On Nov. 5, Webster University hosted a Youth Summit on Police for local high school students. Students listened to a group of panelists before discussing policing-related topics in small groups.
Warren Rosenblum, a professor of History, Politics, International Relations and Religious Studies at Webster University, said he remembered an annual Youth Summit from his time spent working in Chicago, Illinois. He said the purpose of the summit was to bring students together to discuss issues that matter to them.
“I just thought, ‘God, nobody’s doing anything like that in St. Louis and that’d be really cool,’” Rosenblum said.
Taking inspiration from the previous Youth Summit in Chicago, Rosenblum organized a Youth Summit on Police at Webster University. The event took place on Nov. 5 and drew around 120 students, according to Rosenblum.
Rosenblum said he began planning for the event in June or July. Along with organizing panelists and reaching out to schools, Rosenblum also found six Webster students to act as facilitators at the Youth Summit.
One of these students was Taina Harris, who is majoring in political science with an emphasis in legal studies. Rosenblum said he met Harris at the history, politics and international relations program’s fall party.
“I told her about the program, and she just was totally excited and said she absolutely wanted to be involved,” Rosenblum said.
Harris hopes to become a U.S. Senator in the future and said she is passionate about education. She said overall, the Youth Summit on Police sounded like a great opportunity.
“So, just being able to talk about something that most legislators don’t talk about with people our own age who are mainly affected by these types of issues just really drove me to it,” Harris said.
Rosenblum said Harris helped him connect with Carnahan High School of the Future. He said at the event, students came from Carnahan, Academic and Classical High School, McCluer North High School, Chaminade College Preparatory School, Parkway West High School and St. Louis University High School.
Students listened to four panelists at the event – retired police sergeant Heather Taylor, pastors and activists Michelle Higgins and Mike Higgins and criminology professor Joe Zlatic. Rosenblum said while not every viewpoint on policing was present, he worked to expose the students to differing viewpoints.
For example, he said Taylor supports reform without abolition while Michelle Higgins considers herself an abolitionist.
“They were strongly disagreeing with each other, but they were also so respectful and they were so thoughtful,” Rosenblum said. “And each one just brought her own experience. They’re both from the north side. And it was an amazing moment.”
Harris said the differences in perspective between panelists stood out to her. She said panelists clashed “in a good way” that helped students understand how the panelists came to their different ideas.
After listening to the panelists, the students broke into small groups, which were led by Webster’s student facilitators.
Rosenblum said all the facilitators understood the importance of letting students talk and take the lead during conversations.
For Harris, the level of student engagement in her group was happily surprising.
“I kid you not, they were bringing up actual data to support what they were saying – numbers, and just like a lot of things, and it’s like, you could tell that they were really invested [in] the topic,” Harris said.
When Rosenblum stopped by one small group to let them know they could go on break, he said the group chose to stay and continue their discussion instead.
During the small group, Harris said students discussed the idea of defunding the police and using the money for things such as funding education, repairing roads and improving access to mental health. Rosenblum said, overall, most of the small groups seemed to support the idea of defunding the police.
Rosenblum said he also heard students talking about how helpful it is when police are engaged with and know the community they are serving. Additionally, he said students also thought it was important for police to “realize when somebody is not a threat.”
“[The idea they are a threat] to them is crazy, right? It’s like they’re not a threat. Why is that so easily become the perspective of the officers?” Rosenblum said. “So, I thought those kinds of discussions were really rich.”
In the end, Rosenblum and Harris each hope the Youth Summit at Webster can become a yearly event moving forward. Rosenblum hopes to get others at the university and local high schools involved in planning in the future.
Rosenblum said he hopes the students left the Youth Summit on Police understanding that they can have level-headed, respectful conversations on controversial topics. He said he saw many students doing a great job listening to different viewpoints in the small groups.
“That was just super,” Rosenblum said. “I think to just appreciate how you can have diverse viewpoints, you can really disagree and yet you can also learn from each other. To me, that is just huge.”
Harris also said she hopes that students do not leave their conversation and hopes for change at Webster. She encouraged students to contact local representatives and continue working together to make their voices heard.
“What I hope that they did take away and what they still want to see is us to actually change it,” Harris said. “I mean, like our voices, yeah it’s little, but when we come together as a whole, it can be very powerful.”
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Cas Waigand (she/her) is the editor-in-chief for the Journal. She is a major in journalism with minor in photography. Cas has covered COVID-19 and the 2020 general election, and enjoys writing, watching Netflix, crocheting and taking photos.