While media is filled with news of clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, a different scene played out at one of our Jamaica, Queens sites yesterday evening. Representatives from law enforcement, city council, and the community met to educate and engage youth in a dialogue about the relationship between police and the public, and the special role of youth in shaping future relations.
More than 20 youth from Safe Space’s Drop-in center and ARCHES program gathered for the event. The drop-in center provides a safe space for youth to bond with their peers and receive critical mentorship, resources, and opportunities that are scarce in a low income area struggling with above average crime rates. The ARCHES program provides special mentorship for youth involved in the criminal justice system.
In spite of some of the youth’s history with the law, they came prepared with questions and eager for expertise and advice from the speakers present. Local Council Member Rory Lancman (District 24), who sits on several NYC committees dedicated to public safety, opened the evening with a commitment to the community, and to reforming systems that disproportionately and unjustly affect the City’s Black and Latino youth.
“We have a responsibility to ensure equal treatment under the law for all of us,” said Lancman.
Vernon Wells, a panelist representing the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, affirmed Lancman’s message. “How do we balance being cops and community activists?” asked Wells. “We remember that we are humans first.” Wells enumerated the youths’ constitutional rights and encouraged them to practice them. While acknowledging that there are some cops who go beyond sanctioned means of enforcing the law, Wells implored youth to change the system from the inside, to consider becoming police captains and leaders in their communities. “You have the power to affect policy,” he said. For youth who often arrive at Safe Space programs feeling powerless, Wells’ words were an inspiration.
Equally inspiring were the stories shared by recent exoneree Antonio Yarbough, wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned for 22 years, and by the parents of Sean Bell, a young man killed by police in 2006. In spite of the hardships they had suffered, both Yarbough and Mr. and Mrs. Bell remained optimistic. Mr. Bell credited the youth in the room with keeping his spirits up. “As adults, we need you to pave the road. You inspire us to keep going every day,” he said.
As inspired as the Mr. Bell was by the youth in the room, youth were equally inspired by the revelation that they could both determine their own futures, and the futures of their communities, with the support of family, friends, police, and city leaders alike.
The evening was just one part of Safe Space and ESS’ ongoing commitment to empowering youth to make a positive impact as active and contributing citizens.
“Youth in the low income neighborhoods who take part in our programs all have immense potential to make positive contributions in their communities,” said Mohan Sivaloganathan, Chief Development Officer for ESS and Safe Space. “We are here to make sure they make the changes and seize the opportunities today, so that they can be great role models tomorrow.”