By Chef John Keene, Special for California Black Media Partners
Happy Black History Month.
It seems like media coverage of Black History Month this year is getting lost in the merry-go-round of breaking news — from changing COVID guidelines and soaring food and gas prices to shocking crime stories and growing concerns about the involvement of our military in Ukraine. Add to that the constant distractions of TikTok, Facebook reels, and other social media platforms all vying for our attention.
But whether or not the media gives Black History Month the attention it deserves, most African Americans realize how important it is to commemorate our history — and its important contribution to American history. . So we pause to honor our past, celebrate our ancestors, and congratulate ourselves on the many contributions we have made to this country.
And we also invite all Americans to celebrate Black History Month. It’s all around us. There is black history to be discovered in your neighborhoods, at your work, in your city and in your churches. Learning about the struggles and contributions of Black Americans can enrich our mutual understanding and the hard-won freedoms that Americans of all backgrounds often take for granted.
As Chief Probation Officer for San Mateo County and current Chairman of the California Chief Probation Officers, I have a very important responsibility in the positions I hold to uphold a legacy built by many before me who paved the way.
On probation, as in society, it is vital that all cultures are recognized, and black history is no different. It is important for our assistants and staff to know that the path to get here has been paved by the trials and tribulations of those who have gone before us.
Most African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s were limited to opportunities in correctional facilities and did not have the ability to start as assistant probation officers or advance to that rank. Surprisingly, early black assistant probation officers and staff were not widely known to be employed nationwide until the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, more than 20% of assistant probation officers in California are African American. This diversity extends to gender (51% are female) and other races as well (72% of assistant probation officers are non-white).
Today, probation is even more diverse in education (the majority of officers have four-year degrees), and many probation services employ former individuals involved in the justice system. Importantly, the diversity of Probation also extends to our leadership with just over 10% of probation leaders in California being African American.
On the shoulders of African-American pioneers, we stand as leaders of our profession with honor and humility. For me, the weight of leading the association of leaders in our profession is a reflection of the important role of black history in probation that led to the diversity and inclusion we see now.
The weight and the responsibility of this story, I carry them proudly.
With this diversity comes cultural skills and lived experiences. This understanding and sensitivity makes probation an indispensable part of the criminal justice system.
It is the connection between punishment and rehabilitation, the breaking down of barriers to help those involved in justice change their lives and leave the system permanently – creating long-term sustainable safety in our communities. This is also what attracts even more diversity to our ranks: this desire to help people succeed.
As a former police officer, lawyer, assistant probation officer and now chief, my experience has helped me immensely to feel a sense of empathy for the life experiences of the people we serve. It helped me understand the challenges of the young people I speak with who had a difficult upbringing. As African Americans, overcoming barriers is something we know firsthand, and barrier reduction is a central part of rehabilitation.
Often it even takes going beyond that to see the difference between rehabilitation and empowerment, or helping someone who has only known a difficult life to acquire the tools to create a new one that puts them on a healthier path. To help them succeed, we as probation officers often become much more – serving as teachers, mentors and role models.
Sometimes the people we serve think the challenges they face are unique to them, but we can often relate because we too have had many of these experiences or encountered them in our own settings. It breaks the ice, creates points of connection, reduces barriers and opens up a moment for them to pause and listen and let their guard down to learn and grow.
Now, in my new role as chair of the California Chief Probation Officers, I’m doing that work on a larger scale, often working through larger political conversations and tax decisions and weighing their implications.
My work in these positions continues to be informed by my own background, experiences and cultural understandings. Black History Month gives us space and time to reflect on how we got here, but also where we would like to go. I am privileged to now be able to help shape that future for my own children and their children.
Chief John Keene was appointed San Mateo County Chief Probation Officer in June 2013. Chief Keene brings over 20 years of law enforcement experience to his role. Prior to his appointment as Chief, he served as Deputy Chief Probation Officer in Alameda County.