There is an intersection in downtown “Westside” Kansas City where a group of unemployed men used to frequently loiter during the day. For the most part, these men were looking for work as day laborers, not pan-handling or selling drugs, but nevertheless their presence on this corner created some friction in the neighborhood. With the explosion of immigration in the mid-aughts, their numbers grew. Some days there were more than one hundred men milling about.

The neighborhood reacted with fear, denying them access to bathrooms in local businesses, even calling the police to have them chased off their property or taken away. Predictably, the situation got worse. With no available restrooms, nearby alleyways and dumpsters took their place. Crime rates spiked and gang activity increased. The police drove through daily and arrested anyone visibly breaking the law.

A Broken System Finds Healing

Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) Officer Matt Tomasic, who regularly patrolled the area, remembers that “We put a lot of bad guys in jail… but never once did I feel like I, in the big scheme of things, affected anything for the positive. It was just a mess, an absolute mess.” The usual tactics weren’t working. Something was broken, but they weren’t quite sure what.

One day, tired of feeling hopeless and ineffective, Officer Tomasic had a discussion with Lynda Callon, a community leader and founder of the Westside CAN Center. Recognizing his frustration and desire to make a difference, she asked, “Why don’t we let them use the bathroom here (at the CAN Center)?”

What could be more humane than that? This simple yet powerful thought transformed the Westside for the ensuing ten years. With that one act, the CAN Center became an on-site office for the Police officers, a refuge for the migrant workers, and a vibrant community center.

The simple decision to engage with the men on the street and see them as people rather than criminals allowed a few officers to change the whole dynamic of the neighborhood and dramatically reduce crime. By embracing “community policing” — getting out of the police car, taking off the uniform, and meeting the community as a member rather than an outside force, the officers created a drastic reduction in crime.

“I have this power to affect change down here, and I can do it either by [being] strictly law enforcement and just putting people away, or forming these bonds and relationships where there’s trust and these people see me as their partner,” the officer says, “When you work with people, and see people as people, [you] get to do what [you’re] doing better.”

– KCPD Officer “Chato” Villalobos

Why is it so difficult to make these simple changes in the way we see the world and people around us? Are we living out of fear and habit, unable to see the humanity around us? The answer is so simple, but we are often blind to it.

The Arbinger Institute

A major force in helping people overcome this blindness is The Arbinger Institute. Their book Leadership and Self-Deception, published in 2000, has been a wildly popular resource for spreading their powerful teachings about leadership. The KCPD has used Arbinger training as part of their Leadership Academy to great effect.

Arbinger training has been a powerful force for transformation in my own life. It provides a language that helps me understand how I get in my own way, and how I “deceive myself” into seeing people as objects instead of as fellow human beings. Through exploring “the distinction between our outward behaviors and our way of being with others,” I have awakened to the ways in which I can unwittingly sabotage myself in interactions with others.

By altering my “way of being” in the world, I am better able to meet people on a human level, discover our commonality rather than our differences, and work productively from that foundation. I have been able to become a better coach and leader, a better partner, and a better member of my family and community. I am such a fan that I have become an advocate for their work, and I hold a contract with Arbinger to extend their services to any corporation, not-for-profit, or public institution of like mind.

I am amazed (but not surprised) at the impact Arbinger has had with the KCPD and encouraged by the results they have seen by incorporating Arbinger-inspired ways of being into their work in our community. Police work is unforgiving, intense, and demanding — if this approach can work for them, surely it can have an immense impact in other areas as well.

Check out this video about the impact of Arbinger training and the Westside CAN Center on the KCPD. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me. The Arbinger Institute is an incredible resource for changing lives, and has helped me understand that the power to lead and effect positive change comes from finding common ground and creative a “way of being” that is compassionate and connected.

I write this article as a tribute to Lynda Callon of the Westside CAN Center and her influence on me, the KCPD, and the Westside Community… may she Rest in Peace.

What inspires you to be a better leader and member of your community? Join the conversation by leaving me a comment and/or tweeting @Ace_Wagner!