Dr. Crutcher’s Personal Journey Towards Justice and Reconciliation

by Contributing Writer Hannah Jarman

When Dr. Tiffany Crutcher enters a space, the entire energy changes. Whether it’s a City Council meeting, a school board meeting, a panel discussion, canvassing in the community, or a casual discussion over coffee, she seizes the opportunity to harness its potential for change. Her passion for social change has led to the unification of diverse coalitions. Dr. Crutcher has devoted her life to activism with a focus on dismantling oppressive systems that have disproportionately impacted the most marginalized communities in Tulsa. Her work is transforming the city and her energy has fueled an entire movement. 

Twins Tiffany Crutcher and Terence Crutcher grew up with their family in North Tulsa, a community built on the resilient history of Black Wall Street, the largest Black business district in history. On September 16th, 2016, Terence Crutcher, only 40 years old, was shot and killed by Officer Betty Shelby after his car broke down in North Tulsa. With police helicopters flying overhead, the devastating footage of him being shot shows his back to the officer. He was unarmed. His hands were up. He was asking for help. This was days after he had committed to going back to school to provide for his family. This was years after being a committed part of his church’s gospel choir. He told his twin sister, “God will get the glory out of my life.” Dr. Crutcher felt this shot hit her at the same moment it hit her twin brother. She constantly relives the physical pain she felt at this moment and the emotional pain that would have a lasting impact.

The reality of the brutalization of Black bodies in America by the police became personal for Dr. Crutcher within seconds. The shooting death of Terence made Tulsa face its racist, historical foundation. Dr. Crutcher stood on the frontlines of a battle that manifested in Tulsa at the start of the Race Massacre of 1921 when hundreds of African-American Tulsans were killed because of white fear of their wealth and influence. History, as it does, prescribes today’s reality. The fight would be against hundreds of years of prejudice. Living in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the shooting, Dr. Crutcher began to distribute her time between activism on behalf of her brother and her community in Tulsa and her clinical practice in Montgomery. 

Dr. Crutcher feels she was called to Montgomery, Alabama as a personal mission to provide resources to underrepresented communities. She decided to start her healthcare practice in an underserved, rural community where African-American populations were subjected to large health disparities. Her mission in Montgomery became to fight for equal access to healthcare for Black communities. Dr. Crutcher started to spend every hour of her days and nights fighting both inequality in access to healthcare and injustice in the criminal justice system. 

After Terence’s murder, the Crutcher family founded the Terence Crutcher Foundation with the mission of engaging different changemakers in addressing and preventing issues of inequity in Tulsa and around the country. Dr. Crutcher put words into action. The Terence Crutcher Foundation set out to use coalition building to combat police violence happening in our city while keeping the dialogue of this important issue at the center.

On the night of Officer Betty Shelby’s acquittal, Dr. Crutcher made a promise to herself that she would no longer let hatred, bigotry, and racism control her brother’s narrative. The major setback of the acquittal came with deep anger – yet another reminder that the systems at play are powerful and relentless. With this fueling the fire, the Foundation spent its first year turning pain into purpose knowing that there was no choice but to continue to act despite seemingly insurmountable systemic inequities. It became clear that the mission of the Foundation went deeper than police reform alone. The Terence Crutcher Foundation seeks to inspire people around the country to overcome adversity in order to build tangible, sustainable solutions to inequitable systems – despite the relentless waters Dr. Crutcher would soon find herself in. 

During the second year of the Foundation, the mission was put into action. The “Make Them Hear You” campaign placed marginalized voices in the spotlight by demanding public hearings from the City Council to openly evaluate racially biased policing practices in Tulsa. While the city admitted that the data from the Tulsa Equality Indicators report did indicate there was a problem, some still found issue with admitting that these indicators were based on systemic racism. The data from the 2017 report stated that the City of Tulsa has scored an equality indicator of 38.93 out of 100, with the Justice category scoring a 35.33. A failing grade. Dr. Crutcher mobilized communities throughout Tulsa to tell their stories to humanize this data because the data alone was not convincing the city’s lawmakers to make necessary change.

The Foundation kept its vision in mind. After Terence was labeled as “a bad dude” by TPD officers, during the duration of the trial and thereafter, Dr. Crutcher sought to write her own narrative around the word that has, consequently, become the guiding vision for the Terence Crutcher Foundation. The vision of the Foundation became B.A.D: belief, attitude, and determination. The three qualities Terence exemplified in spite of the media’s depiction of him. Dr. Crutcher organized her connections from a lifetime in this city to bring forward speakers who would share their stories about their personal interactions with racism in Tulsa while helping to reiterate the power of B.A.D. She knew that the more illustrative examples that were shared publicly, the more she could turn the “bad” media interpretation of her community into a B.A.D. reality. She stimulated new hope. This groundwork of inspiring hope is what has propelled the Foundation into its third year.  

Rooted in Dr. Crutcher’s hope is action. After leaving her clinical practice in December 2018 to move back to Tulsa from Montgomery, Dr. Crutcher has committed herself to pursuing her calling as a social justice activist. There was a fire burning inside of her pushing her to become more proximate to the fight. While Dr. Crutcher’s patients and community of over 15 years were disappointed to see her go, they knew this war against injustice needed her. Over the past eight months, Dr. Crutcher has been busy doing the work it takes to make lasting change in a system built from racism.

