Guided Pathways -Support for Youth & Families is one of many youth- and family-serving organizations concerned about the school to jail pipeline and police use of force against youth of color and those who struggle with emotional, behavioral and substance abuse challenges. In partnership with Atlantic Street Center, Guided Pathways is leading a series of community conversations on these issues. The first of the series began last week with a parent class on involvement with police.

Police Engagement Workshop, by Samantha-Jo Fry, GPS Social Media Volunteer

Zakia opening the Workshop

Zakia Ruquiya opening the Workshop

The Atlantic Street Family center is tucked on a small street with only a bold black and white sign to let you know that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be. It’s a modest building that, on this day, had adopted a red faced duck who wandered outside helping to greet anyone who arrived to this event.

When I first learned that I was going to attend the Police Engagement Workshop, I felt completely out of my element. I’m a girl who was born and raised in small town America, you can hardly find a stop light, let alone the need for an entire workshop. But in minor preparation in writing this blog, I discovered that the African American community has good reason to come together. I heard a statistic that there are more African Americans incarcerated right now then there were in slavery. That they represent 60 percent of the population currently incarcerated. And while this February we celebrate the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, African Americans are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, two times more likely to be arrested, and four times more likely to be on the receiving end of police force. And since 1 in 15 African Americans are incarcerated, these numbers didn’t seem so surprising. Yet here I was, watching Oprah’s Selma win awards on TV, and the audience cry as John Legend and Common are making mainstream music to remind us of those Civil Rights victories, these numbers made me feel smaller, less aware.

Leading the discussion

Zac Davis Leading the discussion

As the meeting space started to fill, I, along with everyone else, was impressed at how many young people were in attendance. Everyone was laughing and talking, the panel of speakers coming in, making sandwiches from the little station set up next to the sign in desk, eventually everyone making their way into the room.

As introductions were made, the church welcomed Reverend Harriet Walden, Steven Dozier, Pastor Carl Livingston, Tamera Cook, and Dustin Washington. Applause went out and immediately the crowd was hit with facts and advice. The advice provided the audience of parents and youth included: asking for a ranking officer if you feel uncomfortable when stopped by police; if you are a minor, be sure to respectfully follow directions; only give out your name and age; as of 2010 you are no longer read your Miranda Rights unless you are arrested or you bring it up yourself, and, one of the most clearly stated tips; always ask for a lawyer, don’t assume that you understand the law, or as a minor, that your parents do.

Many people in attendance spoke up, many added in their own information or experience, and with every hand raised and voice heard, I felt the passion and emotion of those whose history raised awareness, whose knowledge was there to empower. It was infectious, I wanted to stand up, call a politician, march, something that made a difference. But instead I watched as the panel made their way up the steps to take their chairs, ready to answer outlined questions and pass on their wisdom to this room of concerned citizens.

I listened as they told their stories, brought to light facts and information, expressed the importance of education and history, spirituality emanating through every word. They told parents to know who their children’s friends are, focus on the positive and continue to identify goals, seek community support, encourage conversations, every piece of advice circling back to education. After all, African American youth make up about 17% of the youth population, 37% of their cases, when arrested, end up being moved to criminal court, and 58% find themselves in adult prisons. They also spoke of the inability for this community to ignite change, and I thought “Vote!” Isn’t that what we learn? Use your right to vote! Write in! You matter! But a staggering 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to use this basic right because of a felony, and 13% of those are African Americans.

What a great crowd!

What a great crowd!

However as the night wound down and the discussion came to a close, I couldn’t help but notice how hopeful the room was, how much just knowing what you can do, march, attend, read, or simply just express a curiosity, can impact your experiences. Behind me sat a group of young men, one of whom, statistically speaking, will have an encounter with the police and might be more aware and more powerful than he was before. And for everything that this community has working against them, sitting in that church I was moved by the idea that this is exactly what has the potential to reach young minds. Ideas as significant as Civil Rights started in small forums such as this, by people who believed in spreading awareness.

The panel came to a close, and the energy morphed into something lighter, the crowd making their way downstairs for a dinner provided by Teen Feed, an organization that provides support for at risk youth. I left the church with my mind just a little more open, my awareness expanded, knowing that while that the African American community may have a long way to go to make the justice system less flawed, I had the pleasure of watching a community bring these issues to light.