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Ubuntu: Uniting hearts and transforming public safety for a better tomorrow

The African philosophy of Ubuntu provides a compelling vision for revolutionizing public safety services and the ways in which we enforce our laws

Complex linking of many mixed hands: unity is strength!

Ubuntu, which translates to “I am because we are,” emphasizes the “collective” over the “individual,” highlighting the importance of human connections, mutual care and co-agency.

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By Hunter A. Panning, MPA

As a passionate professional in law enforcement and a doctoral student in leadership and adult learning, I am continually exploring innovative ways to enhance the delivery of our public safety services and reinforce our desire to be quality public servants. I am exploring paths that offer a transformative perspective that go beyond traditional law enforcement methods.

While on this journey, I’ve learned that studying philosophies from other parts of the world is crucial to our progress because it encourages us to look outside the conventional boundaries of American society, enabling us to incorporate innovative and more holistic strategies that foster trust, healing, and collaboration within our communities. With that in mind, let’s delve into the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which provides a refreshing outlook on community and interconnectedness.

What is Ubuntu?

In a country often characterized by division and conflict, the African philosophy of Ubuntu offers a refreshing perspective on community and interconnectedness.

Ubuntu, which translates to “I am because we are,” emphasizes the “collective” over the “individual,” highlighting the importance of human connections, mutual care and co-agency. This philosophy has the potential to revolutionize the way we deliver public safety services, creating systems that are not only more effective and humanistic but also more compassionate and connecting.

At its core, Ubuntu is about recognizing our shared humanity. It acknowledges that our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of others. In the context of public safety, this means shifting from a model that focuses solely on enforcement and punishment to one that prioritizes community engagement, trust-building and restorative practices.

As we move beyond the beginning of the 21st century, many of us already embrace the idea of a more holistic approach to policing. But by labeling our philosophy using the ideas of Ubuntu, we can create a more comprehensive approach to public safety that addresses the root causes of crime and fosters a sense of belonging and mutual responsibility. [1]

The principles of Ubuntu

1. Empathy

One of the key principles of Ubuntu is empathy. Understanding the experiences and struggles of others is essential to creating a just and compassionate community.

In public safety, this translates to officers and other personnel taking the time to genuinely listen to the communities they serve. It involves recognizing the unique challenges faced by different neighborhoods and working collaboratively to find solutions that address their specific needs. This approach not only builds trust but also empowers communities to take an active role in their own safety. The idea of empowering communities to have an active role in their safety emphasizes the importance of co-policing strategies. [2]

2. Restorative justice

Another vital aspect of Ubuntu is the idea of restorative justice. Traditional punitive measures often fail to address the underlying issues that lead to criminal behavior, leading to a renowned prevalence of recidivism. Restorative justice, on the other hand, focuses on healing and reconciliation. It seeks to repair the harm caused by crime by facilitating dialogue between victims and offenders, promoting understanding and forgiveness.

This process not only helps victims find closure, but also encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions and make amends, often providing a space for offenders to engage in meaningful self-reflection. By integrating restorative justice rooted in Ubuntu philosophy into our public safety systems, we can reduce recidivism and create more unified local communities. [3]

3. Communal decision-making

Community involvement is another cornerstone of Ubuntu. In many African cultures, communal decision-making is a fundamental part of governance.

This principle can be applied to public safety by involving community members in the development and implementation of safety strategies and change management. This could take the form of community advisory boards, neighborhood watch programs, or public forums where residents can voice their concerns and suggest solutions. When people feel that they have a say in the policies that affect their lives, they are more likely to cooperate with law enforcement and work together to create safer environments. [4]

4. Training and education

Training and education are also crucial in promoting Ubuntu within public safety services. Officers and other personnel need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to engage with communities respectfully and empathetically. This includes cultural competency instruction, conflict resolution techniques, and an understanding of the social determinants of crime and disorder. By investing in this type of education, we can ensure that those tasked with maintaining public safety are not only effective in their roles but also compassionate and just. [2]

5. Learn from others

Moreover, the philosophy of Ubuntu encourages us to look beyond our borders and learn from the successes of others. There are numerous examples worldwide where community-based approaches to public safety have led to significant improvements. For instance, in Medellín, Colombia, a focus on social programs and community involvement helped transform one of the world’s most dangerous cities into a model of urban renewal. [5] Similarly, in Scotland, the adoption of a public health approach to violence prevention has led to a dramatic reduction in violent crime. [6]

By studying these and other examples, we can gain valuable insights into how Ubuntu can be practically applied to our own public safety challenges.

6. Address inequalities

The integration of Ubuntu into public safety services also has the potential to address systemic inequalities. Many marginalized communities have historically experienced a fraught relationship with law enforcement, characterized by mistrust and discrimination. By adopting a philosophy that prioritizes human dignity and collective wellbeing, we can rebuild these relationships and create a more equitable system, where being fair does not always mean remaining equal. This involves not only changing policies and practices, but also addressing broader social and economic factors that contribute to crime and insecurity. [1]

The African philosophy of Ubuntu provides a compelling vision for revolutionizing public safety services and how we enforce our laws. By embracing empathy, restorative justice, community involvement and continuous learning, we can create a system that is not only more effective but profoundly compassionate and inclusive.

Now is the time to act — let us transform our approach to public safety by fostering trust, healing and collaboration within our neighborhoods. Let us champion the principles of Ubuntu, recognizing that our collective wellbeing is paramount to every one of us. Together, we can build a future where everyone thrives, feels safe and experiences the true essence of humanity. Remember, “I am because we are.” Let’s make this powerful philosophy the cornerstone of our public safety efforts and inspire a new era of unity and justice.


1. Enslin P, Horsthemke K. (2004.) Can Ubuntu provide a model for citizenship education in African democracies? Comparative Education, 40(4):545-558.

2. Gade CBN. (2012.) What is Ubuntu? Different interpretations among South Africans of African descent. South African Journal of Philosophy, 31(3):484-503.

3. Armenta B, Atkins B. (2019.) Restorative justice: Promoting peace and resolving conflict in our communities. The Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being, 4(1):15-23.

4. Murithi T. (2006.) Practical peacemaking wisdom from Africa: Reflections on Ubuntu. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 1(4):25-34.

5. Fajardo E, Arias ED. (2012.) The transformation of Medellín: From murder capital to model city. Urban Studies, 49(15):3233-3250.

6. Monaghan R. (2014.) Preventing violent crime: The Scottish approach. Criminal Justice Matters, 98(1):24-25.

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Hunter Panning is a police officer currently appointed as a school resource officer in a suburb city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hunter sparked an interest in the policing culture and organizational leadership while earning his Master of Public Administration – Organizational Leadership & Change Management degree, in addition to his enduring doctoral studies in leadership and adult learning theories. Hunter has interests in multiple areas of public safety, including improving the role of the public information officer and exploring the relationship between strategic public information release and a community’s sense of trust, as well as peer support and officer wellness programs, optimizing the role of the school resource officer, and implementing drone use in public safety. Hunter believes that the policing profession brings challenging and deeply complex human dynamics to organizations and only the brightest leaders should be charged with revolutionizing the profession.