This story is part of Made in Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
When Officer Clarence Manson of Philadelphia’s 18th Police District came face-to-face with a group of teenage boys from the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, he found himself quickly debunking a police cliché.
“Is it true you guys eat doughnuts?” one boy asked.
“Nah, that’s a stereotype,” he replied.
For most of the teens gathered, it was their first time ever meeting a police officer. And that’s exactly why Kendra Van de Water asked Manson, a 31-year-old officer with the violent crime reduction team, to visit the teens and answer any questions they have.
"This was my first time talking to a police officer,” said 15-year-old Crishaun Cain. “Before that it was all negativity by the police. That’s all we see on the internet.”
But Van de Water, 32, was also motivated by personal experience. When she was 16, she was involved in a confrontation with Philadelphia police for breaking curfew, she said. She remembers standing at the corner of Broad and Girard waiting for her mother to pick her up when, she said, police kicked her phone out of her hand and a tussle ensued. On that winter evening, she was wearing a pink leather puffer Rocawear jacket that got ripped to shreds, Van de Water said.
“When I was that age I didn’t really understand what I could do about it,” she said.
Van de Water’s was one of the few black families in Lansdale. While growing up there, she wasn’t taught how to interact with the police. She acknowledged that she grew up privileged compared with many other black teens in Philadelphia, having grandparents who helped support her single mother and brother.
That encounter with police in North Philadelphia resulted in Van de Water’s being charged -- unjustly, she contends -- with assault on a police officer. She spent a week at the Juvenile Justice Services Center before her court date, where she was sentenced to one year of probation and community service -- an experience that motivated the work she does today.
After earning a master’s degree in social policy from the University of Maryland and working for several years in Washington, the Temple grad eventually took a job as a policy analyst for the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. She was eager to return to her roots and address the issues that jolted her life trajectory. She currently works for the Anti-Violence Partnership, a nonprofit where she focuses on complex, intrafamilial homicides that primarily affect people under age 30.
“I feel like it’s very important, even in this work — in general, social justice — that we have people who have lived experience,” she said. "What better person to help train police officers than someone who’s been through it?”
The Friday evening when the teens asked about cops eating doughnuts was the last session of a 14-week pilot program, put on by Van de Water and her partner, James Aye, a violence-prevention specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The program, Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout, or YEAH, aims to help teenagers build connections with police, forge meaningful friendships, and find jobs. It was recently granted 501(3)(c) nonprofit status.
Van de Water met Aye while she was working for the Police Advisory Commission in October 2018. The two felt there was a lack of meaningful programming in the city for teenagers beyond providing a space to play basketball — especially for teens in poverty-stricken neighborhoods like Cobbs Creek.
During the 14 weeks of YEAH programming, they had hour-long discussions on trauma, stress, the school-to-prison pipeline, sex education, and building a resumé. Teens got IDs so they could apply for jobs. But more important, if something was on their minds, students were allowed to say it, without fear of censorship.
“The main thing they say is ‘People don’t listen to us,’ ” Van de Water said. "They are trying to come into themselves and learn who they are, and just giving them that opportunity is important to me.”
As the boys filed into the large room inside the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center that Friday night in June, still sweaty from their pickup game of basketball, they grabbed slices of pizza and sat around three long tables pushed together.
Van de Water introduced Manson and Officer Markita Lorick, who asked the boys how many of them had a good interaction with police. Only one raised a hand.
It prompted a lively discussion on whether to get involved if fights break out, the legality of tinted windows on a car, and advice from the officers for students to always have their IDs on them.
“They know the police are there, but they have this mind frame that the police are against us," said Aye, 35. "I’m black. I’m living in poverty. Police beat everybody, police shoot and kill people. But that’s their biggest support in the community once they get to know them.”
Van de Water organized a basketball game between the youths and the police in the muggy basement of the rec center the Monday after that final Friday session. The police prevailed, 78-76. Despite an attempted three-pointer at the buzzer by the teens that was ruled no good, they remained in good spirits as they dapped with the officers and posed for a group photo.
“One of my favorite things is, at first they didn’t really know each other," Van de Water said, reflecting on the program. "Now we are at a comfort level where they can playfully make fun of each other and hold each other accountable.”
She often tracks down teens through word-of-mouth on the street, on their Instagram pages if they’re unresponsive to text, or even stopping by their homes. It’s this level of commitment that she believes makes the YEAH program stand out.
“We live and reside in and understand the neighborhoods that we work in,” she said.
She hopes to next take the teens on a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, as well as to the beach in Wildwood in August.
“They’re living these adult lives,” Van de Water said about black teens who grow up in poverty. “They’re not able to have fun. They’re not able to go to different places where they can be themselves. They have a lot of heavy stuff going on at home that they don’t like to talk about, or they don’t want other people to know, so these experiences for them are important because they don’t have to stress about that stuff in that moment."
Van de Water and Aye are currently paying out of pocket for the trips, as well as for the food they provide weekly. They said the cost is worth it, given that for many of the teens, it’s their only meal of the day.
The hope is now that the organization has 501(3)(c) status, YEAH will be able to receive grants for funding, and possibly get its own space in West Philadelphia to engage with more teens beyond Cobbs Creek.