This year, Dr. Crutcher has focused her work on empowering others toward taking action in their communities knowing this work is best done when others are empowered to contribute. On January 21st of this year, Dr. Crutcher spoke at the Tulsa Women’s March, unifying women for a common purpose through the reality that every injustice deserves outrage. She shared with the attentive crowd that “we have to stop making daily decisions as to who or what deserves our outrage.” She quoted Martin Luther King Jr., a figure she mirrors in today’s Civil Rights Movement, that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The push for intersectional approaches to the women’s rights movement illustrated Dr. Crutcher’s continuous coalition building strategy in what was proving to be much more than a police reform movement. This momentum would continue to build. In February, Dr. Crutcher spoke to a group of students involved in the Tulsa Changemakers program at Collegiate Hall Charter School about the vision of B.A.D. and the foundation behind the vision. Within an hour, the middle school students were committed to the movement because of Dr. Crutcher’s passion. Dr. Crutcher seeks to support the next generation in understanding their worth and their power in a landscape where speaking out against oppression is the only option. Silence breeds injustice.  

In conjunction with her work with youth, Dr. Crutcher took action to work against the oppressive systems that exist, hoping to develop a vision for a sustainable police reform campaign. To make this a reality, in partnership with over 50 other activists and organizations, Dr. Crutcher brought the national spotlight to Tulsa when she worked with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund to facilitate community-led public hearings on police reform in the city. In protest to the lack of action taken by the city, the coalition brought the inaugural hearing to a community event center on 36th Street North and Peoria. Dr. Crutcher made the Tulsa City Council truly hear the community. Power permeated the room. Because these hearings were community-led, they empowered the community to demand change from the decision makers in the city. The energy was changing. The room was packed with Tulsans ready to join what activists would define as today’s Civil Rights Movement.

One night shortly after this public hearing, Dr. Crutcher brought together a group of trusted individuals who had the same passion and drive as herself. No oppressive system can be overcome alone. On this night, the Demanding a JusTulsa campaign was born. Demanding a JusTulsa, a campaign to end inequitable practices in policing, was constructed through multiple conversations with both local activists and national organizers. This campaign humanizes the data from the Tulsa Equality Indicators to ensure faces are put to the numbers. The push for city-led public hearings culminated when the Demanding a JusTulsa campaign organized a packed room for a mid-March City Council meeting where Dr. Crutcher amongst dozens of other community members would speak about their experiences with policing in Tulsa. The massive number of concerned citizens waiting for their turn to be heard filled every nook and crevice of City Hall that day.

Dr. Crutcher took this City Council meeting as an opportunity to share her story through a new lens. One community member used her allotted time to simply turn her back and stand in silence. Educators articulated how systemic racism impacted the students in their classrooms. Silence filled the room as Dr. Crutcher walked up to the podium with large, brown paper bags in her hands. Inside of those bags were the items Terence wore when he was shot and killed. The energy in the room changed. Dr. Crutcher, fighting back tears, stated “We asked for one simple thing for you all to figure out: why. Why this happened. And all I heard was ‘We don’t want to be cussed at. We don’t want to be antagonized.’ Every day I have to see my brother’s bloody clothes, shoes, necklace, prosthetic eye. And you’re concerned about being antagonized?!” The City Council voted unanimously to hold public hearings on police reform. A major win for the movement.

But that, of course, did not mean the work was done. In April, Dr. Crutcher utilized her platform to build an even larger coalition. She traveled to the National Action Network Conference in New York to launch a campaign calling for nationwide police reform. She stood in front of thousands of individuals enthusiastically cheering on her ideas for holding police accountable. This moment pushed her out of her comfort zone while giving her newfound hope. Not only was this movement important to her community back in Tulsa, its support expanded throughout the country.  Dr. Crutcher was appointed to the Board of Directors for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform later that month. She intends for her main role on the board to be the creation of an intersectional approach to reforming Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. With Oklahoma having the highest rate of incarceration in the country, Dr. Crutcher took to battling an epidemic that has impacted a majority of Oklahoma families in one form or another. 

By May, Dr. Crutcher had a national platform as she took her fight to Capitol Hill. Here she laid out a plan to raise the standards by which police officers are held to, demanding that reckless disregard for life would no longer go without consequence. She recalls walking down the hallway of the Rayburn building, looking at all of the names of lawmakers on each door, and praying that they would hear her.  In addition, she announced the formation of the Tulsa Community Remembrance Coalition in partnership with Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative to honor and memorialize the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. 

Beyond these milestones, Dr. Crutcher has done something even more important. She has shown up. She has spent time in rooms with decision makers. She has canvassed communities to hear stories and broaden her own perspective. She has welcomed Tulsans into a movement that expands far further than the bounds of one city. She has inspired others to do the same. Dr. Crutcher would tell you that it takes love to be an activist. 

Dr. Crutcher manifests pain into purpose, elevates voices from the silence, and unifies diverse coalitions for change. Dr. Crutcher is more than a role model. She is marching on the path built by Harriet Tubman, fought for by Ella Baker, and inscribed into history by Maya Angelou. She is the modern-day hero that Tulsans need right now.

Photo credit: Prototype Design & Photography