Coalition builds plan for unarmed public safety response in Ann ArborQ&A with Ryan Henyard: Nonprofit Journal Project

Ryan Henyard is a member of the Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety, a coalition of community members and groups in Washtenaw County that came together in response to the Ann Arbor City Council’s 2021 Resolution 21-0612 to develop an unarmed public safety response program. The coalition includes faith leaders, social workers and therapists, public health and health care workers, researchers, community builders, racial justice organizers, and activists and organizers.

How would you sum up why developing an unarmed response program is important?

It’s important to do this unarmed response work, at the core, because everyone deserves someone to be able to call for help—to be able to solve problems. This is a coalition of people who believe deeply within our hearts that the best way to solve the problems that we see in our community is to address them at the root. And policing does not do that. From our various areas of expertise, we know the kinds of things that provide and produce community safety. This is all of us coming together to say: “We are going to own some of our expertise, and this is what we believe the community needs,” after listening to community members and working with them closely.

I fully expected to be run out of town for having some of these, frankly, bold ideas, with people who I knew didn’t agree with me politically on a lot of stuff. Instead what kept happening was I kept having conversations with someone where they would say: “Yeah, I kind of understand—I have a son with mental health challenges, and I’m worried about what happens if I call 911.” Or “I saw someone on the street, and I wasn’t able to get them into the existing intake programs, and I realized that I had no good answer for what to do to help my neighbor.”

There are so many situations that all of us have lived through, and coming up with a possible answer, and with a different way of approaching the problem, was paramount and vital. We’re rooted in this idea of radical love, and that love comes with urgency. It’s not an academic exercise—there are people who need help, even with all of the nonprofits around, even with all of the services available in a county that has a large amount of wealth compared to the rest of the state. Our vision of Washtenaw is one that provides safety for everybody, so people do not have to touch that carceral system in order to try to approach care.

Care-based safety is something that I wish I would have had as a kid. Like a lot of Black masculine folks, I grew up getting harassed by police a lot. I didn’t have a lot of situations where I was in danger and was able to successfully call for assistance in a way that made me or others feel safer. So, in some ways, I am providing, hopefully, for other folks, a future that doesn’t have to have that kind of pain. And that is joyful work. It feels worth doing.

What are a couple of examples of situations that come up often in this community, where a non-police response would be better?

One is substance abuse. There are overdoses happening among different age groups, and the fear of being caught in a carceral system or getting harassed by police officers is stopping people from being able to get help for someone who’s overdosing. It’s literally a life-or-death issue. And there are data on how many people of color, how many queer folks, how many different marginalized people in the community do not feel comfortable calling 911 for many reasons. Folks having someone to call without the risk of bringing guns into a charged situation is something that people repeatedly have said that they would utilize if it was a possibility.

Another one that’s less dire is just disputes. There’s not a lot of resources for solving any kind of interpersonal conflict in our system without calling a police officer. As long as people live in community with each other, there’s going to be conflict, but it doesn’t always need to introduce elements of violence, like armed officers, in order to solve it. Like the neighbor who’s parked in front of part of your driveway—you don’t have to send an armed officer to the door to tell them to move.

What kind of progress has the coalition made since it was established?

The coalition has made an incredible amount of progress over these past two years, and you can measure that in a lot of different ways. Some of it is the progress we were able to make politically in getting Ann Arbor to set aside money for exploring an unarmed response program. I like to think of it in terms of what’s changed in our collective imagination. Unarmed response is an area where a lot of us who came together originally felt really strongly about and believed in, and we weren’t sure that we would have a community ready to support it. Fast forward to the previous election, with all the Ann Arbor City Council candidates being in favor of some form of what the coalition was putting forward as our plan. It’s a sea change in how people thought about safety and how they thought about community care.

Also, we kind of branched off the original coalition to start working on: OK, what would it look like if we actually built the organization to do this? Coalition folks and the design team have spent more than a year of intense study. We’ve been talking to other organizers across the country about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. We’ve looked through all sorts of different things to figure out what’s technically possible. We’re just now getting to the phase where the new organization, Care Based Safety, is going to have some structure to do this.

What are you looking forward to in the coming months?

We put out the strategic plan for this care-based safety program in January. We put it in front of community members, we asked people to come dream with us about what this could look like, and people were very on board. We showed it to young folks, and they were like: “What color would the response van be? Can we play jazz out the side of it? Could I grow up and work for this?” We’ve got a pilot that is planning to spin up later this year in Ypsilanti.

I’m excited to see other nonprofits interact with and utilize the abilities that the service is offering. We’ll be able to connect people with resources that exist here in a way that should be really powerful. I’m looking forward to having a whole new constellation of relationships from this care-based safety work, and people starting to imagine a world where care is in the center. It’s something that I’m sure sounds very cheesy, but I can close my eyes and see it—what it would look like if we were able to try to address the root cause of something rather than just the symptoms.

When I’ve been approached with someone saying, “Well, this is very utopian thinking about how you can deal with things,” my thought for that is: While it may be utopian thinking, you don’t find a utopia—you build it. Utopias are built, they’re not found. I fully believe in the idea that, instead of moving our problems away, out of sight in prisons, we can find ways to heal and live with each other. It’s not that I am expecting to magically have this whole entire society flip upside down in one piece, but I know the bricks that we’re laying and the foundation that we’re making.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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