A’Jamal Byndon Brings ‘Fearlessness, Tact’ To New Role 7/6/18 07/09/18 10:00:40 AM
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A’Jamal Byndon is Douglas County’s new Disproportionate Minority Contact.
–Photo by Lorraine Boyd
The Town Crier
A’Jamal Byndon Brings ‘Fearlessness, Tact’
To New Role as County’s Minority Contact
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
The office is not glamorous - a simple cubicle on the fourth floor of the Omaha Douglas Civic Center – but you’re probably never going to find A’Jamal Byndon there anyway.
He’s more likely to meet you somewhere for a cup of coffee, because, sadly, even in 2018, the work he does remains sensitive.
The long-time advocate for social justice and those in need was named earlier this year as Douglas County’s first Disproportionate Minority Contact and Compliance Coordinator. It seems he’s been preparing for this latest battle against racism all his life.
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers released a statement when Byndon was hired and pointed to his long-time dedication to fairness in the juvenile justice system.
“I’m glad to have him on our team to help solve this issue,” Rodgers said. “He brings a fearlessness and a tact to this that I respect and I look forward to working with him.”
The second of 14 children, Byndon and an older brother were born in Hastings, Neb. He grew up in Omaha where the other dozen siblings were born. The oldest and youngest, both male, died as relatively young adults. Byndon has been married 39 years and the couple has four adult children.
His social activism may have been inherited.
“Through my mother, obviously,” Byndon acknowledged. She was Lerlean Johnson, one of seven women who sued the Omaha Public Schools and, “Got rid of that Apartheid busing system … they did not allow people to go across town.”
He now says: “That was my baptism,” adding his mother also served on multiple agencies that addressed social justice issues.
Byndon attended UNL for his undergraduate degree (a B.S. in Social Science with a major in Political Science) with plans of teaching government. Instead, “I went to the Peace Corps and after that I went to UNO for my master’s degree” in Urban Education. Two additional degrees followed those for a total of four – including an Educational Specialist Degree, and Certification in Gerontology.
The Peace Corps experience, in Botswana, was an eye opener, to put it mildly. “I was working in the Ministry of Agriculture,” he recalled. “I was with a team of other workers.”
That landlocked country, in the southern part of Africa, presents many challenges. It is roughly 70 percent desert.
“To get to the Kalahari (Desert) it was like a four-hour drive,” he said. It was group social work in a rural African setting.
“It was a great experience,” Byndon remembers, and much of his time was spent with four other workers. He compared the job to working for an extension service in the United States. He also met his wife in the multi-racial country.
“You become quickly immersed in how to navigate racial issues.”
Byndon has learned those lessons well, with a lifetime of experiences to school him.
“A lot of that I learned almost through osmosis in the house,” Byndon offered.
He also attended Iowa Mennonite School and lived with a white family on an Iowa pig farm. The school was trying to integrate and offered scholarships.
“That’s how I got to learn and be in a rural community in Iowa,” he recalled. Living around Mennonites and the Amish was a cultural transformation that helped him in many ways.
But: “I could only handle it for one year.”
His work was only beginning. Byndon has worked for numerous social services agencies and was one of seven founding members of Omaha Table Talk. That was a local effort to foster a better understanding of racial issues and experiences.
“Table Talk was a major success,” Byndon stated. Modeled after the Dallas Dinners, the project started out by having the dinners hosted in homes and grew with support from the Catholic Charities board. The number of participants doubled from 100 to 200 and it continues to expand as other agencies have taken ownership, with Inclusive Communities now running it in a somewhat different version.
“At the height of the program at UNO we had 650 people … all on one night in Omaha, having dinner and a conversation on race.”
At least a third were people of color, but Byndon pointed out it continues to be difficult for white people living in enclaves to meet people of color.
“If everyone of us had at least seven different friends from different racial groups we wouldn’t have some of the problems we have in society,” he stated.
In Byndon’s new job, he will collect and analyze data to help in identifying factors that contribute to Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) – basically, far more young people of color who are in the legal system than should be, based on their representation as a percentage of society.
Byndon pointed out that when you visit the Douglas County Youth Center, you will see the majority of the young people there are African American, while blacks are only 12 percent of the population.
“I’m not talking about a few points out. I’m talking about almost double,” he emphasized. Too many judges, he feels, have not had a course on racial diversity.
“We should have diversity throughout our state,” Byndon stressed.
The county plan also calls for him to work with a range of juvenile justice stakeholders and community members to find news intervention and prevention strategies. He also will work with law enforcement and judges to ensure proportional treatment for juveniles in the system.
Conversation, he consistently mentions, is the key to improving the racial divisions within our society. Byndon was invited to Omaha Police Headquarters for the first time about a month ago, despite having hosted forums for multiple police chiefs.
“Conversation is a two-way street,” he said. “If they come in my house, why can’t I go in their house.”
That was a start, and he believes there is a willingness in the community to make some moves that will bring about needed changes.
“There’s enough good people in the city to reverse the prison population,” Byndon said. “We’ve just got some serious issues with our prison system and law enforcement in Nebraska.”
Among those, he feels police shouldn’t be giving tickets to students in schools.
“Where are the parents in this conversation?”
That, again, is only part of the solution.
“We also need to get out of our silos,” he suggested, referring to a need to bring services to the people who need them. He feels social workers need to get out on the streets with too many staying in their academic setting.
“They just don’t have the skill set.”
Again, he feels people need to talk about the issues.
“I would go with conversations, I would go with mandatory training for anyone who’s going to be working with the public,” Byndon stated. That goes beyond bus trips for future social workers who need to do more than tour the areas they may be serving.
“There should be somebody on every staff to teach people how to treat people,” he suggested.
He suggested progress can be made by looking at the baseline numbers and providing some formal training in that for law enforcement, including judges.
“Sometimes you have to look at yourself to do better,” Byndon offered, suggesting there is something to be learned from what’s happening in other cities and states.
It’s all part of his never-ending battle against racism – one he started fighting in his home.
“We’ve got to call it for what it is. Somebody’s got to be the town crier,” he said. “I’ve been doing it all my life.”