Community Ambassadors Initiative: A Portrait Project

Community Ambassadors Initiative: A Portrait Project

Author & Photographer: Nancy Musinguzi

The year 2016 has forged difficult conversations around the issues of racial justice and police-community relations. These conversations have tasked cities to ask themselves an increasingly important question: how can we keep youth, particularly youth of color, safe and ensure they are thriving? A grassroots movement in St. Paul backed by the St. Paul Police Department, the city, and philanthropic organizations is on a mission to heal police-community relationships in order to advance the wellbeing of their communities. The initiative name? The Community Ambassadors Initiative (CAI). While one of the aims of CAI is to prevent young people from interacting with the criminal justice system, the scope of the Initiative goes beyond prevention. CAI connects young people with community services and creates pathways to employment opportunities for young Minnesotans facing some of the greatest disparities in access.

Meet The Community Ambassadors:

(Left to Right) John, Sasha, Joe and Tim of Community Ambassadors Initiative

The Initiative places youth workers, Community Ambassadors, on the streets in spaces that are highly frequented by young people. These youth might be coming home from school or going to work, or perhaps they are experiencing housing instability. These Ambassadors not only establish relationships with the young people who travel through public spaces, but forge relationships with the police themselves. When I hit the streets talking to young people and Ambassadors in St. Paul, many of the discussions centered on keeping youth safe and connecting them with resources within their communities. How can we ensure that interactions between young people of color and police deescalate? How can we work to connect young people with services that can support them?


Tim and Sasha riding on the Light Rail heading downtown St. Paul

Recent instances of violence between young people of color and police serve as a reminder that in the Twin Cities there is much work to be done in building trust between communities of color and the law enforcement who work in their neighborhoods. Tomas Smith, former Police Chief of the St. Paul Police Department, explains the importance of being connected to community, “I was a chief of police for 6 years in St. Paul and a 27-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Dept. I grew up in the city here, so I have great passion for the city.” In regards to the Community Ambassadors Initiative he describes the ultimate goal; “How do you qualify and quantify the work we do? By the amount of young people that can live and thrive in the city of St. Paul. To help young people stay out of the criminal justice system and develop better relationships between police officers and kids of color.”

Statistics show that CAI, which combines prevention, referral services and workforce readiness training, is working. With Ambassadors on the streets, juvenile arrests decreased by 63%. With nearly 30 Ambassadors working in neighborhoods, relationships with youth are key to the Initiative’s success. Each Ambassador is trained as a youth worker and prioritizes building relationships with the young people they encounter. Because Ambassadors build these relationships they are able to refer youth to programs to serve their specific needs. Within its first 17 months of operation, the initiative reached more than 2,500 hard-to-reach youth – young people who are the most in need of support services. CAI also seeks to connect youth with employment opportunities and services include work readiness training to ensure that young people have access to pathways to success in the workplace.

The Community Ambassadors Initiative illustrates the importance of cross-sector collaboration and the value of building authentic relationships with young people. The partnership between the city, law enforcement, philanthropic organizations and youth-serving organizations and the expertise and resources each of these organizations brings is crucial to the success of the project. Key partners include the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Saint Paul Mayor’s Office, Saint Paul Police Department, Metro Transit Police and the Greater Saint Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). Cross-sector partnerships between funders like Youthprise, city organizations and private partners leverage resources and expertise that are required to achieve the ultimate goal: to keep young people safe and ensure they are thriving.


Joe of Community Ambassadors Initiative
Walking toward the Light Rail on University and Snelling


Portrait of Tim from Community Ambassadors Initiative

Billy Collins, Consulting Director of Community Ambassadors Initiative


“The term “ambassador” is to speak to the rooted relationships established between the youth workers and young people of color. These youth workers are deemed the individuals who are best fit to mitigate the complex relationship between the officers and youth of color. And the intention at the end of the day is to provide much needed healing and educating between the ambassadors and both parties.”

Tomas Smith, former Police Chief of St. Paul Police Department

On the effectiveness of the Community Ambassadors Initiative and its impact on the relationship between police and youth of color:


“This is a great model. And what makes it so effective is that my partners keep me accountable, a major part of being in a leadership position, we need to have tough conversations about methods police use when interacting with youth and focus more on creating environments that keep youth safe with models of sustainable growth.”


Joel Franklin J.D., Project Manager Community Ambassadors Initiative


“One thing I learned is that we say consequences can interrupt a behavior but it doesn’t teach them positive behavior. The Community Ambassadors Initiative works to expose these youth to people that make them feel good, motivate them, inspire them, and then help them be to successful.”


(Left to Right) Joel, Tomas and Billy at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center


“The ambassadors helped us create that environment and reduce the negative forces that drive young people to negative outcomes. Our mission is to help young people stay out of the criminal justice system and develop better relationships between their peers and community members, including police officers.”



A St. Paul youth poses for my Community Ambassador Initiative Portrait Project

“I met Tim and Steph at the Rec Center. I grew up around good people and been around bad people. The program kept me out of trouble, got me a job, I aint been around negative people in a long time, I’ve been chillen. Safety mean not getting harassed by the police, staying away from negative things, not going to jail. Basically dodging all the criminal stuff. The environment you live in really determines how you thrive.”


Another youth poses for Community Ambassador Initiative Portrait Project

“I met Mr. tim when I was 7, and Steph helped stay out of trouble, he’s always been a great leader. Mr. Richard, I just met him. He’s a good person. I’m 17. In the 10 years I’ve been in the program, learned a lot of leadership, taking good advice, and staying out of trouble.”


“And that’s what we try to show our youth, you know, “Speak up!” Because we can’t read your mind. I mean, put your ego aside. Admit that things are going bad, it ain’t good right now. And that’s one of the changes you see going on in our culture because our kids now are more aware but less prepared, it’s difficult to reach them. We ask, what’s going on, how can we help? And the beauty of it is the resources we have that we can get that we help. I have the power to help you save yourself.”

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