When Gail Babcock, program director of the Ferguson Youth Initiative, heard about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in August, her first thought was this: had he only gotten a citation for walking on the street, he would have been referred to her organization for community service. And he would be alive today.
“It was hard to wrap my mind around that,” she said by phone from Ferguson, Missouri, on Tuesday, a day after violent protests greeted the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer.
“A lot of the youth realized that could have been them,” said Babcock. “I’m not here to second guess the judgment, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. The youth have said, ‘We need to change our attitude, and the police need to change their attitude with us.’ The only way that change is going to come is by knowing each other.”
The Ferguson Youth Initiative, founded in 2010, aims to do that by providing programs for youth ages 13-20 of all races to mingle with each other and work on projects together. They paint murals in the arts program. They organize street festivals with live bands, rock-climbing walls and face painting. There’s an Earn-a-Bike program where they learn maintenance and receive their own bicycle, helmet and lock.
And the FYI’s Ferguson Community Service Program gives youth 16 years and older a chance to erase their fines and their misdemeanor charges by performing community service and undergoing mental health and substance abuse screenings.
“The youth who are fined tend to run away and get bench warrants for their arrests,” Babcock said. Those who participate in the community service program are held accountable by doing good things for the community, such as cleaning people’s yards, helping at farmer’s markets and working at community events.
“The goal is to pull them back to the community so that they do not feel alienated,” she said. And it seems to be working. The 53 youth who have completed the program so far have stayed out of trouble. The community is now looking into a similar program for adults.
Following the Michael Brown shooting, the Ferguson Youth Initiative held a youth summit in September — run by the teens — to explore ways to improve relations with police.
Watch a recap of the 2014 Youth Summit and what community members want to do to move forward.
Some of the suggestions made at the summit included having the police officers introduce themselves to the community, play sports or have meals together, and do role-playing exercises.
Now might not be the time to launch these programs, while police are so busy, Babcock said. But she is seeking a grant from the federal government to pay the police overtime for participating in community-engagement activities.
She said the recent violence in the St. Louis suburb was perpetrated by opportunists looking to destroy and loot, and was not indicative of the community as a whole. “We know we have issues and we’re trying to address those issues. What happened last night is not who we are.”