SFAPAL 1 Day Rally:
Teens And Police Coming Together To Make A Difference

The goal of this one-day event on May 9, 2015 was a worthy one: to promote better relationships between youth and law enforcement officers. With unrest and friction reported by the news media all too frequently, this rally aimed to improve communication and understanding between groups often at odds with one another.

Police Athletic League (PAL) youth and police officers from sixteen PAL chapters from all over Florida convened at the Jacksonville PAL facility at West 33rd Street in Northwest Jacksonville. By count at the event, there were more than one hundred youth and forty officers attending.

The State of Florida Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues (SFAPAL), better known as Florida PAL, created and organized this first-of-its-kind rally. The event was made possible because of extra funds Florida PAL received in an extension of their National PAL Mentoring Grant, originating through the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice. Hope was expressed that PALs around the country would create similar rallies.

Mr. L.B. Scott, executive director of SFAPAL, welcomed the youth and officers to the rally. He thanked Felicia Fredericks of Jacksonville PAL and staff there for their hospitality in opening their facility for the rally. Mr. Scott thanked Rhonda Scott, SFAPAL program coordinator, for her organization of the event. SFAPAL hosted two youth and one adult from each PAL, (but many PAL chapters brought more youth at their own expense) with lodging and complimentary breakfast for one night, and two meals during the rally. As an added treat at the end of the day, rally attendees traveled to St. Augustine for a night trolley tour, donated by Old Town Trolley of that city.

Rally Co-Facilitators, Javier Sanchez and Jason Thompson Lead the Way

Javier Sanchez, of Columbus, Ohio, is an author and performer who uses the spoken word, poetry and comedy to inspire and motivate young people. Jason Thompson is a hip-hop artist and youth mentor from Jackson, Mississippi, who also relates well to youth. These two young men served as co-facilitators at the rally.

"If there is going to be a change in our country, our communities and schools," Javier said to the assembly, "it's going to come through you. We see things that are going wrong. Change has to come through you. This rally is just for one day. Turn it into a life-changing experience."

"Hip-hop is the voice of young people," Jason told the group. "We want you to express yourself in positive ways, and focus on making today better, tomorrow better. Change can start happening in this group. You are agents of change. We're going to help you unlock that creativity and energy."

Both Javier and Jason assured everyone, kids and adults alike: (1) they were safe at the rally; safe to express their opinions and safe physically. Everyone was urged to listen respectfully to differing opinions. Further, (2) every person present was essential and valuable to the process of effecting change.

Using R.E.A.C.H. as a Tool at the Rally

(R): Respect. We don't all have to agree; it's okay. But we can have respect for others' ideas. (E): Empathy. Be empathetic. Put yourself in the other's shoes. (A): Authenticity. Be true to yourself. We're often afraid to express ourselves for fear of rejection. (C): Contribution. Contribute your thoughts and ideas. Officers and youth need to work as a team. (H): Have fun.

Mixing It Up with Fun and Games

How closely can you follow directions? The group was soon to find out by playing the game called "Order Up," similar to "Simon Says." Most were convinced at the game's conclusion that following a series of quick commands is no easy practice.

Next, the group examined their commonalities and their differences in the game, "Neverland," in which players were given a subject, (the first one was visited another country), and they were to place themselves in groups consisting of those who had done that, never done that, or never would do that. As the groups changed with each subject given, the participants introduced themselves and shared with the others in the group why this day was important to them.

Storm Shelter: Team Building Challenge

In the "Tent Building" exercise, the different groups learned there is more than one way to build a shelter. "In life, we have storms," Javier and Jason told the builders. At the end of this exercise, the survey of the completed newspaper and tape shelters revealed many tent styles. "All the tents survived the storm, but each shelter looked different," our facilitators said. "So, too, strength can look different in different people. We can share what makes us strong. Our strength is magnified when we work together and help each other."

Bridge-Building: Small Group Discussions

"Set reasonable goals - not too high, not too low" Jason advised as the group settled in silence to write out goals, obstacles in the way of success, and how others can help us reach our aims. The challenges and goals ranged from one young man wanting to meet and collaborate with Kanye West to an officer wanting to gain the trust of young people. In sharing, the group discovered many at the rally had more similarities than differences.

