Served and Connected
This past week, we wrapped up Serve and Connect, the expanded community engagement project launched in collaboration with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Foundation in February that brought together local police officers and students to teach the value of academic accomplishment, living healthy lifestyles, and responsible decision making. After simultaneous kick-offs at Riverdale/Dolton- and Baltimore-based program sites, The ACE Project implemented a curriculum adapted by organizations across the country designed to rebuild trust and resolve conflict between community residents and the police.
It was a big story-- one that was garnering the attention of some significant media--The Chicago Tribune's Tony Baranek captured some of the magic of the program in his article, "Police and kids find a common ground through tennis in Serve & Connect program," in which he highlighted success from various perspectives; however, a question remains: with the shift away from Serve and Connect now, how will The ACE Project sustain the relationships established with the police? Detective Ivan Lugo, of the Riverdale Police Department, hints at a potential obstacle following the completion of the project, saying "This was a great event. I wish more children and even parents could get involved. I think that will be a whole lot better." We agree; we recognize the need to engage more students, parents, and police officers through ACE programs to help dissolve the barriers that remain.
Ns. Marika Allen-Lyles, ACE Site Coordinator and 4th grade math and science teacher at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School in Baltimore, shared her thoughts on how to further engage the police officers, saying "As an educator, I am going to always invite police officers to our schools events because the police are a part of the community and should always be included...The first interaction with a police officer should not be for emergencies only." For ACE, that means inviting police officers to our summer activities to ensure that kids and parents have expanded opportunities to ask questions and develop deeper trust. As Ms. Allen-Lyles points out, "One moment that stuck with me was our very first session and Officer Black was talking with the students and asked them if they had ever been this close to a police officer. Many students said 'no.' So he reached out his hand to a student and said, 'touch my hand,' and the student did. Officer Black then said, 'I'm real just like you,' and the students were able to let down their guard and have an honest conversation with him without being scared." Fear may be considered a strong motivator, but in communities where tension runs high in the search for safe spaces, fear can separate and lead to greater distrust. By bringing police officers on the court during camps, play days, and tournaments this summer, ACE participants have an opportunity to alleviate some of the fear they may feel.
Of course, this strategy will only be successful if we can engage police officers through our summer and after-school programs. Based on what Detective Lugo shared when asked about his experience with the program, it's evident that Serve and Connect ushered in an opportunity for growth: "I learned to be a kid again; the feeling of hope, and the happiness I felt playing with the kids and seeing them have fun with us was amazing...it helped me remember why I signed up for this profession." Through collective effort, we will inspire more harmony and safety within our communities.