by Courtney D. Sharpe
This summer began with harrowing tales that exposed latent racism in communities and disproportionate police force used against minority communities across the nation. The tragic AME church massacre and subsequent church fires, the fight to keep flying the confederate flag, and the images of seeing innocent black children chased by police with guns drawn made for an emotional, and inherently politically charged, beginning to the season.
Like many parts of the rest of the country, Philadelphia looked on at these events with horror and sympathy—during this climate of heightened awareness we reflected to create opportunities for interaction among community members to prevent similar travesties from happening in our neighborhoods.
On June 3, My Brother’s Keeper Philadelphia, in partnership with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Police Advisory Commission, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, hosted “Securing Our Future,” a one-day summit on re-imagining Philadelphia’s community-police relations. The event brought together youth from neighborhoods across the city of diverse ethnic backgrounds along with city officials and police officers to have a facilitated dialogue about the youth’s experience with police.
The goal of the event was to provide a platform for youth, especially youth of color, to be able to share their stories and offer suggestions for ways that police and the community can adapt behaviors or policies to work better together. The event had over 220 youth and youth advocates who were mostly teenagers and young adults but one class of fifth and sixth graders were also present. The conversations were rich and the youth were engaged in the process.
As a Texan, in the wake of the images and video from McKinney, Texas, I felt particularly moved to be involved in the implementation and report back structure of the events developed for youth-police interaction. No one should see on the television neighborhoods that resemble their own, with people who look like them, being attacked for existing in space. I was fortunate to be able to serve as a facilitator at one of the tables. One of our first questions asked the youth what positive experiences or memories they had with the police; I was struck that at my table they were not able to come up with any. At that time city officials at the table began to interject with numerous stories of their own, mostly in their professional capacity. I felt that some of them spoke as if to teach or preach and I was grateful that at the break when people chose different tables my group did not have other adults. I was able to ask questions and get the youth to speak to each other. It was raw, honest, and cathartic. One of the girls at the table was a Chinese immigrant and she shared stories of negative police interaction in three states.
As a follow up to the summit, every young person in attendance that was interested was invited to attend a special meeting on June 10 at City Hall in the Mayor’s Reception Room for the presentations of the findings to the Police Department and to participate in a moderated discussion with police officers. Around fifteen youth participated in the roundtable discussion. At the conclusion of the formal program, Deputy Commissioner Bethel announced his plans to create a youth advisory council and invited all of the youth present to join as they had demonstrated leadership and commitment to being a part of the change process. The formal event was followed by a pizza party in the Council Caucus Room where police officers, City staff and youth continued their conversations joyfully. It was an auspicious beginning to a necessary dialogue.
Courtney D. Sharpe is serving as a Harvard Ash Center Fellow working with MBK Philly throughout summer 2015 to help design a comprehensive public database to promote City of Philadelphia opportunities open to youth in support of Milestone Five: All Youth are Employed.