By Sarah J. Atunah-Jay, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Mayo Clinic; Darlene Fry, EdD, Executive Director, Irreducible Grade Foundation
Group: In the beginning my heart . . .
Irreducible Grace Foundation (IGF): Felt like it was in right place, but my mind led with skepticism and doubt.
Law Enforcement (LE): I was optimistic and uncertain. I knew we (law enforcement) needed this interaction with IGF. I thought that we were not going to be given a fair shake to explain why we do what we do. I was wrong.
IGF: Are these people here because they want to or have they been assigned a community service project?
LE: My heart is full and dedicated to this work.
IGF: Are they comfortable?
LE: My heart is soft and I have made myself and my life vulnerable.
LE: Which is what was needed.
IGF: Anxious, Excited, Interested?
LE: Breaking down barriers and obstacles one event at a time.
IGF: Or do they feel nothing at all?
These words are the reflections of young adult leaders of the Saint Paul-based Irreducible Grace Foundation (IGF) and Twin Cities law enforcement officers during collaborative work to develop a customized trauma-informed, youth-focused mental health first aid program. Supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) program, the polarized groups engaged in structured perspective taking while learning about youth mental health and partnering to plan steps forward.
Since 2013, IGF has worked with Twin Cities youth, particularly youth of color and youth who are aging out of foster care or state guardianship, to become highly successful adults. IGF uses theater methods to engage youth to share experiences to promote personal growth and healing, and to positively impact their communities and public policy. In 2016, IGF began working in the area of mindfulness, including healing from trauma. During the same time, with the assistance of a Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputy, IGF leaders developed Handcuffs to Handshakes (H2H), a workshop aimed at providing a structured environment for youth and law enforcement to pursue perspective taking around antagonistic and dangerous community interactions. Aimed at reducing fear on both sides of the gun, H2H presented a timely opportunity for Saint Paul youth and law enforcement to meet to discuss community policing in the wake of Philando Castile’s death in June of 2016.
In 2017, informed by H2H, IGF partnered with the Saint Paul Police Department and Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to pursue a collaborative effort around trauma-informed, youth-focused mental health community response. As first-line responders, law enforcement often encounters youth experiencing a mental health crisis and are tasked with providing a constructive response that maintains the safety of all involved. Yet, poor relationships between youth and law enforcement can escalate encounters and perpetuate fear and mistrust between the two groups. Titled IGF Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), the initiative provided an opportunity for structured and sustained contact between Saint Paul youth and law enforcement communities.
Over the course of four months, a planning team of IGF leaders and law enforcement participated in seven interactive sessions focused on perspective taking through storytelling and journaling. Two sessions were dedicated to the group collaboratively participating in the 8-hour USA Youth MHFA training which introduced common mental health challenges for youth, reviewed typical adolescent development, and engaged the group in a five-step action plan to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations.
A variety of outcomes resulted from the collaboration. At the end of the process IGF hosted Respect-Fest, which included a group presentation and a cookout. Subsequent efforts influenced by IGF MHFA include Attack the Stigma, a workshop developed by an IGF leader to address the stigma of mental illness; a five-workshop series called Healing From Trauma offered by IGF; and several grant applications.
The collaborative work between IGF and law enforcement left each group with a greater understanding of the other. Planning process success was promoted by IGF leader mindfulness training, additional separate meetings for IGF leaders, buy-in from law enforcement administration, and sustained interaction between participants. IGF continues to work with law enforcement in order that “safe spaces” extend beyond the four walls of program space into the community in which IGF youth spend most of their hours.
“Something shifted or changed in me when I first told my story of becoming a police officer. I never tied my emotions to why I was drawn to the profession. Speaking it aloud made it possible to mold my path in the profession to why I wanted to protect people so long ago. Taking a different path in an effort to heal and protect is my personal goal as a law enforcement officer. If I can make positive connections throughout my career, hopefully the positive relationships will transfer to the profession and the community as a whole.” (Law enforcement participant)
“Something shifted or changed in me when the officers we were meeting with drove up (in the neighborhood) just to say, “Hi.” In that moment, I realized that I had to look at more than just the uniform but also the individual wearing the uniform. But it took me getting to know the officers for me to see that they are not the enemy or opposition and they are in it for the right reasons and they continue to do this work to make a difference.” (IGF participant)