One by one, members of Word is Bond, a nonprofit for youth ages 16 to 21, virtually introduced themselves to the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) on Monday (August 10). They shared more than their names. They shared their mantras.
“I’m Ristom Habtemariam. My mantra is: ‘I am Eritrean. I am self-reliant. I am a radical thinker. I am always one step away from achieving whatever’s in front of me. I am Ristom.’”
“My name is Isaiah Carter. I’m 19 and I graduated from Reynolds High School. My mantra is: ‘I'm the oldest brother of three siblings. I am a role model for the next generation. I am determined to make a difference. I am never done. I am who I am, and you will not change me.’”
The youths who participate in Word is Bond repeat their mantras every day.
“They are affirmations that we feel define us and liberate us,” Habtemariam said.
Only on this day, they repeated them in front of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council’s Executive Committee — County and regional leaders charged with forging equitable, data-driven policy in the criminal justice system.
Word is Bond’s mission is to “rewrite the narrative about Black men through leadership development, critical dialogue and education.” And at the Aug. 10 meeting, where they presented their findings on ways to improve the justice system, they were joined by members of the Multnomah Youth Commission, as well as members of Youth Educating Police or (YEP), a youth-led organization aimed at “reducing animosity and systemic disconnect between law enforcement and young people.”
“We decided to name this presentation ‘Acknowledgement and Accountability,’” said Lakyana Drury, Word is Bond’s director. ”We wanted to frame today's presentations around what accountability looks like and acknowledging past traumas and current traumas that continue to happen.”
“I’ve been to many community events where youth have not been present,” said Erika Preuitt, director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. “And I really believe that as other people are moving to solve problems, that we can use our future generations in helping us to come to solutions.”
During a typical year, Word is Bond youth participate in six-week summer internships that include camping trips, a ropes course, a community showcase and five days of engagement with police officers from participating departments across the region.
But this year has been unlike any other. First, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift to virtual venues. Then came the massive protests against racism and police brutality worldwide — sparked by the murder of George Floyd, who suffered cardiopulmonary arrest after a Minneapolis officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In Portland, protests have persisted for more than 80 days and nights.
As a young Black man, Habtemariam said he was skeptical, at first, about even joining Word is Bond.
“I wasn’t motivated to join the program because I didn’t want to work with the police,” he said. “But Lakayana explained to me how Word is Bond is like a brotherhood rather than working with police. It's an opportunity for young Black men to find their voice and build relationships with other young Black men. We don’t work with police, but we do engage with police.”
The presenters identified prevailing issues in the criminal justice system but also offered solutions.
“Black people want to be seen as people, not animals or a specific color,” Cole said. “Black people are seen as lesser toward the community that’s around them. We don’t want to live in a society where people of color cannot trust law enforcement.”
As a solution, member Ja’Mari Etherly said, “we need to change the system and provide training for officers in how they police the Black community. The police department and mayor also need to take a bigger step on Black Lives Matter.”
Other suggested solutions included:
Requiring officers to volunteer in soup kitchens, in full uniform, listening to community members
Mandatory training for officers
Asking the community and the most vulnerable how they’re affected
Weekly mental health assessments for officers
Reallocating funding from programs like school resource officers and Portland’s Gun Violence Reduction Team to Black organizations working on upstream services, like education.
“Oregon as a whole has a graduation percentage of 80 percent but there’s still at least a 10-point gap between white students and students of color,” Etherly said.
“Funding from student resource officers positions and the disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team can be placed back into schools, along with efforts to make students feel more welcomed and make classroom sizes smaller,” Cole said.
Watch the full presentation here.
Multnomah Youth Commission
Multnomah Youth Commissioner Alana Nayak described months of work from the commission’s Youth Against Violence committee.
For the past two years, the group has facilitated youth-led conversations for the Youth and Gang Violence Steering Committee within the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.
“These meetings allowed us to bring youth perspectives on the issues of public safety,” Nayak said.
Along with that work, the Multnomah Youth Commission has joined with Word is Bond to spread awareness about young people’s perceptions of police across Multnomah County.
Collectively last year, Word is Bond and the Multnomah Youth Commission received a grant from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and conducted research about how youth of color perceive police.
Nayak said they reached more than 500 young people through participatory listening sessions as well as surveys.
Common themes included generalization of identities and perspectives for both youth and police; trauma left by negative interactions with police; a sense of a lack of consistency in policing; a sense that future conflicts are unavoidable; and feelings of hopelessness that the system is never going to change.
To spread awareness, Nayak said, she and other Word Is Bond members presented their data to LPSCC’s Youth and Gang Violence Subcommittee.
They also teamed with the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing’s youth subcommittee, weighing in on restorative justice recommendations that a group called Youth Educating Police has been working to implement.
Youth Educating Police
Taji Chesimet, executive director of Youth Educating Police, said many of the trends and themes surfaced by both Word is Bond and the Multnomah Youth Commission follow a long history.
“We are seeing the repercussions of inaction in our streets day-in-and-day-out,” he said.
In June, alongside partners with Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing’s youth subcommittee, Youth Educating Police issued an explicit call to action, demanding solutions that ”utilize restorative justice and community-based approaches to public safety and community wellness.”
The recommendations had three main components:
Mandated restorative justice training for the Portland Police Bureau, in collaboration with an equity manager.
Joint efforts from the city and local school districts around alternatives for school resource officer programs.
Increasing access to diversion from the justice system and pushing for alternatives means of accountability for young people.
Chesimet said there needs to be a critical assessment of what could replace school resource officers.
He also noted that “Black and brown bodies are over-represented by proportion in our juvenile system, locally and nationally.”
“Those disparities don’t just happen,” he said. “We have ingrained a racist system of education with direct connection to police officers and other systems that have not helped communities of color.”
Adding school administrators to the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council’s Executive Committee, as well as incorporating programs like Office of Youth Violence Prevention and the Community Healing Initiative, also emerged as solutions.
“After watching a press conference from community leaders last week, I could see the pain and grief in their eyes,” he said. “They have been advocating for these changes for decades and they are tired. They are tired of seeing their children, cousins and relatives die because our government has streamlined crime reduction and protection into an inherently violent system.
“Violence is the side effect of a deeper issue that we are not addressing. I implore you, with every fiber in my body, for me to not have to continue this work when I am your age.”
“It’s so important that those of us who sit in positions of privilege and power, that we listen to our youth,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said, “And my goal is to use my position to elevate those voices that have historically been marginalized.”