Black Empowerment with Ryan Tillman of Breaking Barriers United

As part of our celebration of Black History Month, OpenSesame is empowering black voices and featuring stories from our colleagues. Read on to hear from Ryan Tillman, Chino police officer, founder of Breaking Barriers United, and publisher of a series of courses here at OpenSesame.

Recently we profiled one of our publishers, Ryan Tillman of Breaking Barriers United, and highlighted his work via webinar and an introductory article about his accomplishments.

In this article, we’re expanding the conversation and diving deeper into Ryan’s mission, goals, and the meaning of empowerment in the Black community.

What does Black empowerment mean to you?

To me, Black empowerment means taking control of your life, despite being black – despite the color of your skin. 

This may sound contradictory to the idea of black empowerment. But here’s what I mean: 

I was raised to be proud of who I am – to be proud of being an African American male. I learned about my history growing up – about my culture and my roots. And I learned there was a lot of oppression towards Black people. When I learned that, it was hard – realizing that man, I can’t believe my ancestors had to go through that simply based on the color of their skin. But at the same time, it was inspirational, because I learned that no matter the color of your skin, you can rise and overcome. 

I love the fact that I’m Black because it makes me unique; it allows me to bring perspectives from another culture. I also think the empowerment part of it means we can go out there and be strong. We can be like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman and other Black ancestors that went ahead of me to pave the way.

How does the work you do with Breaking Barriers United and with OpenSesame help to empower the Black community?

I think it helps empower the Black community because it gives them hope that they can do something that’s not within their realm. And what I mean by that is if you look at law enforcement right now, there’s not a lot of diversity within the profession. It’s more than what it used to be, but it’s not as diverse as it could be. 

It’s also about the Black community’s perception of how they view law enforcement. They see us as the enemy. They see us as the oppressors – as an extension of slavery, some might say, which isn’t true. The work that I do with OpenSesame and with the Black community allows people to change the way they see law enforcement – when they see a Black police officer and hear from my experiences, their perception shifts.

At the same time, I think that we can improve as a profession. By creating elearning courses through OpenSesame as a Black police officer, not only am I helping change the way people view law enforcement, I’m also able to educate people about it at the same time.

What’s an example of how you’ve changed the Black community’s perspective through your work as an officer?

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a guy who’s a convicted felon. We start talking, and he starts sharing about his life. He’d been in and out of the criminal justice system for years – been arrested, sent to prison. So we’re talking and like I said, he’s just spewing his heart out to me, telling me everything about himself. This is before he knew what I did. 

So we got to that part in the conversation where he asks what I do. I tell him I’m a cop and his eyes get huge. He’s like, “Man, I can’t believe I told all this information to a cop!” And then we continue the conversation. At the end, he says, “You know what, Ryan, one of the things that I respect about you is that you didn’t bat an eye when I was telling you everything. As a matter of fact, you didn’t cast any judgment. There was no shift in the conversation where I felt judgment coming from you.” And I just said, “Well, that’s because we’re all humans. Every one of us has made mistakes. Who am I to judge?”

I just go out there and try to be myself. I’m Ryan Tillman – Corporal Tillman, not Popo Tillman. In doing this I’ve been able to develop relationships with people and change their perspectives.

And this happens all the time. People approach me and tell me how I’ve changed their viewpoint – a side I hadn’t seen before. This is my ultimate goal.

How have you changed hearts and minds through the workshops you give in BBU? 

I’m always transparent. I talk about where I came from, why I became a police officer. And I always address the elephant in the room upfront. I start by asking, “Who doesn’t like police officers?” Not surprisingly, most or all hands go up. Then, throughout my presentation, I educate them about law enforcement: what it is, why we exist, what we do in our roles. 

And then we role-play. The students go through scenarios where they have to make decisions as a police officer in the field. It’s an eye-opening moment for all of them – they’re like, “Wow, this was very hard!” And that’s done in a static environment, where it’s not real. I ask them to imagine the decisions that real police officers make daily where it’s not static, where it’s not fun and games – where it’s life or death. 

By having these conversations and working through these scenarios non-judgmentally, we’re instrumental in challenging perceptions. 

Anything else you’d like others to know? 

You can accomplish whatever you want to accomplish. You may have to take risks, but there will be rewards. Get out of your comfort zones; explore the treacherous waters in order to get to the other side of that ocean. Because when you get there, there will be an abundance of whatever you want – success, or whatever it is – as long as you’re willing to take the plunge and swim through.

To learn more about Ryan and his work, check out our previous article, webinar, and OpenSesame’s Breaking Barriers United courses.