Teya Sepinuck said the drumbeat of police-involved shootings of African Americans has weighed heavily on her, but until now she felt powerless to do anything.
She founded Theater of Witness, which a decade ago had united mothers of children murdered in Philadelphia with mothers of killers to create a testimonial performance and documentary on the roots of crime and its devastating effect on families.
But she said a new project tackling the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and the targeting of police officers on the street would be delicate.
Sepinuck said months of soul-searching and meditation ended this summer with a text to an old friend, Altovise Love-Craighead, a Philadelphia police captain in the 16th District. Would Love-Craighead partner with her on such a project?
Love-Craighead's response was a quick "yes, with lots of exclamation marks," Sepinuck said during a program on racial injustice Saturday at Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manayunk.
Love-Craighead's brother was fatally shot in 1997, and she and her mother had participated in Sepinuck's production about the families dealing with murder.
"Beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field and I'll meet you there," Love-Craighead said in the production, which had focused on forgiveness and healing.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit had invited the two women to talk about the planned traveling performance, Walk in My Shoes, which will bring together police and African Americans who are victims of racial targeting and bias. It is expected to be completed by next fall.
About 50 people attended Saturday's discussion, including Pastor Nicolas O'Rourke of Living Waters Church in Philadelphia, the organizer of Live Free! Ending Racial Injustice Campaign for POWER.
"We try to dedicate this Shabbat, between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, to raising awareness of injustice," Zevit said. The synagogue inside a former textile mill opened 15 years ago.
O'Rourke said mass incarceration is another problem, because there now are "more people of color in jail than there were slaves in 1850." He said 60 percent of those who are imprisoned are awaiting trial, and African Americans are disproportionately arrested.
"We're not against police, but we're anti-police brutality," he said.
Love-Craighead, who has been an officer for 22 years, said Walk in My Shoes aims to have "the community and police share time together, and hopefully people will see the 'other' is not so much the 'other.' " She said that most police officers take the job to help others, and that sometimes their experiences on the street "muddle that," and they need to be reminded of their role in a community.
She said that her police superiors gave her the green light to pursue the project and that she will try to enlist officers to participate. "This is policing and the community coming together. . . . It's an effort to understand why people do what they do," she said.
Sepinuck, the artistic director for various social-justice productions for 30 years, said the first step will be to hold "listening circles" to gather stories from officers and people affected by police shootings and to open the dialogue.
"The topic we're going to address is scary," Love-Craighead said. "Especially because of where our country is today. . . . I'm optimistic that people and hearts will win out."