How would you improve police-youth interactions in this country?
Plenty of academics and advocates have weighed in on this question, but the voices of young people are rarely heard.
So we decided to ask them. In the first annual Youth Voices Contest sponsored by Strategies for Youth (SFY), a nonprofit committed to improving relations between cops and kids, over 120 youth, aged 12-18, from 10 states, submitted writing and artwork in response.
They dazzled us with their honesty, creativity, and ideas for change.
Our staff regularly interview youth about their interactions with law enforcement. We play a computer-based game, Juvenile Justice Jeopardy, to help them understand the law, and to master strategies for engaging with police without getting arrested.
During our Policing the Teen Brain trainings for law enforcement, we engage young people in skits and controlled dialogue, that is, we give priority to what youth want to tell police, in order to explain why certain interactions with police “work” with young people and others provoke defiance and rage.
But we wanted to learn more, and saw this contest as a different forum for engaging young people, and hearing about their experiences with police.
The contestants—some of whom submitted pieces from detention centers—wrote and drew stories of fear, of powerlessness, and of feeling disrespected. Over and over again, these young people told us how they felt dismissed, ignored, and automatically presumed guilty.
Many noted that police neither comprehended, nor cared, about the anguish and insecurity so prevalent in their lives.
One of the most upsetting lines came from a 14-year-old boy in a Texas detention center:
Don’t think I’m dissing the law,
Because some cops are good; protect and serve for all
But some cops take advantage.
If they respect us, then it’s likewise they can have it.
I’m not sure why cops half the time be mean
When most of us struggle, we just need a shoulder to lean.
But not all of their responses were critical or negative. One winning contestant in the 12-14 year old category, Kaleb J’bez Chew, an eighth-grade student at McKinley Middle Magnet Performing Arts School in Baton Rouge, LA. created a graphic arts storyline of an officer exiting his car and challenging a teen to a basketball game after the teen mocked his age.
The drawing ended with the two of them shaking hands.
To see the full version of his drawing, please click here
Evelina Cheng, a seventh-grader at Norwood Jr. High School in Sacramento, CA., described a police officer who uses “developmentally competent” approaches, hugs cancer patients whom he visits, and explains the law to the teenagers he interacts with.
Kaleb and Evelina tied for their artwork submissions in the 12-14-year-old category, and will share the prize purse, winning $500 each.
The entries, which were stripped of all identifying information except the contestant’s age (name, town, school, gender) to remove any possible bias, were judged by 30 people around the country.
In the four-part drawing of Azaria Porter, the winner of the 15-18-year-old art category, we can see an evolving recognition of the complexity of youth-police interactions.
In her final drawing, Azaria, a 17-year-old junior at Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y., won first place in the 15-18-year-old art category and $1,500.
She traced a renowned photograph of a Seattle police officer comforting a crying child during a post-Ferguson rally.
This complexity is deftly addressed in the final lines of 13-year-old Alexie Boursiquot’s poem. Alexie, an eighth-grader at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, Md.,won first prize and $1,000 in the 12-14-year-old category, for her moving appeal to youth to be calmer with officers, and to officers to be slower and more reluctant to pull their weapon:
We look them in the eye,
Put our hands in the sky,
Don’t run, don’t try to hide,
It would save countless lives
They would look, but not judge
Hold not a single grudge,
The gun would never have to budge
The essays submitted by 15-18 year olds revealed a surprisingly nuanced, sober and mature understanding of the dangers inherent in police-youth interactions and of the violence so common in their communities.
Baltimore resident Keyma Flight, 17, who identifies herself as “an activist and social butterfly, and an advocate for black rights, mental health care, and LGBT+ rights,” describes about following a teacher’s direction to send a letter to a school resource officer who has punched her friend in the eye.
Her letter, which earned her the top place in the 15-18 year-old category and a $1,500 prize, conveys both resignation and determination to communicate what adults either can’t or won’t see, and refuse to make right:
I didn’t ask to be an activist. But I didn’t ask to be oppressed for my skin tone either. I think I’d take the former any day…It feels like I have to be [an activist] in order to tell my teachers, parents, police officers, that I deserve to feel human and not a chain in the system…
For once I’d like to see an officer writing, talking to the youth. Unfiltered and morals over code. I’d like to not feel like an activist for once, but a person.
Keyma’s essay confirms SFY’s resolve to lighten her burden and the burden of so many of her peers.
But all of the work by these young people help to show us the path forward.
Lisa H. Thurau is executive director of Strategies for Youth. In 2020, for the Second Annual Youth Voices Contest, SFY hopes to double the number of youth participating, and will create a new category for submissions: short films. All the winners’ work is available on SFY’s homepage at www.strategiesforyouth.org