Thursday, August 16, 2001

Cincinnati's youth have their say

Healing city's wounds involves respect, trust

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Brandon wants more respect from police.

        Brittany more police interaction with youth.

        Kelvin says there needs to be more cultural understanding.

        And Scott says people should know that cops are just like everybody else.

        Hundreds of Greater Cincinnati youths, like these four, filled out surveys online and on the streets. They recounted the same kinds of stories of discrimination by Cincinnati police — and support for officers — heard on TV, talk radio and at City Council even before the April unrest.

        Because of this comprehensive outreach effort, the ideas articulated by these 738 Cincinnatians ages 14-25 will become part of an unprecedented mediation to settle a federal lawsuit accusing the city of decades of discrimination against blacks.

        It may even begin to heal a city divided by race.

        The youths who participated are “all aspiring for something in their lives to make a difference,” says Nashid Shakir, a survey collector and head of the Cincinnati Collective Learning Center.

        “We gave them the opportunity to say it to somebody who is willing to listen.”

        Today, 75 to 100 youths who took part in the survey will meet at the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center downtown to take the next step in a mediation process organized by the Aria Group, an internationally known conflict resolution firm.

        These young adults will sharpen and prioritize six goals to improve police-community relations. Those goals range from developing more respect between police and citizens, to strengthening Cincinnati's investment in community education and development.

        Aria Group professionals pared the hundreds of pages of survey results to six goals and, today, the youths will debate them.

        Over the next several months, these youth goals will be spliced with those from thousands of other people surveyed. The Aria Group organized its survey process by identifying eight “identity” groups from which it wants ideas, including — in addition to youths — police officers, business people and African-Americans.

        The process will culminate in a settlement agreement to be presented to a federal judge in December.

Goal: Respect, responsibility
        Kelvin Brown, 14, of North College Hill, and Scott Wilson, 14, of Westwood, meet interviewers during a freshman preparatory class this summer at St. Xavier High School in Finneytown.

        Kelvin tells them he wants to require officers to take more intense cultural diversity classes.

        “They (police) need to know more than they do now. Find out why the black, white, yellow, blue man laughs the way he does.”

        That goes for the way he dresses, too, the kind of music he loves and the way he carries himself.

        “Why do black people listen to rap?” Kelvin asks rhetorically. “Why do white people listen to country? It is about black and white. It's what you're exposed to. It's about what police are exposed to.

        “Have them exposed to all of it.”

[photo] Cincinnati Police Officer Princess Davis responds to questions and comments at a session last month at the Neighborhood House on police-community relations.
(Yuli Wu photo)
| ZOOM |
        Scott's cousin, Jim Robb, works for the Cincinnati Police Division, so he knows what the job entails.

        Scott says he wants people to know that officers abide by the same laws they enforce.

        “Just because you're in the system doesn't mean you have special privileges,” Scott explains. “I've seen how they come home to their families if they have them, eat dinner, sit on the couch.

        “They have to drive home the same way we do. You don't have a sticker that says, "Don't arrest me, I'm police.'”

Voices from the streets

        Voices like Kelvin's and Scott's will have a profound impact on which direction Cincinnati decides to take on the road to change.

        “In a lot of ways the youth gave Cincinnati its wake-up call,” Aria Group president Jay Rothman says of the April 9-12 protests and riots. “(But) not only are they giving us a wake-up call, they are telling us, "We want to be engaged in developing the changes.'”

        Black activists and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in March, asking a federal court to end what they say has been 30 years of unchecked discrimination by police officers.

        The case could have gone to court, but the parties involved — the city, police union, the ACLU and the Cincinnati Black United Front — agreed to try mediation first.

        Mr. Rothman and his Yellow Springs, Ohio-based Aria Group, were named by U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott to spearhead that effort. The result could become a model for other cities struggling with similar issues.

        For months, Mr. Rothman and his team have been reaching out to youth, using methods they have not attempted for the thousands of adult opinions they seek. They canvassed neighborhoods, set up sessions at schools, visited community centers and walked the streets.

        Organizers enlisted the help of the Cincinnati Collective Learning Center, a for-profit group involved in community development. The center sent out 18 interviewers over many weeks.

        “We understood the kids wouldn't come to us,” Mr. Rothman says, adding that talking to teens on their turf made all the difference.

        By using interviewers who live in those neighborhoods, the ideas and stories became much richer.

        So says Arthur Goshade, 27, who with a group of other young black men in the West End works for Enterprises, a pest-control and cleaning business.

        Employees there decided to become interviewers because they believe the process will lead to change and they wanted others in their community to participate.

        “The surveys serve as a voice and everybody is jumping on the chance to be heard,” Mr. Goshade says.

Just respect us

        Passing out Gatorade and chips on a hot summer day in the West End, interviewers meet teens like Brandon Turner of Clifton, soon to be 18 and headed to Miami University.

        Like many of his peers, Brandon wants police officers to show respect.

        He grew up in the West End — an area hit hard by the April riots — and often hangs out near the Findlay Street Neighborhood House at Findlay and Baymiller.

        “It's hard down here,” he explains. “Moms on welfare and kids can't get jobs and they (police) judge you by your appearance.”

        He wants police officers who patrol his old neighborhood to know good things do happen there. And that there are good people who deserve to be treated well.

        “Police will say, "You guys better get off that corner right now or we'll take you to jail,'” he says. “It's happened to me. It's happened to a lot of my friends.

        “They don't give citizens enough respect.”

        Brittany Wright of the West End sits at a U-shaped table at the Findlay Street community center talking to the same surveyors. Brittany, 15, who works at the center to “stay out of trouble,” says she tries to be a role model for the children who play there.

        Her view epitomizes some of the same frustrations other youth expressed in their surveys. Many said they wanted more police involvement in their communities.

        “Little kids need us just like we need adults,” she said, and that's why she thinks officers regularly interacting with youth will help police-community relations. “To have somebody older to look up to because that's somebody I needed,” she says. “To tell them, "Stay in school. Keep your mind off the streets. Go to college.'”

        Brittany has plenty of suggestions for police to do more than they are doing now.

        “Maybe come and eat lunch with the kids some day,” she says. “Play basketball, have football games. It can be some kind of program where we can know where they are coming from.

        “We need them to tell us that.”

Toward understanding

        These stories and those to be told in coming months are what professionals from the Aria Group hope to use as a vehicle to gain understanding and a foundation for change.

        “Our youth are becoming our teachers in some ways,” Mr. Rothman says. “What people have said to me is, this is incredible.

        “These youth are talking about a future that they want, about goals that are big enough to matter but small enough to work.”

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