Black Parents Who Worry 'The Talk' Is Not Enough Turn To De-Escalation Training

A Black Lives Matter protest in May. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Conversations about how to interact with police — and what to do if stopped — happened so frequently in Kimmia Saunders' home, they seemed normal. That's the reality for many young people growing up in Black homes across the country.

"As a child, my mom was always talking to me about how to carry myself being a young Black woman in America," she said. "Being Black, you have to handle certain situations differently because if you're not careful things can go south really quickly."

Learning to navigate the world while being Black isn't developed overnight. It's a lesson often taught through constant conversations. Others prefer to take a more hands-on approach.

"As a mother raising two Black children in America, I have an obligation to teach them how to identify danger," said Kim Saunders, Kimmia's mother. "Being Black in America is a really hard thing... in some cases it can cost you your life."

MORE THAN WORDS

Kimmia Saunders, now 18, was in elementary school the first time she had a safety drill. She remembers crouching under her school desk, arms over her head and hands gripping the skinny metal table legs, practicing what to do in the event of an earthquake.

Like many students, safety drills for fire, earthquake, active shooter, lockdown and evacuation all were a regular part of her school experience. Saunders said they taught her from a young age the importance of not only preparing mentally for a crisis, but physically as well.

For the last four years, she's been running a different kind of crisis drill, this one outside the traditional classroom.

The Young Black Scholars program, run by the nationwide mentoring organization 100 Black Men, works to teach Black youth how to navigate high-stakes situations that have the potential to escalate, particularly when police officers are involved and there is a tilted power dynamic.

"The reason we focus on law-enforcement encounters is because you have to understand what the police officer is thinking," said Jewett L. Walker Jr., who chairs the board of 100 Black Men L.A.

To date, the 100 Black Men organization has more than 100 chapters operating in cities and communities across the country, running programs aimed at empowering youth to navigate the complicated terrain of what it means to be Black in America.

Walker said despite stay-at-home orders, the nonprofit has continued to provide mentorship, tutoring and de-escalation training to students through virtual means, to keep up support for participants.

Program mentors work with students in three key areas:

  • anger management
  • conflict resolution
  • role playing

The goal is to teach participants how to calm themselves, calm others and stay calm under pressure.

Students are deliberately put in uncomfortable and confrontational situations using actual police involved with the program. Kimmia Saunders said that way, if it happens in real life, it's not the first time they've dealt with it.

"You have to be present in the situations because seeing how things can get out of hand so quickly prepares you to stay calm and be compliant," said Kimmia. "Situations can become unreasonable so quickly and sometimes it's out of our hand."

Controlled role-playing situations that have students confronting actual police officers allows the participants to develop behavioral and communication strategies aimed at increasing the likelihood they will walk away alive.

"If it is dark and it's just you and a police officer, it's suicide to try and challenge the officer under those situations," Walker said. "You never know what could trigger an officer to violence, so we teach (students) just to be calm."

A COMMUNITY IN TRAUMA

De-escalation programs like the Young Black Scholars have become an increasingly more common resource within the Black community, especially in the wake of recent high-profile deaths of Black men and women across the country.

"There comes a time when you have an understanding of what it means to be Black, and the responsibility and the roles that you don't necessarily want but have to embrace," said Kim Saunders. "I wanted something more exceptional for Kimmia so that I wouldn't miss a beat on her development."

Kimmia Saunders said being a part of the Young Black Scholars has empowered her to speak up.

"I've learned a lot about myself, particularly the power of my voice," she said. "I used to be soft-spoken and shy, but now I really know the importance of speaking up in an eloquent and informed manner — which can be really helpful when speaking to people who may not be receptive to what you have to say."

Programs like the Young Black Scholars have proven an invaluable resource for so many young Black men and women. But Walker — himself a father of a young Black man — says a level of subconscious resentment accompanies the gratitude that parents feel for programs like this.

"Yes, we are providing critical behavioral and strategic response training and serving as a developmental resource for our community. But at the same time, as a parent, it's always in the back of your mind that this is necessary because your child is under attack," Walker said. "It's your kid's responsibility to quell a confrontation, even though the police are the ones with the training. It's frustrating."

Nevertheless, Walker says 100 Black Men will continue working with students, to help teach them skills that could end up keeping them alive.

"As parents and leaders in our community, we know you can't control someone else," Walker said. "The only thing we can control is how we respond to others, and that's what we impress upon our students — set the example for how you want the situation to unfold."


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CORRECTION:

July 2, 8:50 a.m. A previous version of this article mispelled the last name Saunders as Sanders. LAist regrets the error.