MCKEESPORT, Pa. — On Nov. 16, Penn State Greater Allegheny welcomed three "overcomers,” individuals who experienced loss and trauma because of policing actions. Each shared their stories and insights as part of the 2021-22 Crossing Bridges Summit, “Examining Police Reform: Conversations about the Pittsburgh Community Task Force for Police Reform and its Implications for the Mon Valley.” The event was the second of a three-part series produced and broadcast on WPSU. The series is available at watch.psu.edu/crossingbridges.
Eric Ewell, director of community engagement at Penn State Greater Allegheny, moderated the event. Joining him were panelists Leon Ford, chief executive officer, Leon Ford Speaks; Michelle Kenney, director and founder, Antwon Rose II Foundation; and Samaria Rice, founder and chief executive officer, Tamir Rice Foundation. Ford, Kenney and Rice intentionally work as advocates to support their communities and speak for those who cannot.
The panelists' conversations, tinged with sadness, frustration, disbelief and hope, gave rise to the role community, mentorship, passion, reflection and legacy play in their lives. "It was an honor for our panelists to trust me with their experiences and hearts," said Ewell.
Ford was shot in the back five times by a Pittsburgh police officer during a traffic stop when he was 19 years of age. The incident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
"I was shot by a police officer; it's not my story, it's just part of my story," said Ford. "I was raised to be the man I was raised to be. I didn't give up. I think that is what a lot of you all see in the work that I do, someone who was able to adapt, despite my circumstances, to adversity that I was faced with. Someone who is creative in finding solutions and bringing people together."
Bringing people together is one way Ford is a resource for others. "I really have a heart for healing," said Ford. "I have a heart for working with people who may think differently than me."
Ford is driven to be resilient and take care of his mental health. He minimizes the negative things he sees on his social media timeline and focuses on his routine.
"I'm very intentional about how I live my life," said Ford. "One, I go to therapy. I love therapy. Going to therapy has changed my life in an immense way. I have a loving family, a very supportive family. The other thing is I have a life outside of the movement."
As Ford reflected on the movement, he noted, "unfortunately a lot of activists, a lot of these attorneys and civil rights leaders, this is like a profession for them, it's a movement for them. It's not a movement for us. It's our lives."
As a mentor to others, Ford encourages young people, "whenever adversity finds you, or you find adversity, there is impermanence, it is not going to last long. As long as they are focused on a bigger picture, they can overcome, and they will overcome and succeed."
Kenney is the mother of Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old young man who was shot and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer in 2018. Kenney worked in a local law enforcement department, beginning in 1999. Soon after she started, she watched 23 men and women come together to stop a mass shooting, noting, "I became engrossed in the good and bad of policing."
Since losing her son, Kenney shared how challenging it is to keep fighting some days.
"There are days that I want to give up and walk away," said Kenney. "There are days I question why other people, whether they are pastors, law enforcement people, politicians. … I wonder why they are not in this fight a little heavier."
Kenney continued, "My daughter doesn't have her brother. I am constantly, and I mean constantly, having very difficult conversations with my 7-year-old granddaughter, explaining to her why her uncle is no longer here. She has very vivid memories of him teaching her how to ride a bike, them playing basketball. Thank God for technology because we still have videos, photos and memories."
Kenney relies heavily on her support network, the community, and her faith to help guide her through her darkest hours.
“Community for me exists far beyond just activists and people marking in the street,” Kenney said. “It is the people that protect my space, protect my peace, protect my home, my sanity.
Kenney concluded her comments acknowledging the approaching holidays and the difficulties they bring to families, especially to moms. “I’m grateful with the understanding that I’m only standing by the grace of God, but there are a lot of moms and a lot of family members that don’t make it over the years. I want people to remember that and be mindful in their actions.”
Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot by Cleveland police, reflected on her tragedy and how her work in communities comes with much more than people think.
"We talk about the tragedy and the pain and everything else that comes with this," said Rice. "People in the community need to understand that is very delicate and while some respect the legacy, others don't."
Community is something that Rice is thankful for. According to her, the international community that has formed around her has stood up in times where she could not and has supported not just her but other activists in the community.
However, while people stand up for Rice, Rice refers to her tragedy as something that changed her normal lifestyle.
“I'm not able to be normal anymore,” said Rice. “I would like to be normal, but the normal for me went out the window.”
“My DNA has changed because of what happened to me and my family,” said Rice. “My family is broken. My children are not doing well. My brother and my sister and my father are not doing well. It's going on seven years.”
In his position at Penn State Greater Allegheny, Ewell oversees Project G.A.M.E (Giving Adolescents Meaningful Experiences). The program works with youth in Community Intensive Supervision Programs and local high schools to create a student-centered experience allowing participants to become vested in their personal growth. Ewell asked the panelists to share a message with the youth and how they can be safe.
“I don’t think it’s the child’s place to figure out how the world should be a safer place for them, but the generations before them,” said Kenney.
Ford agreed. “It’s up to us to make them safe. When the flower doesn’t bloom, we fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
Ford further encouraged youth to decide their fate and be wise in the choices they make. “You can choose, I want this person to be my mentor, or I don’t want to be around these friends. Five years ago, if I would have chosen to be around certain friends over others, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.”
When he thanked the panelists for joining the conversation, Ewell remarked, “what I'm understanding with all three of you is that having been thrust into this whole process is that you all now have gained the knowledge that you need to become the advocate. I'm grateful that you have taken that extra step.”
"I think that we are creating a world that we want to live in," said Ford. "There is a lot changing every day. I encourage people listening (to the panel) to get involved wherever your passion lies."
Penn State Greater Allegheny will continue it work with community partners to increase awareness of and address police reform on Thursday, Feb. 3, from 3 to 4:30 p.m., with "Voices from the Judicial System and Police.” The event will be broadcast live at https://www.watch.psu.edu/crossingbridges.
Immediately following the event, people are invited to attend the Summit Talks on Zoom. To receive the link to the Summit Talk, visit https://www.ga.psu.edu/summittalks.
The Crossing Bridges Summit began in 2017. It is comprised of five pillars: the Speakers Series, Summit Talks, student-led Unity Talks, a Visiting Scholar program, and a Task Force on Racial Equity and Justice. For more information, visit https://www.greaterallegheny.psu.edu/cbsummit.