Hooping for hope

PHILADELPHIA — Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Eric Garner in New York City. Victor Ortega in San Diego. Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City. Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Brandon Tate-Brown in Philadelphia. Now, most recently, Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Incidents of officer-involved shootings — particularly those resulting in the deaths of men of color — have drawn headlines and further frayed relations with many of the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. In some cases, retaliatory violence has erupted, leaving everyone from students to lawmakers on edge. That has been true in Philadelphia as well, where Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey requested a federal review a spate of officer-involved shootings, to help separate fact from fiction and push for more transparency.

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Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel leans into a conversation with young people at the Wright Rec Center in West Philadelphia.

Bridging the chasms caused by these realities has even greater importance — which is why PCHR has been front and center in crafting new partnerships to help create new narratives and outcomes. Veteran PCHR community relations representative Patricia Coyne took an active role in the diverse coalition that’s charting a new way for Philadelphia.

And the coalition chose a familiar entry point for the stakeholders involved — a neighborhood basketball game.

Some 150 people poured into Mantua’s James Wright Recreation Center on May 4 to inaugurate this police-community youth basketball conversation series — Speak Up, Lace ‘Em Up.

An assembled team of players from the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department and Drexel University’s police department played with an assembly of neighborhood players for good-natured fun. But instead of just a late afternoon of hooping and snacking, the assortment of young men, police, community members and volunteers also came together for facilitated discussions about what is happening in the streets and how that plays out in their lives — among their peers, family and each other. They swapped stories of growing up, of understanding the roles of police in community and responded frank questions from one another.

Tierra Thompson and Ezekiel Mathur, PCHR community relations team members, along with Commissioner Saadiq Jabbar Garner, also were on hand.

The talks, like checking out each other’s sweet moves, began the process of transformation, from wary strangers to interested partners. The goal: to help diffuse simmering antagonism by showing people on each side their common humanity.

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(l.-r.) Event organizers Patricia Coyne, John Leatherberry, chair, 16th Police District Advisory Council, 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead, and Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel.

“There are police-community/youth, top down, institutionally-controlled stuff happening these days, but this is not that,” Coyne said. “This is a bottom-up, grassroots effort that engages communities on their terms, on their turf.”

The lead engineers that constructed the framework for these interactions included Weekend of PeaceNewCORE, the Philadelphia Youth Commission, the Philadelphia Youth Network, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. They combined NewCORE’s conversation model and adapted elements of the Weekend of Peace’s successful efforts.

For a dozen years, the Weekend of Peace — free July games and entertainment spearheaded by Malik and Calvin Johnson and organized by community volunteers — has promoted a violence-free zone for children and families, presented via participating recreation centers across the city. Last year, that included 22 rec centers, and this year that number is expected to rise. Coyne said these newly debuted civic conversations both will provide a bridge for greater participation in the Weekend of Peace and bolster relations among parties that are too often unfamiliar with each other.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

The series, in essence, is a continuation of the theme of instituting harmony that’s integral to PCHR’s mission.

“This is the vehicle to get the people most directly affected to not only interact in a positive way, but to also reveal points of view and experiences they otherwise might be reluctant to do in any other type of forum,” PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman.

These conversation will help provide a way for residents who don’t always have a seat at the table to help shape ideas, recommendations and local actions expected from two seminal reports focusing on improved policing in Philadelphia, that of the U.S. Department of Justice on officer-involved shootings and findings from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Claiming a stake in the eventual outcomes in Philadelphia is essential for the city to fully move forward, Freeman said.

“The commission is the linchpin in that, to help protect people’s rights and be proactive to do all that we can to mitigate situations like ones we’ve seen across the country,” he added.

There is no quick fix for improving the relationship between law enforcement and the neighborhoods usually most in need of its service, the ones most often beset by poverty and crime. But there certainly are many hands on deck to work toward solutions.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

The U.S. Justice Department now is investigating how to swiftly implement reform efforts nationwide that may save lives as well as bring back balance to a relationship that has been stressed by the burden of history, bias, poverty and crime. Commissioner Ramsey has pledged to implement recommendations offered in the report by the national task force, which he co-chaired.

Rebuilding trust takes time. It’s a process underway, starting one hoop at a time, in places such as Wright Rec, in cities such as Philadelphia, with guidance from entities such as PCHR.

