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Acknowledging the pain: Building a more just Alaska

  • Author: Elizabeth Ripley
    | Opinion
    , Mike Abbott
    | Opinion
    , Gail Schubert
    | Opinion
    , Michelle DeWitt
    | Opinion
    , Diane Kaplan
    | Opinion
    , John Rozzi
    | Opinion
    , Tom Schulz
    | Opinion
    , Desiré Shepler
    | Opinion
    , Stephanie Allen
    | Opinion
    , Michael D. Miller
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 10
  • Published March 10

Two Wasilla police officers restrain a woman in the Wasilla Wal-mart Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. (Screengrab from video made by Mike Linn)

We grieve. We grieve again. We have watched yet another video of police restraining a person of color. This time it was in Wasilla. This time it was local police kneeling on an Alaska Native woman, then hogtying her and taking her to their police car. It went on for more than eight minutes. Thank goodness she could breathe.

The event and the videos create recurring trauma for people of color. Our Alaska Native friends and colleagues tell us that when they watched that video, they pictured their nieces, nephews and siblings. They worry in terror that their family members will be treated that way, because violence toward Alaska Native people and people of color has been going on for hundreds of years in America. With each generation, it looks different, but the violence persists. They remember other physical, emotional and cultural assaults experienced by friends and family at the hands of law enforcement, many other institutions, as well as by individual citizens.

The repeated humiliations, which we watch over and over and over on social media and the news, are exhausting to the soul. They make it hard to breathe. While the place, circumstances, and faces change, the agony is always present.

We also grieve for law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are on the front lines of these crises, and they risk their lives every day. Just two months ago, a Wasilla police officer was shot after a traffic stop. Any use of force is trauma to the officer as well. They are under enormous stress and are the ones we rely on to respond when all our other systems or interventions fail us.

None of these parties likes the attention they generate. These situations and videos are painful for law enforcement, scary for bystanders, and heartbreaking for families. We second-guess every move of all the players and justify positions. But that does not move us forward.

These same Alaska Native colleagues ask and invite us to build bridges where these actions and assaults divide. They ask us to build community and belonging for Alaska Native peoples and all people. They ask us to help usher understanding, to see — really see — each other as human beings.

Members of the AK Funders Group have supported many types of efforts, programs and priorities to move this understanding forward. We are committed to ensuring a diversity of voices in our boardrooms and staff. We share our learning journeys with each other and with our partners.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (Trust) is actively working to develop improved mental health crisis response systems in Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks. The Trust is working with the state and numerous community partners to implement the Crisis Now model — which is working in many communities across the nation to prevent suicide, reduce wait times in Emergency Departments and correctional settings, and to provide the best supports to individuals in crisis. In addition, the Mat-Su Health Foundation, in partnership with the Trust, and law enforcement has supported the formation of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Coalition that has launched three Crisis Intervention Training Academies in Mat-Su. CIT Training was developed by law enforcement to give officers the tools and practices to effectively deescalate situations and reduce unnecessary individual and officer harm.

The Alaska Native Justice Center’s team provides essential advocacy support on behalf of our people and direct services to survivors of crime, tribal representation in child welfare cases, assistance to those re-entering from incarceration, and essential guidance for those navigating the justice system. ANJC also provides a voice in local and statewide conversations and decisions about how to address disproportionality in victimization, incarceration and child welfare for Alaska Native people in the justice system.

Rasmuson Foundation convenes diverse leaders from across the state to listen and learn — and take action. This last year, we worked with partners on a video that makes clear we stand with the Black community of Alaska. We provided grant support to organizations that serve Alaska’s diverse communities. In the works: a multi-media storytelling project to further amplify diverse Alaska voices.

We certainly do not have all the answers. We do believe if we work together, we can prevent these kinds of situations. We can find more dignified ways to help people suffering a crisis. The AK Funders Group is committed to continuing and encouraging courageous conversations across our great state that will lead to understanding, appreciation, and celebration of the many peoples that call Alaska home. Please join us in forging these connections across color, creed, and community where you live, work, play and pray.

Elizabeth Ripley is the president/CEO of Mat-Su Health Foundation. Mike Abbott is the CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. Gail Schubert is the board chair of the Alaska Native Justice Center. Michelle DeWitt is the executive director of Bethel Community Services Foundation. Diane Kaplan is the president/CEO of Rasmuson Foundation. John Rozzi is the CEO of Valley Charities, Inc. Tom Schulz is a retired Superior Court judge. Desiré Shepler is the president/CEO of Alaska Family Services. Stephanie Allen is the executive director of the United Way of Mat-Su. Michael D. Miller is the executive director of Homer Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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