By: Caitlin Shannon, Editor of Student Life and Arts Photographer: M. Ibadi
We all want safer communities, especially with the seemingly ever present threat of mass shootings, police brutality and preventable tragedies. The question is, how can we realistically and effectively create safer communities? Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict is taking a step towards doing that with the Safer Communities Initiative. This multi-faceted program is supported by a grant from Americorps NJ, a division of the NJ Department of State.
The center successfully launched the Safer Communities Initiative on Tues., Feb. 27 in Mead Hall joined by law enforcement from surrounding as well as far away boroughs, representatives from Homeland Security, the Newark Boys and Girls Club and many more enthusiastic participants. Beginning with a continental breakfast that allowed for the different participants to get to know each other, the event soon got underway with a convocation from Dr. Jonathan Golden, the director of the Drew Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict. Golden spoke to the need for this program, which is designed to foster interaction, communication, respect and trust between communities and the police officers who protect them. “The challenges we face today are immense,” said Golden, “but we can tackle anything together.” Following Golden, Jared Maples, the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, spoke about his confidence in and hopes for the program.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States, and so preventing problems must come by building trust within and throughout communities, Maple stressed. Gun violence and police brutality are real problems in our society, but Maple affirmed, “there is hope and there is love and that is part of engendering trust within these communities.”
Safer Communities Initiative has four major, interconnected programs designed to work together to build and foster trust within New Jersey’s communities. The first piece is a Conflict Resolution Forum, designed to educate public safety officials (from police officers to state-level officials) on de-escalation strategies as well as provide space for the innovation of new strategies and the solving of unique challenges. Second, the initiative will disseminate Traffic Stop Safety videos which will inform citizens and police officers alike of proper traffic stop practices and of the rights they have when they are stopped for a traffic violation. The idea for this piece came from the growing escalation of traffic stop incidents as well as an uneasiness and unsureness across the general public about what to do when stopped for a traffic violation. Third, the initiative will host community building activities such as inter-religious and/or cultural advisory committees, getting to know you neighbor activities and positive messaging on social media.
The final and biggest piece of the program is the Youth Police Initiative, a program started by Jim Isenburg, Executive Director of the New York Region of the North American Family Institute, who spoke at the launch after Maples. Isenburg explained that the goal of the program is to open up relationships within communities and to teach police officers to talk to people, especially young people. The initiative pairs 13- to 18 year-old students with a police officer from their town in a setting where they must not only interact, but interact in a meaningful way that builds a relationship. These sorts of bonds break stereotypes that both sides may have about the other, humanizing both parties in a way that changes the mindset of the community and gives youth in particular a sense of pride and belonging in their community.
Following a brief explanation of the four programs, the group split into break out sessions where they were able to learn more about the particular components of the Safer Communities Initiative that they were most interested in. The event wrapped up with closing remarks from Colonel Patrick Callahan, the Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, affirming the support that this program has from the state as well as the eagerness of all parties to make this initiative successful and our communities safer.
This initiative will not only benefit the youth of local communities but also Drew students. There are 10 Drew students currently working in the program. All of the students are enthusiastic about the cause and are excited to see the initiative make a change. Nicole Albornoz (’20), one of the students working with Americorps, shared her thoughts on why she believed this initiative will be successful saying, “Bringing cops in to help us create an environment of de-escalation without the use of violence is a good step in order to keep the community safer.” She continued, “If the community knows the people patrolling them are keeping them safe I feel like there wouldn’t be as many issues as there are today.” Shadayah Tucker (’21) agreed with Albornoz, saying that “this initiative is special in the way that it is able to make these two groups coexist.”
Want more information about becoming an AmeriCorps Safer Community member at Drew? Interested in full-time positions at the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, NJ Homeland Security and Preparedness or part-time positions at the Drew campus? Come to our information session in EC 109 on Wed., Mar. 21 at 3:30, 4:30 and 5:30 p.m.