Community ambassadors take to St. Paul streets to connect with at-risk youths and head off trouble with the police.
Community ambassadors Marcel Thompson, Damon Drake, Derek Brown and Steven Randall patrolled St. Paul’s Payne Avenue on a Friday evening. Their mission is to increase positive interactions with young people in order to decrease negative interactions with law enforcement.
It was a slow night for Steve Randall, just the way he likes it.
Only a smattering of teenagers were hanging out along St. Paul’s Payne Avenue on this muggy summer evening as Randall and his dream team of youth workers walked the busy corridor trying to keep kids in line.
“Hey, Stevie Wonder!” a young man nicknamed “Chop” hollered, flashing a smile as he greeted Randall.
Randall is one of nearly 30 community ambassadors patrolling the city’s streets on weekends and busy weeknights this summer, hoping to keep teens and young adults from trouble and run-ins with police.
The small army is on the front line of the city’s $800,000 initiative to engage with at-risk youths. Armed with little more than name tags and their wits — they carry no guns, cuffs or badges — they walk the streets hoping to make neighborhoods safer while trying to win the trust and respect of young people prone to viewing any authority figure as a threat.
“The whole premise of this is to try to keep these kids out of the legal system,” said Senior Cmdr. David Mathison, head of the St. Paul Police Department’s central district, which includes downtown, where the program started last summer as a pilot.
Said Randall, who leads ambassador patrols on the East Side, “It is important for us to be out there as adults talking to these young people.”
One who appreciates their presence is Casey Davis, 20, who goes by “Chop.” Randall has known Davis for the past decade or so and describes him as a young man who wants to do the right thing, but sometimes has too much time on his hands, potentially leading to trouble.
“I think it is making a difference,” Davis said about the ambassador program. But, he added, ambassadors can’t do it alone.
“It takes for the community to want to help,” Davis said.
Randall is known throughout the East Side as the real deal. He’s the assistant director at Wilder Recreation Center, the lead community youth worker for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and co-founder of Youth in Transition, a program that helps young people leave gangs and get back on the right track.
Like Randall, most of the ambassadors have ties with many of the kids they encounter, either through schools, recreation centers or community organizations. Playing off the trust they have built, the ambassadors try to talk with young adults and teenagers one-on-one or in groups to abate potentially dangerous situations and connect them with services such as job skills training or help applying for college financial aid.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in cases when there’s been large groups of young people. … The police have been less than a half block away and they didn’t have to do anything because the ambassadors de-escalated it,” said Billy Collins, executive director of the YWCA St. Paul, which is the fiscal agent for the initiative.
As of Aug. 3, ambassadors in the citywide program, launched in June, had contact with 876 young adults or teenagers — most of them male. They don’t record people’s names or addresses, but they do ask for ZIP codes. The most popular ZIP code was 55106, which takes in a large part of the East Side.
Conversations run the gamut, from college plans and finding a safe shelter to football and human rights.
Many conversations center around finding jobs. One of the biggest complaints from ambassadors is that there aren’t enough jobs and resources available for youths.
At the start of the summer, Mayor Chris Coleman said money would be made available to add summer employment opportunities for at least 45 young people.
Damon Drake, who heads the ambassadors, estimates that only about half of those jobs have materialized.