December Harmon stands at the Boone County Courthouse

December Harmon stands at the Boone County Courthouse in Columbia. She is the winner of the Progress in Civic Engagement award.

December Harmon is a member of the Citizens Police Review Board in Columbia, which aims to increase transparency between police and citizens.

While the board has been suspended by the Columbia City Council, Harmon is still making her mark on civic engagement in Columbia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your work in civic engagement end up being recognized?

I joined the Citizens Police Review Board and quickly realized I was working with a disaffected community. Then I saw for myself that the system, in fact, did not work. I’m nothing if not honest. I tried to inform the City Council of the issue and they blew me off. So, I began telling anyone who would listen. People brushed me off at first, and said I couldn’t change anything. Told me not to try. So, I wrote an editorial piece, a 14-page report, then an 80-page book, I got my message on the evening news, I appeared on KOPN (radio) and I got council to pass ordinance change. We went from no attendance at CPRB meetings, to having an audience, to being suspended until further notice because our dysfunction was on public display.

How did you end up in Columbia?

I was born and raised in Pleasantville, New Jersey. I moved here when I was 21 because I transferred from my local college, Atlantic Cape Community College to Stephens College. I left college due to a life-threatening brain malformation and I returned to school at Columbia College where I got my political science degree.

What’s your personal mantra or mission?

My mantra is “I never present a problem without also providing a solution.” It reminds me to never come empty handed with my problems. My mission is to combat racism and white supremacy in the judicial system.

Is it ever hard to do what you do?

Absolutely. I give up all the time. Then someone thanks me at the grocery store and another person tells me I’m speaking truth to power. I get back in the fight when I’m told I’m going to fail. Proving people wrong is what I do.

Why do you think civic engagement and social justice is important?

Telling people there’s a problem and waiting for someone to fix it. That didn’t work. I had to change my approach. I tell people civic engagement is important because “They will make decisions about you because you aren’t in the room.” City Council, Columbia Police Chief, CPD Union, Citizens Police Review Board, city staff, Human Rights Commission, they all tried to silence me. I could have walked away, but I have personally experienced the impact of police brutality. I wasn’t permitted a seat at the table. So I built a table, pulled a chair up and said, “pass the gravy.”

What does this award mean to you?

It’s an honor. I didn’t start this journey thinking a year from now I would get a pat on the back or a thumbs up. My heart is full knowing my community believes in me.

What do you think has been your biggest contribution to Columbia overall?

I changed the conversation around civilian oversight of the police.

What do you think makes what you do so important?

I couldn’t help one single person that came through the door in need of help. That keeps me up at night. Everyone deserves to be safe within their persons. I don’t want Columbia to be the next major news story of police brutality. I could be the next victim. You could be the next victim. The citizen should have a method of recourse and they don’t.

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