Live Your Dream

What do you want to be when you grow up? Wrong question, Javier said. The question should be, "Who are you becoming right now?" Youth and adults alike should have dreams and aspirations.

What is your vision of success? Names shot out like Jay Z, Donald Trump, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Gates, Tim Tebow, Ophrah, and even one teen's mom. What do they all have in common? They're all adults. They're all famous and rich, with the exception of the mom--maybe.
"You've been taught to believe that to be successful, you've got to be an adult and be rich and famous," Javier said. "We have to retrain our brain to know what success truly is: Do what you love to do."

Each one in the group was asked to name three things they would do if money were no object. What sort of career would put you where you want to be, and how do you get there from here? Adults at each table were asked to suggest resources to help the young folks reach their goals.

Life as a Sports Metaphor

While everyone was still at the tables, Jason and Javier organized a game called "Come on, Six," a game of rolling the dice and hoping for a six to come up. That really got things moving. "You showed a lot of enthusiasm for a meaningless little game," Javier said. "Show as much enthusiasm when planning your life and you'll really get somewhere. We want to get in the game when it comes to making changes in our community. Bad news is interesting, but when you focus on something, it becomes bigger than it is. We want to focus on solutions here today. We believe you have the answers within you."

How Do You Make Your World Safer?

Youth and adults went to separate rooms to discuss things that make interaction between youth and police a challenge. From the many suggestions, common themes prevailed from the young folks' point of view: Lack of trust, lack of respect, negative attitudes, and stereotypes. The adults were busy formulating their own set of challenges during this time.

Everyone, youth and adults, then sat around on the floor in a large circle, ready to share ideas. Individuals spoke about how attitudes affect communication, how mutual trust and respect help, and how prejudging and basing assumptions on stereotypes is not helpful.

"When we are sick, we go to a doctor," Javier and Jason said, "because even though there are bad doctors out there, we still believe that going to a doctor represents our best hope of getting well. In the same way, we know that, by and large, most police officers are doing well, are conscientious, and they care about their families and you. They want any encounter you have with a police officer to be a safe and good one."

The Traffic Stop Scenario

A little role playing helped illustrate some key concerns. Two officers cautiously approached a "stopped car" with four occupants. One of the officers described what he was thinking: many times at traffic stops a cop is shot, so there is good reason for caution. A cop is watching for concealed weapons, so he is on high alert. The police never want to have to use their weapons, even for self-defense. All parties should remain calm. Everyone's best weapon is the mind--use your head.

Another riveting bit of role play involved a policeman spotting a person who fit the description of a robbery suspect in the area. The officer approached the suspect, but was met with the suspect's belligerence which escalated the encounter to tense levels. Finally, with the officer remaining calm, he was able to relieve the suspect's fear enough to question him, and then determine he was not involved in the robbery.

What if You Are Stopped by Police?

To help ensure that a traffic stop, or a stop for questioning, will not escalate into drama, find a safe place to pull over, stay in your car, and keep your hands where the officer can see them. If you are respectful, it lessens your chance of being issued a citation. If you feel you have been treated unfairly, you can register a complaint later.

"The real deal is this;" Chief Mel Williams, head of security at Bethune Cookman College, said, "you will not win an argument with an officer on the side of the road, because the theme is safety. Don't try to argue or be a smart-ass. The police officer wants to be safe and will do what is necessary to ensure that. The uniforms don't make us super-heroes. We may do things you don't understand, but the most important thing is: Don't run. If you run, you give the officer a reason to take you into custody. If you resist arrest, that's another charge.

An Exciting Day of Information and Inspiration

We want our young folks to avoid trouble and be safe. We hope that the give and take between the youth and the police today will go a long way toward achieving that. Perhaps it will give the teens and the officers alike a fresh perspective when encountering each other. A PAL staffer ventured that if one person out of every ten left the rally with a desire to effect positive change in their schools, places of work, and communities, and shared it with others, then this day would be called a success.

Police Athletic League chapters represented at the rally were Brevard County, Cocoa, Coral Gables, Florida City, Fort Pierce, Homestead, Jacksonville, Lakeland, Lake Wales, St. Johns County, Ormond Beach, Palatka, Port St. Lucie, Satellite Beach, West Melbourne, and Patrick Stevens. Now go, and starting with each other, change the world.