how they allow the community to become co-solvers of problems. Because community residents can help you only if you take the time to listen to them.”

As Fort Worth reckons with the fallout from Jefferson’s killing, including renaming parts of Interstate 35 in her memory, the city continues to weigh police reform. In April 2021, English moderated a virtual discussion for public administrators on building equitable communities that included Carter as well as Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes, who took office in February 2021.

“It was a transformative experience,” English said. “It was unbelievable the level of humility shown by this police chief. These kinds of dialogues between leaders can make our processes much more efficient, more equitable and more effective for the benefit of all.”

Listening also guides the second phase of the professors’ research, which kicked off in the summer of 2021. The Page grant funded a survey of more than 500 Black people from around the country.

In a series of questions, participants used a scale of 1 to 7 to quantify their perceptions of how well their local government listens to them. One open-ended question allowed respondents to elaborate. O’Neil, English and Lambiase are analyzing the responses, which may lead to further research. They’re also working toward publishing their findings.

“We want to know if better listening leads to better relationships and better perceptions of trust within their city government,” O’Neil said. “Or for folks who think their city doesn’t listen to them, do they have less trust in their city? Are they less committed to their city government and are less involved as a result of that?”

As English said, “Listening can save someone’s life. And maybe listening can also heal and affirm those who have not felt heard for so long.”

BY LISA MARTIN