The unusual art project that brought together the young people of Medicine Wheel Productions and members of the Boston Police Department began with a fair degree of apprehension on both sides.
Actually, on the April day that they all got together for the first time, one young woman took one look in the room and refused to enter. “I can’t go in there,” she said, pointing out a detective she recognized. “She’s arrested me three times.”
Eight young people and eight officers had been thrown together by Medicine Wheel founder Michael Dowling and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans. “Hand in Hand,” as the program was named, called for the two groups to spend a Saturday making art together. But the real point was for the two groups to meet outside their normal roles, and try to see one another as people, rather than simply as cops and perpetrators.
Medicine Wheel is a Southie fixture, an institution that uses art as a catalyst for social change. It brings together an incredibly diverse group of teenagers and young adults from across the city who use its programs as a form of self-expression combined with social activism.
Many of the people who pass through its doors have history, bad history, with the police. And Dowling, as is his habit, saw that as a barrier to be broken down. He pitched the idea of working directly with police officers to Evans, who loved it.
The day began with a meditation session. This was followed by the centerpiece, a joint project in which each of the kids was paired off with a police officer.
The pairs worked together to make plastic casts of their hands joined together, in a symbol of the unity the event was intended to promote.
“It’s this initiative to reach across boundaries and hopefully break some of those boundaries down,” Dowling said.
After the casting, the group went to a nearby photo studio, where the officers and the kids spent the afternoon taking pictures together. By days’s end, they were trading phone numbers, and the officers were giving the kids rides home. Both groups report they have kept in touch.
“Being a young man of color, there’s a problem with the power and the law, lawful power,’’ said Shane Hampton, 23, of Medicine Wheel. “So we were really taking that step to get to know the police. But at the end we were all cool. We saw them as human beings and dads and uncles and cousins.”
Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston was in charge of recruiting the officers who took part. The officers had initially been nearly as wary as the young people, but she was surprised how quickly the resistance melted. She’s been working on community engagement for years, but she thought this one affected its participants in a deeper way than many of the other activities she’s been involved with.
“It brings the culture of community policing to another level,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything connect like that. Everyone was down on the same level when it came to art. It really broke a wall down.”
Evans and Dowling say they want the program to keep going. “I’d like for 100 of my officers to do this by the end of the year,” Evans said. “This sort of symbolizes the relationship that we have and that we want to have.”
Dowling said the groups are currently working out how to collaborate more often, bringing in more participants. “For that day it was very life-changing,” he said. “Then there’s an urgency to how do we maintain what that relationship can be and how do we build on this dialogue.”
The officers and the youth have continued to encounter each other on the street, but they see one another through different eyes. “Every morning when I see a cop now I try to say hi,” Hampton said. “I’m trying to better the situation.”