When 16-year-old Jedidiah Johnson, who is African-American, was a freshman in high school, he and some friends were accused of taking his teacher’s Adderall pills from the classroom. “He told the principal…and she called the police. The police came and they searched us. Obviously, they would have to do that,” says Jedidiah. But, “one of my friends got upset and he got into a fight with the police. So then one of the police officers grabbed me and two of my friends and slammed us into the tables and put handcuffs on us.” It turned out that the teacher had misplaced his pills in his car, but the incident left its mark on Jedidiah. He was left with a distrust of the police.
Such a feeling is not uncommon among teens of color in Denver. Although he has never personally been targeted by the police, Langston Shupe-Diggs, a junior at East High School who is bi-racial, can recount stories of black friends who seem to be repeatedly pulled over by police, while white friends get a pass. His black friend, De’Von, “has been stopped by the cops driving in his car at night about five times since he’s gotten his car – for doing nothing. He follows every traffic law – he drives better than most adults I know…They won’t write him a ticket, they’ll just look in the car and ask him if he’s been drinking.”
Langston notes that the issue is complicated, however, because other stops are justified. Another black friend, who smokes a lot of marijuana, has been stopped and even arrested. While this friend complains that the cops are targeting him, Langston notes that the police are just doing their job, since “he actually does illegal things.” But, on the flip side, he says “I have a lot of white friends who smoke on campus, and I’ve seen deans drive by in a golf cart and not even look at them, because they don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong. Even on a school police level, people don’t assume that white people are doing those type of things.”
Last year, Jedidiah and his twin sister, Jaida Johnson, a junior at East, attended the Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI). A 20-week family civics program, FLTI integrates personal and child development, leadership training and civic partnership skills. The culminating event is a community project, and Jedidiah and Jaida chose police brutality, an issue close to their hearts, as the theme for their group. The goal was to connect and communicate with cops: “We got to eat, play, and talk about the issue of police brutality that’s going on in our society right now,” says Jaida. About fifteen police officers participated, and the group discussed “how the police were feeling about it, where they were coming from, how they feel about the issue and how we feel about the issue. They know that we’re trying to get our voice heard,” she says.
As a result of the “Youth and Cops Voice Opinions Event” they coordinated on August 6, 2016, Jaida and Jedidiah feel that they have raised awareness in both the community and among police officers. Jaida wants to continue to get the voices of young people heard through social media and other means, making sure that police understand the pain and fear that many youth of color feel. As for Jedidiah, “I realized all cops aren’t bad, just like people don’t like to be stereotyped for their religion or their race,” he says, “having a positive interaction with police, it helps kids out here to see that there are cops out there that want to protect you.”
Sixteen-year-old Amy Garcia, who is of Hispanic heritage, agrees: “I feel it is incorrect to stereotype people, a whole group of people, based on a mistake. That’s an issue we deal with a lot nowadays,” she says, “But one action a police officer makes shouldn’t portray all police officers as brutal or as inhuman. The police officers I’ve been around are nothing like what is portrayed in the media.”
Amy knows this from experience. The DSST: Stapleton junior is also a graduate of Denver’s Police Explorers program, a rigorous training program for youth aged 15-20 to learn about law enforcement through a partnership between Learning for Life and the Denver Police Department. Police Explorers complete a 100-hour Explorer Academy in their first year, attend weekly training sessions, and contribute hundreds of hours of community service.
Although Amy had been drawn to the field of law enforcement since childhood, reports of police brutality in the media made her want to find out more firsthand. She heard of the Explorers program through the Northeast Denver Leadership Week, run by Councilman Chris Herndon, and joined just over a year ago. “I was challenged. You get to see the unfortunate side of the world, but that also helped me to realize there’s the good, there’s the bad and, as police officers, you have to choose how you want to make the change,” she says.
And these young people are doing more than just talking about issues of race and police brutality – each of them is committed to continuing to make progress in their communities as they enter adulthood. Jaida sees her work with FLTI as putting her on a “path where I can be an even bigger part of change” and hopes to pursue her interests in business and social media in college. Jedidiah, who has his sights set on college at Morehouse or Louisiana State University, wants to raise awareness in the Montbello/Green Valley Ranch community where he lives, hoping to dispel misunderstanding and show that cops are “people just like us.” Law enforcement still draws Amy, who will be the first in her family to go to college and wants to be “something big in the police department…it’s not common for my generation now, nor for a female Hispanic, to have a profession like that,” she says.
As for Langston, he hopes to inspire young people to express themselves as a creative writing instructor and to research micro-communities through graduate work in anthropology. “Change is right around the corner,” says Langston, “I’m very hopeful for the future because I think that we’re only going up. We’re definitely not taking any steps backwards. I know people think we are from time to time, politically, but I think that we are in an era of such colossal social change from every walk of life that it’s only going to get better.”
Family Leadership /Training Institute Programs
Jan. 21 – Jun. 2017—Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI) 20-Week Program
FLTI is a 20-week program that integrates personal and child development, leadership training, civic literacy and civic participation. The program increases your ability to work with and understand diverse perspectives and helps you to be the change you seek. Youth (11-15) attend with a parent or other adult.
Application deadline is January 8. Full scholarships are offered to the 17 youth and 28 adults who are accepted. The program is held at Manual High School on14 Thursday evenings and three Saturday sessions. Application deadline is Jan.8. Interviews Oct-Dec. Benzel.Jimmerson@denvergov.org, 720-913-5274. Sponsored by the City and County of Denver, Colorado State University Extension, Colorado Department of Health & Environment
Oct. 15—Family Leadership Training Institute One Day Summit
“Improving Colorado Through Community Engagement,” is a day-long event to provide ongoing leadership development for parents and others who lead on behalf of children and families. All interested people are invited to attend.
The FLTI summit will be held Saturday, October 15, 2016 from 8:30am to 4:30pm at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, 13123 East 16th Avenue, Aurora. It is presented by the Family Leadership Training Institute. The cost is $15 (grants available) and includes breakfast, lunch, registration materials, and Certificate of Participation. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303.886.0673. Register at eventbrite.com > Family Leadership Summit.