Better Together: Whiteman AFB Airman initiates change by connecting community

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sadie Colbert
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

Current events, such as the death of George Floyd, have made organizations across the U.S. Air Force take a deep dive into talking about views on racial disparity.

One Whiteman Air Force Base Airman, Staff Sgt. Jarrod Peterson, a 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron software engineer who normally finds himself maintaining mission planning and information distribution software for the B-2 Spirit, took the racial disparity discussion outside the gate into the local community.

Peterson received opportunities to speak with Missouri congresswoman, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Warrensburg Police Department chief, Rich Lockhart, community action officers and social workers, to develop a plan to build a better future for generations to come.

“We’ve had these social disparity conversations several times and nothing is changing,” Peterson said. “To think that I would have to teach a child that they should fear for their lives or explain to them why certain people died—it’s sad. My goal is to not need to have these conversations when the next generation is born. I would like people to not have to fight the same fight that America has fought for the past couple hundreds of years.”

The inception of what would be called the Community Change Committee—local community representatives made up of key leaders from the chamber of commerce, city manager, business owners and people from Whiteman AFB—started as a casual conversation between Peterson and his local barber, who felt so moved by Peterson’s knowledge and desire for a lasting change that he connected Peterson with Lockhart.

“I was excited and very interested to hear Peterson’s plans and thoughts,” Lockhart said. “I enjoy meeting with young people to discuss issues and concerns, but I was pleasantly surprised after meeting with Peterson. He was very prepared and had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish.”

During their discussion, Lockhart and Peterson exchanged ideas, perspectives and personal experiences with racism. They spoke about the impact of these experiences and what changes could be made going forward.

“We agreed that everyone wants to go home safely and that not having biases on either side could help with that,” Peterson said.

Peterson attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Warrensburg where he read a poem he had written entitled “Tired.” He was inspired to write the poem after watching the video of George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent death. During the rally, Lockhart heard the poem and was deeply moved.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the poem since I heard it,” Lockhart said. “I think it is something that has a wide-reaching message and would be good for more people to hear. His message is positive and demands change without actually asking for it. If the message doesn’t touch your heart, you may want to check your pulse to make sure you are still alive.”

Once again, Lockhart and Peterson met virtually, but this time to discuss tangible ideas that could make lasting changes through building community connections on the foundations of trust and people caring for people.

“People want clarity and transparency, so we thought through ways for the community to be involved, provide input on community decisions, be able to see police department statistics and have part in the internal reviews of how things are decided,” Peterson said. “I think it would give some transparency to a lot of processes.”

Peterson didn’t stop there. His motivation to make a difference propelled him to hold conversations of racial disparity throughout the Kansas City metro area.

It was during this time that Missouri congresswoman, Rep. Hartzler requested Peterson share his poem with her in person. Later, she asked for his input on the JUSTICE Act—a bill which focuses on the improvement and reformation of policing practices, accountability and transparency.

“It feels empowering to be able to potentially impact legislative bills,” Peterson said. “Until the bill is passed or not, I will reserve my thoughts on the results, but it does give me hope for a better future.”

Peterson offered his thoughts to Hartzler on the bill in hopes of making a big impact.

“I feel like if we hold people accountable the negative outcomes we see in our communities would happen less,” Peterson said. “It’s a moral task I think we should all take on. My goal is to have a lasting change, even if it’s just getting everyone to talk about it.”

Peterson truly believes in change through a stronger community working together and has hope for the future.

“Success to me is when people of different ethnicities no longer feel like there is a certain level of fear and submission involved surviving a regular encounter, like being pulled over.”

He believes these changes will have a bigger impact resulting in fair and equal treatment for employment, housing and even court sentencing. It will place an expectation on community members to have a baseline level of respect for everyone.

“It’s harder to hate family,” Peterson said. “It’s harder to have such negative biases when you have a tight-knit community filled with people who care about each other. People don’t hurt the ones they care about and if they do, they usually apologize for it and find common ground.”

To listen to Peterson’s poem, visit his Instagram profile here.