Driving Change: A Call to Engage Youth in Public Safety & Focus on the Most Impacted

While driving my soon-to-be 17-year-old nephew to a high school basketball game, I was struck by his description of a video that captured a 15-year-old boy being stabbed to death in a local high school. He mentioned that his initial instinct was not to watch, but he changed his mind as a friend shared the recording on his smartphone. My nephew described what he saw in great detail, taking time to carefully recount a horrific incident that, in real-time, took just a few seconds to transpire. He lamented how, in a moment, the lives of two young black males changed forever – one whose life was sadly cut short and the other who will likely be tried as an adult and spend the remainder of his life in prison.

We never made it to the game as our conversation changed course. I asked my nephew about his entrepreneurial endeavors and learned his efforts were on hold because his laptop was broken. “My laptop is how I make money,” he said. Knowing his laptop also keeps him at home, I immediately responded, “Let’s go get you another laptop. You can pay me back later.” He replied with a question, “No interest?” I immediately confirmed that no interest would be incurred but added the caveat that when I ask for help with technology, he must honor my request without any “mouth” or objection. He agreed, and I chuckled inside, knowing he’ll greet my appeals with mocking and criticism about what he describes as “an old man with technology.” And for the record, I’m also well aware that the chances I’ll get my money back for the laptop are slim.

Our conversation continued as we made our way to the store, and my mind continued to race. Our discussion turned to a shooting in his neighborhood over the weekend – the killing of two black men – and the presence of helicopters hovering over Saint Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood that evening. In almost the same breath, he complained about an in-depth conversation with his mother the past weekend as he was planning a trip to the mall to see a movie with friends. My sister was concerned about his safety, especially in light of recent gun violence. My nephew acknowledged that it's unsafe but countered that he is a teen and needs to live his life. “I just can’t stay in the house all the time,” he said. I agreed with him, yet, internally, I could not deny that our detour to purchase the laptop was really fueled by my subtle attempt to keep him in the house and focused on entrepreneurship.
The conversation with my nephew was raw and thought-provoking. It made me think about my sister, who had texted me as she was wrestling with my nephew’s desire to go to the mall. “I just have to pray,” she wrote. Etched in her thoughts was the knowledge that a 19-year-old Black male was recently fatally shot at the Mall of America.
The conversation also reminded me of the constant concern my mother expressed about my own safety growing up as a young Black male in Saint Paul’s Frogtown community. I vividly remember her sigh of relief on my 30th birthday. To me, it was a just a chronological milestone. To my mother, it was much more – it was the relief that comes with a burden that’s been lifted. She felt as though I had exited a danger zone, having advanced beyond the age during which young Black men are at the highest risk of harm.

As I reflect on my conversation with my nephew and think about the decisions that need to be made related to public safety, a few things come to mind:

1) First, we cannot adequately address public safety in schools or the community without targeted approaches that address the overrepresentation of Black males as victims and perpetrators of violent crime. The plight of young black males in our community is the pandemic that existed long before COVID-19, yet there was no stimulus or coordinated community effort to address it. Although public safety affects us all, consider that last year, nearly 60% of the homicides in Saint Paul involved Black males as the victim. Moreover, the racial disparity in homicide rates extends beyond the Twin Cities metro: 44% of Minnesota’s homicide victims statewide were Black over six years. Clearly, our entire community will benefit from a responsible and strategic effort focused on young Black males, their families, and the community.

2) Second, as we engage in public discourse regarding public safety, we must center the need for safety and healing for young people in a way that’s meaningful to them. This means engaging them in the conversation to understand their concerns and ideas for promoting safety. The public discussion and policy debate is currently over-politicized, fear-based, and driven too much by high-profile incidents. It ignores the practical needs of young people who are struggling and want to constructively engage in identifying solutions. We should esteem young people who have courageously voiced their ideas and facilitated change. The tent should also be widened to include more young people, even those who may not share our perspective. Safe spaces should be created to secure a representative perspective of the full body of young people struggling with public safety challenges in schools and the community.

3) Guns are far too accessible. Over the past three years, more than 80% of Saint Paul's homicides resulted from a gunshot. We have to make a genuine, concerted effort to get illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of young people. This, too, should include the voices of young people in developing a roadmap that is not only effective but safe.

The time is now for us to bring our best selves, our best knowledge, and our best intentions to the public safety debate. We need to address individual accountability and promote restorative practices while also acknowledging systemic factors that put us in this predicament. Decision-making needs to be informed by data, evaluation research, and ongoing community dialogue. The 5 o'clock news and high-profile incidents cannot be the prevailing source influencing kneejerk policy decisions. Instead, let's honor victims and youth traumatized by recent events by engaging in an inclusive process toward healing and community transformation – an exercise that is consistently revisited, evaluated, and adapted even in the absence of a high-profile crisis.

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