Thursday, December 17, 2015

Community Youth and Police Forum

By Haddijatou Waggeh and Tyler Brewster

On November 12th, Midtown Community Court and James Baldwin co-organized a community-police forum, giving students and law enforcement the opportunity to interact with one another in a positive, educational environment. After many months and hours of hard work organizing the forum, it was inspiring and rewarding to walk into a room and see 100 students come together with six community partners and the NYPD.  This felt like the beginning of a truly necessary and informative dialogue.

We received an enormous amount of positive feedback from students, teachers and community partners. One student shared a highlight stating “having conversation[s] with the NYPD … being able to share ideas with them and telling them about our own personal experience with them … they spoke to us about how difficult it is to be them. They also gave us advice.” Another expressed “that even though people had many agreements or disagreements … we all respected what was said.”

We would like to thank the students, staff, and administration at James Baldwin High School. We’d also like to express gratitude to all the partner agencies and the NYPD who gave their time and insight to this important learning opportunity.

– Haddijatou Waggeh, Midtown Community Court’s Youth Justice Social Worker

The following is a blog piece from Tyler Brewster, James Baldwin High School’s Restorative Justice Coordinator, who helped us organize and implement such a successful day.

Kameron, a James Baldwin High School student, stood in front of a sea of expectant eyes and ears. His chest rose and fell with each of the deep breaths he took to mask the nerves that shook him to the core. Gripping the microphone tightly he found the courage to begin – (Parts of the poem below have been redacted.)

“The federation, yea I’m placed in, I have no patience, lost in a education, where race was separated, the seconds made it segregated… but the way society is today , you'll end up in cuffs, and tools that these people got , I don’t think that they will rust…
I wanna show justice, but show it without using caution, I'm rising, but deciding how to live my life… do we fight or should there be commitment to peace.”

Whole school meeting? In the auditorium? The day after a vacation day off? Most would find that to be a sure fire recipe for disaster! But Thursday, November 12, 2015 at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex was different. Instead of endless chatter, dozens of students sat wide-eyed and silent, ready to engage in the 1st Annual Community-Police Forum hosted by The James Baldwin School and Midtown Community Court.

Kameron wasn't the only one with the jitters that morning. Nine years as an educator and my heart still thumped in my chest and butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I sat on the panel looking out into the audience. I wanted so badly to make sure that today went well. And not just in the way of the students being "well behaved" and "representing their school in a positive light". I wanted to be sure that what we were offering was something the students were interested in, that our words would reach their minds and hearts and that they'd walk away from the day's events inspired and empowered to make a difference in their community.

The BREC/MCC began as just an idea being tossed around amongst a group of adults one late June afternoon. In a time where tensions and hostility between the police force and communities of color, in particular, are steadily rising our mission was to organize an interactive discussion space where we could begin to bridge the gap between the officers and the community and build a pathway to repair. I mean, what good is a police force if there is no trust within the communities they are hired to protect and serve?
We started the conference with a discussion panel comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders - parents, students, educators, attorneys and social justice organizers. I was thoroughly impressed by the lineup; not because of the titles that followed their names, but because these were BUSY folks who took time out of their day to have a conversation with a bunch of high school students.

That morning I was reminded just how important student voice is and how crucial it is that we work to help them cultivate their voices to be used to advocate for change. Students are the largest stakeholder group within the New York City public school system, yet they are the group that is least engaged in discussions about the policies and protocols that impact their lives.

The breakout workshops that followed the morning panel discussion included a Know Your Rights session, Juvenile Justice Jeopardy and there was even a space for students to dialogue directly with officers from the NYPD. As I walked through the halls and popped into workshop rooms, my chest swelled with pride and my nervous butterflies from earlier morning were replaced with butterflies of excitement. The young people were deeply engaged in all of the workshops and I could see the wheels of potential and possibility turning in their brains. Students who struggled with class attendance and participation were holding passionate conversations with some of the esteemed discussion panel guests, they weren't scared to challenge and ask difficult questions.

I am awed by what our June brainstorm developed into by that November morning. It goes to show, just what can happen when we stop underestimating the power of the voice of the youth.

I am thankful for organizations like the Midtown Community Court and I admire their undying commitment to developing young people. The 1st Annual Community-Police Forum was an absolute's to Year 2! 

– Tyler Brewster, James Baldwin High School’s Restorative Justice Coordinator