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Brittany Packnett: It’s ‘critical’ to listen to young voices

Brittany Packnett, Teach for America–St. Louis' executive director, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on March 18, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio
Brittany Packnett, Teach for America–St. Louis' executive director, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Wednesday at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.";

Teachers are typically well informed. They know how and where to track down data, they brainstorm ideas and they work with people.

So when Brittany Packnett, Teach for America–St. Louis’ executive director, was named to the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, she was in for a few surprises.

President Barack Obama created the task force in December after a series of incidents in which unarmed people were killed by police officers, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The task force is part of an effort to strengthen community policing and build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. Its members held several listening sessions in Washington, D.C.

“I think one of the things that has been encouraging is how many people are coming to the table with real ideas,” she told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “I was certainly, I think, surprised by the amount of data that is missing about this. We can’t actually tell an accurate story about what’s happening if there’s no data.”

Earlier this month, the task force released an interim report with several recommendations for the nation’s law enforcement agencies. But their work is not done, Packnett said. “We certainly have work to do right here at home.”

Given her background, it’s not surprising that Packnett is a champion for students and emphasizes education in her work with the Ferguson Commission and the president’s task force.

“The first time I actually got to talk to the president, I mentioned the fact that in Ferguson I was standing on West Florissant peacefully demonstrating and was actually tear gassed for the first time next to an eighth-grader,” she said. “This is directly affecting students. And we’ve seen so many incredible young leaders decide to actually take action inside and outside of their schools to make sure that their voices are heard.”

The Ferguson Commission has held meetings specifically addressing education, including one in which students and young leaders were the only speakers.

“I think they’re critical,” Packnett said of young voices. “They are the reason why I got into education work in the first place. They’re the reason why on Aug. 10 I went out to the Ferguson Police Department to pray with so many other members of the community. They’re the reason why I continue to go out there.

“I think that if we are serious about handing them a future in which they are not only empowered as learners but empowered as leaders and that they’re alive to go and lead in the way that they are uniquely positioned to do so, we have to listen to them. Answering questions for them and on their behalf without actually seeking out their truth is just not the way that we need to move forward. That’s been the status quo thus far, and it’s no longer satisfactory.”

Being both a protester and a commission member means she has a better understanding of how people are feeling and communicating, Packnett said.

“I think one very clearly has to inform the other,” she said. “I will never be silent about what happened to us on those nights. I will never not stand up with our young people. They can’t lead if they’re not alive to do so. They can’t learn if they’re not alive to do so.”

The president’s task force has released a set of recommendations and the Ferguson Commission is expected to do the same by September. In its report, the task force recommended independent prosecutors investigate cases where police officers use deadly force; that police officers are trained to combat implicit bias; and that police forces are diverse and accurately reflect the communities they serve. Will those recommendations be acted on? Packnett said she’s hopeful.

“I continue to not just put my hope in the political and kind of policy process, I continue to put my hope in people,” she said. “I have a lot of hope in the policy process here, but I have a lot of hope and faith in people.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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