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'What I've learned is that I just have to run my race well and not miss the handoff'

Post-Bulletin - 5/7/2021

May 7—Hours before Derek Chauvin received a guilty verdict on all counts, Mayo Clinic program director Andre Koen sat down with the Post-Bulletin to discuss the need for restorative justice in Rochester.

"I believe in the rule of law," he said. "But for example, you or I could drive down the street and follow every rule to the 'T,' to the letter. And an officer could still pull us over and find something that we've done. I don't think that is helpful. I think officers oftentimes refer to that as broken-window policing — you look for these small things to deter crime, but ... from my experience, it exacerbates many of our social problems of over-policing."

Over-policing is a cycle — but so is the revolution. Koen cites strong influences from his grandfather (raised in Jim Crow-era Tennessee) and father (a member of the Black Panthers early in life). Here, he discusses his path to Mayo Clinic'sOffice of Diversity and Inclusion at Mayo Clinic Rochester.

Note: This interview was conducted the morning of April 20. It has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Let's talk about your background — you've had decades of diversity training and coaching jobs. What brought you to Mayo?

The opportunity to be with a world-class medical institution was something I could not ignore. All throughout my journey, when people look at my resume, what I want them to see — or when they look at my CV, I want them to see a spiral of influence that continually grows. When we think about the impact that health care can have on a person's life and trajectory and possibilities, participating in an organization that does that was something that was very enticing and very attractive.

When you think about who does the best, particularly in health care, Mayo's name typically comes up in those conversations. Particularly here in Minnesota (and) as I've found, throughout the world. So really being able to help people in a broader scale and more entrenched ways was something I found really compelling. The other thing was the mission-driven, values-driven nature of Mayo — that the needs of the patient come first — was also very compelling. And particularly in my work, sometimes people feel — well. We have to put aside our biases, we have to put aside our prejudice, so that those things don't come first, but the needs of the patients do. So that was very compelling as well.

How did you grow into diversity training?

It's a long story, but I think it's an important story. My grandfather grew up in Tennessee and he really was an opinionated man, and had to bite his lip. And so he would, in the face of racism, in the face of Jim Crow and blatant, in-your-face, every day, the oppressive notion of racism, oftentimes (he) did not speak up. His methodology for getting through life was to keep your head low and not cause trouble. And so when my father went to college, my father recognized the value of what my grandfather taught him, but he also lived in a different world. My father became a Black Panther his sophomore, junior year of college. And in that progression, really took on this notion of social responsibility. Like, we have this responsibility to our communities and specifically, for him, it was the Black community.

As the Panthers' story unfold(ed), my father also realized that the revolution is no place for a family. And so having married my mom and had me, he recognized that the revolution was not a great place for a family. He also had a revelation of who God was. And as a result, he took all of that energy from the Panther party movement, he took that drive for the community and put it into spiritual matters. ... From my early days, this is the work that I've been called to do. My parents nurtured me both with this civic-minded, social responsibility piece, but also with the recognition that our hearts and souls need to be knitted together as human beings, not just as a racial group. ... Everything I do, it is about trying to reconcile us, to right relationships, and speaking in ways that my grandfather couldn't.

What are the most important lessons you've picked up on that path?

It really is this notion that we are all after very similar things. We're all after safety, significance, and belonging. And even those people who, on the surface, appear to be in conflict with the notions and the values that I stand for around diversity and inclusion, they also are after safety, significance and belonging. However, we have differing methods to getting there and that's where conflict comes in. It is actually in our methods that conflict occurs, or where we think we see difference ... in the methods (by) which we secure, define, or acquire that.

People will say, "What do those people want?" speaking about the other. I encourage people to think about what you want, then put their names under what you want. ... The saving grace in that, though, is that if we understand that we are after these similar things, then we can negotiate our methods. Conflict becomes something we can negotiate, instead of just saying "we have nothing in common" or "those people are totally unreasonable." ... We actually do have more in common than we are dissimilar. But the things that make us unique are important to recognize as well.

We're living in a time of political polarization, though, where we hear that most people have taken a position on one end or the other of the spectrum since Trump was elected in 2016. How has that affected your ability to help people negotiate?

It's really interesting how difficult this kind of Trump era has made it — not because he himself has done this, but that ... it's just easier, it's actually quite easy to not have to listen to somebody else. To not have to pay attention to other people's needs. Given cable news, podcasts, YouTube, social media, you can surround yourself with things that agree with everything you already thing. I think in this particular era, it does take a particular kind of person to step outside of themself and ask, "is it possible that I don't know everything?" "Is it possible that my existence isn't the only existence?" So I would say that that's a bit challenging.

However, what I also say is that when people are able to come to not only the end of themselves, but to start having those critical thoughts and conversations, that those individuals become the staunchest allies, the most faithful friends that one can have when they've come to understand those things on their own.

Yeah, I would say the negotiations have been a bit more challenging, but when those breakthroughs happen, they become much deeper and richer conversations to have with folks.

What do people still misunderstand about inclusion?

