Rising 3L Rachel Wydra Leads Grassroots Effort to Promote Police Transparency in Her Hometown
Rising 3L Rachel Wydra, who has been living in her hometown of Downers Grove, Illinois, since classes at the Law School went remote last March, was motivated to take action when news came of the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Working with other residents of the village, a leafy, boutique-filled suburb of Chicago, she organized a grassroots campaign for greater transparency in local policing policies. Wydra drafted a letter demanding communication and change, collected 313 signatures from community members, and mailed it to village officials.
“We call on you to listen to the voices and stories of our black and brown community members,” the letter says. “We call on you to communicate with Downers Grove residents the specific changes that you will make to ensure the Downers Grove Police Department is protecting the rights and lives of people of color and is held accountable for its actions.”
Village officials so far have been responsive, and a dialogue is opening up, reports Wydra, who recently answered some questions about her community activism.
What motivated you to action?
I decided to attend law school because I wanted to help fight injustice in the world. … I hope that by pursuing a career in public interest law that I can make a difference in the community around me. Our country has a deep history of systemic racism and violence against people of color. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have caused great pain and anger because people of color still face tremendous injustice and inequality in our country. Fixing this injustice is not going to be easy, and it is going to take many years of sustained effort to create change. I believe that this change needs to happen not just at the national level, but within each community.
Why did you decide to take action in your hometown rather than a large urban center like nearby Chicago?
Every town in this country, no matter how small or how peaceful, needs to address racism and discrimination within their community. One piece of this is to focus on reforming policing in every police department. I have been a resident of Downers Grove, Illinois my entire life, and I have been living here since the law school switched to virtual classes. I strongly believe that every police department in this country needs to be asking itself tough questions about its policies and what it can do better. … The community needs to be heavily involved in this process. … I see this petition as a way to open up the dialogue in Downers Grove so that change will happen with heavy input of the community, not just with the input of the police department or elected officials.
Could you describe the process of drafting and circulating the letter?
I was the original author of the letter, but I received help and feedback from many community members. I initially drafted the letter to address the complex history of race in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. The suburbs cannot ignore issues of race just because they are insulated from the city of Chicago. I then used a template from the Black Lives Matter website to help draft the specific questions in the letter, which include questions about policing practices and policies. I also utilized the recent toolkit published by the Obama Foundation about reforming policing within your community. After I drafted the letter, I shared it to Facebook to receive feedback from Downers Grove community members. I received feedback from a diverse group of people on the letter and incorporated this feedback into it so that it would best reflect what community members wanted from the police department and village officials.
What did you do once you had incorporated community feedback into the letter?
I worked closely with a friend from high school to finalize the letter and collect signatures. After the letter was finalized, we shared it on various Downers Grove Facebook pages and on our own Facebook pages. Over a few days, we received 313 signatures. On Monday, June 8, I emailed the letter to the Downers Grove mayor, police chief, and Village Council members. We have already received responses from the mayor and several Village Council members, and we are hoping to receive the data requested in the letter soon. We are also hopeful that Downers Grove will be holding forums to receive input from community members on issues of racism and policing within the community. I plan to follow-up at the next Village Council meeting.
What do you hope to accomplish?
My intention with this open letter was to foster an open conversation within the Downers Grove community about racism and policing that will lead to real change. The Downers Grove Police Department does not have the same violent history of police brutality as other cities, but that does not mean the Department is perfect or that we should become complacent. What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis could happen anywhere in this country. Communities need to work together to demand accountability and change from every police department to ensure that this doesn’t happen in our own communities. If the Downers Grove Police Department already has policies in place to prevent discrimination and brutality, then the community deserves to have details and data on these policies. If there aren’t strong policies to combat racism and brutality, then there must be. And there is always room for change and growth. This open letter has already sparked conversation in Downers Grove, and it is my hope that it will also spark change so that Downers Grove can be equally safe, welcoming, and respectful for everyone who passes through.
How does leading a petition drive connect with being a “lawyer-leader?”
We as law students need to use our education to better our communities. As future lawyers, we cannot be complacent. The murder of George Floyd happened in our own community. We must stand up for what is right. This involves fighting injustice, systemic racism, and violence, even if we receive negative pushback. We can use our law degrees to empower marginalized communities and bring more diverse voices to the table. I think engaging in community activism at the local level, by doing things like writing a letter and starting a petition, is a great way to use our education to create positive change. In law school we learn how to be advocates. We can be advocates in our communities by listening, learning, and speaking up against injustice.
What would you say to your fellow students thinking about what they can do to help their community?
I have already seen incredible action by many of my fellow students. I have been so impressed by those who have attended protests, provided aid to those in need in Minneapolis, signed or written petitions or statements, and offered legal support to the community. It has been inspiring to see many of my fellow law students speak up about injustice and use their skills as law students to fight this injustice. We need to keep fighting against injustice. We are not going to solve all of these issues immediately, and it is going to take time and sustained effort. As law students, we need to be advocates within our communities, and we need to work together. Keep protesting, keep writing to public officials, keep signing petitions, keep volunteering to provide legal help to our community, keep learning about injustice, keep listening, and keep brainstorming about how we can combat injustice within our own communities. Remember the power of a law degree and use that power to help others.
Related News Article: