Community and police relationships have been strained in recent years, to put it lightly. The two groups have apparently reached a stalemate, with communities furious over the recent slate of officer-involved shootings—when all too often the officers walk away with barely a reprimand—and with the police feeling as if they are being unfairly attacked. Neither group really seems to trust the other.
And then there are those like Dana Rachlin, the founder of NYC Together, a nonprofit youth organization that pairs police officers and minority youths in hopes of mending the tense relationship through what Rachlin likes to call a “slow-motion miracle.”
“I think that the police officers and the young people are equally feeling frustrated—obviously it has way harsher ramifications for the young people—but I think that both parties are feeling really frustrated with the current infrastructure and systems that are set up,” Rachlin told The Root. “And so we provide this opportunity for them to connect in ways that are meaningful.”
The kids and the officers work on community projects together and participate together in different activities—such as cooking and gardening. The officers mentor the kids, helping them with their homework and talking to them about whatever issues they have, creating a potential for connection and an opportunity for each side to see the other in a different light.
At this, many people—the skeptics and the cynics (like me)—may scoff or raise their eyebrows. But Rachlin is not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Having previously worked for the Center for Court Innovation in several capacities, Rachlin is all too familiar with the issues in the legal system as well as in youth-justice reform.
She started NYC Together two years ago primarily to fill an education gap that youths faced in school and in hopes of getting to kids before they reached the criminal-justice system. Rachlin began to involve police—the only resource readily given to such underserved schools—to give them the proper tools to interact with the communities they serve.
“All of our young people are students who go to schools that are underserved, really segregated, don’t have access to technology and opportunities that other schools have,” Rachlin explained. “We’re just providing exactly what they deserve as young people. So it’s the academic support, it’s the exposure to other things, whether it is fashion and design, photography, sports, technology. We’re just doing the things that, unfortunately, we’re not seeing the schools able to provide for them.
“And the added bonus of that is the big goal of teaching the officers about system intelligence,” she added, “and so when they meet the young people, they start to understand a little bit more that if a young person does come into contact with police, what may seem to them like a slap on the wrist or a quick interaction, actually has a really big impact.”
It also creates the safe space for serious, often painful conversations.
“This is not like kumbaya,” Rachlin said. “For example, when Jordan Edwards was murdered in Texas, we had a program that day … and it was really meaningful for the young people and the officers to be able to engage in a conversation around ‘How does this make you feel? What about this is about the officers, versus what about this is about the way that Jordan Edwards looked, or what about this is about the system?’
“So really giving agency to the students to have a conversation that is meaningful and so that they feel heard, and that’s the most important thing,” she said.
And at least for the 50 students who have gone through Rachlin’s program in the past two years, her approach seems to be working.
“To me, cops were just assholes, and we felt like they were just robots,” Uriah Roman, one of Rachlin’s students and a rising senior at a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., said. “But when I came [to the program] that was the total opposite.”
The first time Uriah connected with one of the officers was through music—a ’90s R&B song that the officer was playing in his vehicle when he came to pick up Uriah to go to the program.
“I didn’t even think they listened to music,” Uriah said, laughing.
On the academic side, Uriah, who describes himself as a “very energetic person” who will get bored if something doesn’t interest him, has started to blossom. The program put him on a photography track. Currently, he’s been hired to do a gallery for Photoville in Brooklyn, where his work will be displayed in September.
As for the future, Uriah wants to be either a musician or an artist or a forensic scientist—another perk of working so closely with the police. He’s already learning a lot about what he would need if he goes down the forensic-scientist path.
The schools usually pick the students who participate—students who may not be challenged, may not have the right outlets and, thus, are lashing out, for example. As for the officers, Rachlin said that her group tries to work with patrol officers and rookies, people who need the experience and the exposure, to focus on interacting with the youth.
“This community policing and changing the culture is a hearts-and-minds game so it’s going to take one person at a time. And not to say that we don’t need to change the system because we do,” she added. “But the results that I’m getting ... 100 percent of my seniors graduate. I can then go to legislators and policy makers and say what I’m doing works. We’re leading students from high school to employment, or from high school to secondary education. What [legislators are] doing by just throwing police officers into schools to make arrests, puts kids into a pipeline.”
And the work that the group is doing is getting attention. Just last week, Rachlin and NYC Together’s graduating seniors were in Atlanta with Usher and others for the Disruptive Innovation Summit, where the students received the Daily Point of Light Volunteer Service Award.
“It’s not like, ‘Look at these cops helping these poor kids’; it’s more like, ‘Look at the way that we could empower these two groups of people to support one another to achieve a common goal,’” Rachlin emphasized.
“We want communities to be safer, we want young people to develop into responsible adults, we want police officers to be accountable and do good work,” she said. “This is just a way for us to take communities that are often put against each other and say, ‘Hey, you guys can actually work together in a really meaningful way with measurable outcome that could then inform policy and legislation.’”