I think that people have a misunderstanding of what a revolution is. I think people believe that the things of the '60s are past and gone. That we've resolved these things back in the '60s, so why are people complaining? But a revolution means that it continually moves. It's continually happening. We think about the Earth — it is revolving around the sun. ... Oftentimes, people get tired of the processes or there's a bit of fatigue that people have, and I suffered that for myself. I thought that I would be the one to help change the world or I would be the next great civil rights leader or whatnot. ... What I've learned is that I just have to run my race well and not miss the handoff. When people think that someone else will do it for them, that causes them not to act. It's a diffusion of responsibility.

I think COVID helped with this, but people are realizing how much we actually are connected. Because folks will say, "well, that's just in the Cities." Well, the things that happen in the Twin Cities, in Minneapolis/St. Paul, affect us here. We're related. I also think that when people are able to be humble, that's when they are able to come to the end of themselves. Humility to recognize that I don't know everything. Humility to recognize that my reality is a reality among many realities. (To be) humble enough to ask questions of people who may not give them the answer they're looking for. Humble enough to make relationships when (it) may not necessarily naturally happen. You have to be active in building relationships.

Given that we have a prime view of what's going on the Cities, are you seeing signs of progress in the wake of last summer's movements?

Progressing toward — what, right? Minnesota is probably one of the most "progressive" states when we use that word, but we have some of the worst disparities between Black people and their white counterparts, right? We recognize that particularly here, in Rochester, there's a disparity between disciplinary actions (toward) African-American kids and white kids. The real question is "progressing toward what?" I don't think that we've gotten to this notion of equity, where folks are getting what they need based on where they are and then where they want to go. So in many ways, I would say no.

I don't know that folks have been really clear about what that means, to be so-called "progressive." Sometimes people will say, "are things getting better?" ... I take things as they are. I think that notion of "better" or "worse" moralizes things when in fact what we should be asking is, "Does our current system, does the way we have our relationships, live our lives — is that helping families reach their goals?" Again, going back to safety, significance and belonging — does policing, as it stands, help families reach their goals? Do our social systems help families reach their goals? Do our schools help parents reach their goals for their children? I think it's probably more effective for us to think about a goal consciousness, rather than just a moral consciousness, or just a sense of emotional euphoria or plateaus. I'm really trying to help people push toward this goal-oriented recognition of how we can and should interact with one another.

What can people here do on the individual level to help take social responsibility and 'not miss the handoff' as you said before?

There's this church that I've been attending (online) that ... has really captured my attention because they have not taken a political side on a thing. It's Rochester Assembly of God. ... It would be easy to do. It's easy to take a side. Left or right. And so what I would encourage people to do is to recognize that whatever your position is, the truth is in the middle.

One thing I would encourage folks in Rochester to do is to be critical in your thinking and build relationships, have conversations with folks who don't necessarily agree with you. Not to pick a fight with, but to actually listen to other perspectives. Right now, this polarized state that we're in, there are people ready to prey on that. There are people who are opportunists, who are looking for opportunities to maximize our division for their own purposes. We don't have to fall into those traps. As a community, we can be better. I

t is interesting to me that Rochester is almost a mini-United Nations in terms of who lives here, who our kids go to school with — the variety of grocery options and restaurants. So those opportunities are there, but it's also very interesting to see some of the same folks go to the same places on a regular basis. It's interesting that we have lots of opportunities for these things, but sometimes people don't take the opportunities because it's a little bit uncomfortable or they're unsure.

What would you like to see from Rochester at the city level?

It really would be interesting to see different ways that we use our parks, different ways that we use our public spaces. In my opinion, having more festivals, more artefacts from different cultural backgrounds in our parks, in public viewing spaces, would be helpful. I really appreciate what Mayor Norton does, I appreciate what the chief of police does in terms of being out in the community, having dialogue circles. ... I think it would be really helpful if the city started doing more healing circles in a proactive manner. That as we saw things coming, or we receive the wake of what happens in the Twin Cities, that we have a response team that really focuses on how we do these healing conversations.

And at the state level?

There are certainly some reforms that need to happen. One of those, I think, is in our school systems — changing or augmenting the role of the school resource officer. That role (should be), on a statewide level, be really taken on by restorative justice practitioners. ... I'd also like to see that happen in our communities, particularly for either petty misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes. Particularly with our young people, to kind of siphon them out of this school-to-prison pipeline. I think that restorative justice actually builds better communities. When people fix what they've broken or they repair the harm that they've caused, research has shown that recidivism goes down. The investment in community goes up.

One thing I'll say — and this is just a little soapbox — punishment is easy. You just punish someone, they get that, and then we're done. But restorative justice, or having people critically think about what norms they broke (and) how they can fix those things, that takes some time — but that also is an investment in that individual and the community. From a state standpoint, or even locally, I would love to see (it). Particularly for, like, a non-narcotic drug offense, for smoking marijuana or something like that. (We could) create a sort of court or counsel ... that deals specifically with this restorative justice process so that people can learn to change their behavior. ... You arrest someone and put them in jail, boom. That's the easy thing. But do they learn about how not to do that again? Or do they get refined in how to continue to do that or to do it better? Really, this restorative justice piece is extremely important — both on a city level as well as a state level.


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