ANGOLA, IN - On Tuesday, Sept. 22nd, Trine University held the first of a series of "Trine Together" events, which aim to show the university's commitment to growing an inclusive community in which all races and creeds are represented.
The keynote and conversation, titled "Trine Together: Uniting through Differences," was held in the MTI Center and featured guest speaker Officer James Payne. Payne is an 18-year veteran of the Fort Wayne Police Department.
Deborah McHenry, executive director of student success and retention, spoke first about the talk's significance.
"These events offer us the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations, forging connections where we all hear, see, and care - in which we all matter," she said.
Payne shared stories about his childhood growing up in Murray, Kentucky, his college years playing football at the University of Louisville, and his experiences as a police officer in today's social climate. A common theme throughout his life has been togetherness and community.
"School was very close-knit. A lot of our janitorial staff, teachers, etc. were people in the community that helped raise you," he recalled.
Coming from a close, competitive family of athletes, he was heavily involved in sports.
"Sports was our way out," he said. "Whatever sport was in season, that's what we were playing. It was nothing for us to call our friends on the other side of town to say 'Hey, let's get together…let's play.' We knew that if we were going to be able to get to the common goal of a state championship, we'd have to be together."
In fact, after losing a state championship in 1996, his high school football coach shared a piece of wisdom that has remained with Payne to this day.
"Our coach told us that day, sometimes life will knock you down, but you've got to get back up," Payne recalled. "You've got to get back up. That's the mentality that we're going to have as a group."
That mentality stayed with him in college, where his coach recruited him to be the liaison for many African American athletes at the University of Louisville.
"He said, 'James, you come from a good family; you don't believe in all this division of races. You just treat everybody like you want to be treated,' " he said. "My job as an outside linebacker as well as a liaison was to make sure they understood they could come to me and talk to me one-on-one about anything that they had an issue with."
Payne also shared his experience about surviving a brush with death in 1993, when he was still in college.
"We were out, and one of the guys that I was with kicked a bottle that bounced off the island of a gas pump and hit a car," he recalled. A man in the car got out. "He pulled out a gun, put it in my face, and pulled the trigger. And it did not fire."
His football coach later told him, "God spared you for a reason," He has since used that experience as a motivating force in his life to make a positive impact in the lives of others.
In a question-and-answer session with the Trine community, Payne shared some of his guiding values. Aware of the hurt and anger people are feeling as a result of tragedies and protests, he stressed the importance of avoiding division, instead pursuing facts and genuine communication like the opportunities represented by Trine Together.
"Division is not the way. Together is the way," he said. "There have been incidents that have happened, true enough, and they've been extremely tragic. However, they don't tell you the full story behind the incident. And that's very important."
One thing his department preaches is equality.
"Just because I have more melanin in my skin than some others doesn't mean I'm different, doesn't mean I'm better, doesn't mean I'm worse," he said. "I'm a human being. I bleed, I cry, I hurt, I have feelings just like everyone else."
In response to recent social unrest and movements, Payne knows that the pursuit of facts is imperative for people, especially in his community.
"They understand that they need to look at the facts," he said. "Of course the media is going to show certain things that make it look bad. However, they ask me for the facts, and at that point in time, we'll have a conversation."
He said that one of the most challenging things about being a police officer in recent months has been the "us vs. them" mentality.
"There are people that have certain comments. They say, 'Payne, you're with them and not with us,' " he commented. "I said, 'You can protest, but protest peacefully.'"
Payne, who has been avidly involved in sports throughout his life - he referees high school and college football, officiates basketball, and umpires baseball when he is off duty - stressed the value of teams.
"That has helped so many kids come together and unify one another. Your teammates are so important in getting through this," he said. "We're going to get through it. We've just got to believe and lean on each other."
The next step for positive social change and healing, he believes, is about attitude and positive treatment of one another.
"If there's any slogan, I would say '#Love Each Other,' "he said. "We need to get back to the love we have for each other. Understand and live by the Golden Rule: Treat others like you want to be treated."
Speakers for these events provide opportunities for anyone - students, staff, and community members - to have open discussions with those directly involved. The university hopes that this series will facilitate dialogue, draw feedback, and encourage understanding for the entire university community, both now and in the future.
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