It’s a modest attempt at bridging the divide that too often exists between police and young African-American men. A week ago Tuesday, 17 black teens visited the Brooklyn Park Police Department for an afternoon of conversations and learning. They took a tour of the department, got advice about dos and don’ts in encounters with police, and likely vented some of their deep concerns and frustrations about law enforcement to the officers they met. The goal was to promote healing and understanding on both sides, and to give the young people a sense that they are valued and heard.
The visit to the Police Department was part of a series of Cities United Cohort Project (CUCP) sessions that the young men have participated in throughout the summer. The sessions combine interactions with police, businesspeople and others with mentoring and conversations about everything from mindfulness training to healthy relationships. With a new cohort launching this fall, the program is aimed at broadening the horizons of a population of young people who face severe barriers to growing up successful and safe.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American men and boys between the ages of 10 and 24. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 young African-American men will serve time in prison at some point in their lives. This is unacceptable. In a nation founded on the ideal of equal opportunity for all, the yawning opportunity gap for young African-American men is a travesty of justice. All across the country, these young men and boys simply do not have the same chances that most other people their age enjoy — the chance to find safe spaces, talk to caring adults and mentors, or think beyond the day-to-day about their dreams and aspirations.
This is what we’re trying to provide through our CUCP Sound Off Station sessions and other activities in Brooklyn Park. And it’s all part of a partnership between police and local groups such as the YMCA and the Zanewood Recreation Center, alongside national partnerships such as Cities United, a network of more than 100 mayors that met in Minneapolis last week and that has set a goal to reduce violence against young black men and boys by half by 2025.
In Brooklyn Park, we’re doing our part to achieve this goal by helping young people focus on their strengths and develop the skills they need to feel safe, healthy and hopeful. We’re doing this work because we know there’s a direct connection between opportunity gaps and community violence. It’s actually a pretty simple concept: No matter their color, if young people are being empowered and equipped to do affirmative things, they are going to be less likely to get into trouble. And if they are developing skills and making positive connections in the community and beyond, they are much more likely to succeed.
This is especially true for the “20-percent club,” those 1 in 5 young people who have had negative police contact or have dropped out of school. If we don’t help this group now, they are likely to be caught up in the cycle of violence in Brooklyn Park and other communities across the nation, whether as victimizers or victims. Investing a little bit now to put them on a path to a brighter future will produce benefits beyond our imagination.
Several of the young people we work with in Brooklyn Park took part in the Cities United meeting in Minneapolis. We’re proud of them, and we’re eager to see what they make of their lives. At a time when too many people give up on our young people, I hope this cohort of promising young men will inspire more communities to try and do what we’re doing in Brooklyn Park: mobilize city and community resources to connect young people to hope, opportunity and justice.
Antonio Smith is the youth-services liaison and Cities United city lead with Brooklyn Park.