Q&A: Word is Bond youth talk about their final year in the leadership program

August 14, 2019

From left: Lakayana Drury, Sema’J Wade and Amarien Simmons talk about their third year in the Word is Bond program.

What is Word Is Bond? 

Word is Bond is a leadership development program for young Black men ages 16 to 21. The program aims to build positive relationships between participants and law enforcement, and it touches on subjects of race, history and trauma. Participants, who are known as community ambassadors, partake in training exercises alongside law enforcement, as well as luncheons, camps and other activities throughout the community. The six-week summer program lasts for three years. During the third year of the program, community ambassadors intern at SummerWorks jobs, which are paid for, in part, by Multnomah County. These efforts are part of County strategies to expand employment opportunities for youth and improve relationships between youth and law enforcement. 

From left: Word is Bond youth Sema’J Wade and Amarien Simmons, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Word is Bond executive director Lakayana Drury.

We asked Word Is Bond’s executive director, Lakayana Drury, and two community ambassadors/Multnomah County interns, Amarien Simmons and Sema’J Wade, about their experience so far. 

Q. What has changed when it comes to law enforcement? 

Lakayana Drury: A lot of people think Word is Bond is about changing Black youth’s perspectives on police. There is nothing inherently wrong with their views on police. They are a result of their experiences. Word is Bond is about honoring those experiences and those truths and finding opportunities to connect. Word is Bond is like the Black, urban Boy Scouts. Our vision is to instill confidence in our young men so they can hold their heads high, wherever they go, in their own communities and in buildings of power. Each year, Word is Bond continues to grow. This year Hillsboro and Lake Oswego Police joined the effort, along with our other partners, Portland Police Bureau. Each agency had an officer(s) participate in a weekly “engagement day” where they got to know youth participants and gradually move toward more challenging and deeper discussions.

Amarien Simmons: When I first joined the program, I was biased about police. I didn’t like them, especially where I grew up. A lot of my family members were gang-affiliated, and police were your worst enemy. I hung out with older people and my older friends — being scared of police — rubbed off on me, not to mention the news reports. This program taught me how to educate others around me. Just in the small things, like the officers who patrol our neighborhood, I got a better feel for what they do. 

It’s still going to take time to build trust, but my comfort level [with officers] has improved. I also teach my friends how to interact with police, and I make sure they know they’re rights. We’re building relationships with the officers as people. 

Sema’J Wade: I also came in with a bias of police. I was terrified of them because that’s how my family raised me. Of course the stuff that is happening shouldn’t be happening but if I’m stopped by a police officer now, I’m not as worried as I was before. The program helped build those relationships. There was a Portland police officer named Rashida Saunders, and it turned out that she’s my best friend’s aunt. There was also a Lake Oswego officer, James Euscher, who participated in the ropes course with us, and he’s a human hulk — he makes me feel safe. 

Q: What was your most memorable moment in the last three years? 

Amarien Simmons: The ropes course with the police officers. It’s a trust exercise. The officers came in without their uniform, and the first exercise was a giant swing. Your team would pull you all the way up the swing as high as you would like to go and you would have to pull a latch to do a big swing over a river.  

There was also a hanging ladder and if your team lets go of it, you could get hurt. Me and Sema’J, we actually climbed the ladder together. That’s the day we bonded. 

You have to rely on your team to keep you up in a harness and keep you alive. 

Sema’J Wade: The day we were at the luncheon at the Stepping Stone Stone Cafe in Northwest Portland. There were nine or 10 of us there. We bonded on the first day. That’s the day we really connected. We were all laughing, smiling and bonding. There was a Portland police officer there who patrolled in my neighborhood who I built a relationship with — Officer Elise Temple. That day they [police officers] came in just regular clothes, and it helps to see them as regular people. 

Lakayana Drury: It’s the little intangible moments. It’s like the car ride home. Or you’re casually talking outside and you have a really strong emotional connection. But it’s so much bigger than just police and introductions — it’s about building these young men into leaders. We not only face odds and challenges but in many ways we’re trying to survive, and there are so many pitfalls like drugs and gang violence. We had one of our interns pass away right after the summer program last year, and that hit hard. One of our interns last year was locked up this spring. So we have bonds through these experiences that can be traumatic. 

What do you want to do in the future? How has this program prepared you for the future? 

Amarien Simmons: I’m a boxer. I want to do boxing professionally, but my short term goal is that I want to open my own business when I turn 19 — with apparel like boxing gloves, athletic clothes, T-shirts, backpacks. I also want to go to school for business — Hampton University, a historically Black university in Hampton, Virginia. 

Sema’J Wade: I’m a football player, so I am going to go to the NFL. But I also want to go to college and start my own business of football apparel. 

Lakayana Drury: I want to grow this program into a national model from the perspective of young black men. These are the most marginalized groups. As far as me, professionally, I want to continue to grow this program, maybe run for office. We’re downtown, where all the decisions are made, and that’s why we dress in professional clothes. 

What convinces people to join the program? 

Lakayana Drury: It’s part of trusting me and seeing friends do it. We work with the Portland Trail Blazers, Wieden + Kennedy, Black Male Achievement and so many more. There are few places where it’s all black men. In between the car rides, we have fun and we have that bond. It just builds on you that it’s a fun, safe space that is also positive. 

Amarien Simmons: It all depends on the person, but just being a role model helps. I was very close to getting my cousin to join the program. But you have to be a role model. If I don’t do it, who else will? 

Watch recent news coverage about Word is Bond and learn more about the organization at www.mywordisbond.org/