“Our communities are full of tremendous resources that can be overlooked, and too often are,” Coyne said. “There are big iniatives that come up from upon high, but sometimes those are unsustainable at the community-level. That’s the point of this. What can we do at the community level to engage with the police in a mutually positive, productive, and lasting manner and strengthen our community partnerships?  We’re addressing just this.”

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

One tangible takeaway for which this coalition is aiming to insert more youthful voices in existing avenues where law enforcement and community interactions, such as the city’s police district advisory councils (PDACs) and the youth aid panels powered by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. By expanding and using these exchange opportunities, there’s a better chance to create more consistent and effective communications where it matters most, and increasing understanding and reducing mistrust in the process.

Additional planning for the series is under way. Interested in getting involved or learning more? Click here to get started.

Click here to watch a related report on CBS3.

My Brother’s Keeper Philly – next steps

Last fall, Mayor Michael A. Nutter publicly accepted President Obama’s challenge to create environments that would be more conducive for black and brown boys to be successful, given well-documented statistics that bear the sad reality of poor outcomes for too many of them, be they in Philadelphia or elsewhere in the nation.

With the launch of My Brother’s Keeper Philadelphia came a series of brainstorming sessions and conversations to assess what this city would need to strengthen in order to better guide these young men to a productive adulthood that’s starting to bear fruit. MBK Philly expects to issue its recommendations and action plan by the end of the month, unveiling it locally and presenting it to the White House. In many ways, it will further the efforts of the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males.

“One of the unifying themes that came from these meetings was the need for a coordinated communications strategy with two ends,” said Erica Atwood, the city’s director of Black Male Engagement. “One, is to promote the positive stories of young men and boys of color by asking them to tell their stories, and two, that Philadelphia create an ‘Act or Fund’ campaign to encourage each of us to find a way to impact this work.”

At the center of that work are six areas that would allow black and brown boys — indeed all children here — to thrive better:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or work
  • Finishing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce successfully
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

In the wake of strained police-community relations noted most recently in a report to President Obama on 21st century policing needs and increasing media reports indicating black and brown men tend to fare worse during such encounters, finding ways to stem those negative interactions earlier on is critical. It also brings greater urgency to initiatives such as MBK Philly.

Since the beginning, PCHR has been in the mix in helping how to think through and achieve these goals — lending insights on the issues and assisting some of the ensuing meetings as facilitators.

CRD representative Jonah Roll helps lead a conversation during a session at City Hall.

CRD representative Jonah Roll (c.) helps lead a conversation during a session at City Hall.

In fact, PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque serves on the MBK Philly working committee, a group of some two dozen people who work throughout city government. The committee took the lead in convening additional listening and informational sessions with interested organizations and individuals willing to offer sound ideas on addressing the challenges outlined. And productively guiding conversations among diverse stakeholders is a tailor-made role for the Community Relations Division (CRD), a seasoned team trained in facilitation and conflict resolution skills, Duque said.

“I had proposed to the steering committee that the CRD could help keep everyone focused on the task at hand, and they did,” he added. “We got overwhelmingly positive feedback from the steering committee members and participants on how CRD brought people through the discussion topics.”

CRD representative Tierra Thompson makes sure the thoughts of the group are captured during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Tierra Thompson (c.) makes sure the thoughts of the group are captured during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Patricia Coyne clarifies a discussion point during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Patricia Coyne (r.) clarifies a discussion point during a City Hall session.

The series of targeted meetings that followed the initial kickoff ranged, from talking with leaders the School District of Philadelphia to those within Latino communities. Committee members also gleaned thoughts from young people, including those at the Juvenile Justice Services Center, those engaged in programs such as YouthBuild, PowerCorpPHL and the Youth Desk of the Liberian Ministers Association, among others.

Of course, unveiling the action plan will be another step along the journey, not the final destination. It will take more to accomplish those outlined goals, Atwood said, citing one young man’s view that applied aptly to students and adults alike.

“He said, ‘In order to make this work, we must be willing to be vulnerable. We must be honest, willing to acknowledge our shortcomings, our gaps in performance, our failures and our missed opportunities.’ And he’s right,” she added. “We all must be willing to work hard to reach a better outcome.”

For more, visit MBKPhilly.com.