Bridging Differences: Youth/Police Dialogue in Montgomery County

We were ushered into a small classroom near the side entrance to Gaithersburg High School where a group of 10 students were already gathered in a circle. About half of them were African American; the others were Latina. Included in the circle was a burly African American Montgomery County police officer, and two young African American women police officers.

On the floor was a colorful rectangular cloth surrounded by handwritten papers. Vanessa, the group’s facilitator, told me that these were depictions of the students’ values – “honesty, love, hope, faith…” — the people for whom they want to make the world a better place – “my little brother, my grandma, my friends, myself…” — and their safe places – a church sanctuary, a bedroom, a beach.

Not content simply to have us observe this program, Vanessa invited me, my colleague Anna, and our Grant Committee member to take the remaining open seats and to participate fully in the intense, raw, honest conversation that followed.

For the next hour and a half, we talked about our frustrations with those who had authority over us as adolescents – for some of us, a distant memory, for others, very much of the moment. “There are too many rules.” “They don’t trust me.” “They assume I’m screwing up before I even have a chance.” The students shared their questions and concerns about interactions they and their friends have had with police. “Why do police always stop my friend’s dad – a Muslim with a license plate that says ‘EGYPT’ when he’s driving around the County — and never my white friend’s dad?” “Why do you always assume the worst?” “Why did that SWAT team barge into my house, break all of our stuff, handcuff me to my bed, and terrify my grandma, when the guy you were looking for wasn’t even there?!”

The police officers told why they are called to this work, how it feels when they have to confront their neighbors, and how they perceive their duty to protect and serve. “I’m putting my life on the line for you and your family.” “Your parents work hard to pay for your car and your insurance. Do you want other people to get away with not paying for their registration and insurance? Your parents are gonna be stuck with the bill if an uninsured motorist causes an accident.” “I feel terrible when I have to bust into someone’s home, but I have to put on my emotional armor to protect myself and everyone there from the danger that might be lurking just around the corner.”  “I’m sorry that you had that experience; it must have been scary.”

This conversation, the fifth in a series of six sessions with this particular group of female students, is part of a Youth/Police Dialogue program funded by an anonymous donor through her fund at The Community Foundation. 

About two years ago, this donor and her family felt heartsick every time they saw another police-related shooting in the news. They were especially troubled by the pattern: shooting, protests, community meetings, lip-service responses, and then…nothing. No meaningful change. They wanted to make an investment in the deep relationship-building necessary to heal the distrust between police and communities, particularly communities of color in their own county. They turned to us.

Our Philanthropic Engagement staff in Montgomery County did some research, and found that one of our long-time trusted grantees, Identity, already had a program in partnership with Montgomery County Police and Public Schools, offering one-time youth/police summits.  The donor was impressed, but wanted to invest in a longer series that would enable the students and police to make real connections with each other. She wanted to remain anonymous, so our staff served as the intermediary to solicit a proposal and get all of the donor’s questions answered.

Together, we agreed on a program design involving six facilitated sessions (three with youth only, three with police joining the young people), focusing on youth who have interacted with law enforcement after participating in or witnessing violence or being involved with a gang, are crime victims, have served in-school suspensions, and/or have low conflict-resolution skills. Our staff invited other donors to join in supporting the project, raising sufficient funds to launch the program last fall in three public high schools, two community-based centers, and a Germantown library.

The school staff, Identity’s facilitators, and the police officers told us that the group of Latina and African American girls we met at Gaithersburg High School that day were chosen because they are leaders within their peer groups, but their voices are often drowned out by boys who join them for larger summits. With skilled help from Identity’s staff, these young women and the police who join them are opening up, bravely sharing their values, stories, and fears with each other, cultivating respect and empathy. They are engaging “power with” – the power of people and communities to connect and nurture trusting, healthy relationships.

At the end of the session, Vanessa asked everyone in the circle to answer one question: “Is there hope?” Coming from our very different perspectives – across race, ethnicity, gender, class, professional status – each of us answered, simply, “yes.” This is what philanthropy can make possible!  

If you are troubled by discord among our neighbors in Greater Washington and aren’t sure how your philanthropy can make a difference, please reach out and we would be honored to facilitate a connection between you and community organizations that are healing the divides among us. Together, we can bridge differences, cultivate empathy, and make our region stronger and more resilient.