Niayla-dia knows better than most that one person can ignite real change. She saw the impact that Trayvon Martin’s death had on our country, and the domino effect that Malala Yousafzai’s activism has created worldwide. In her activism, she regularly brings together police officers and youth of color to discuss their biases and hear one another’s stories. The future attorney describes her achievements as small, but her work to end police brutality is sparking conversations about race, community, and empathy across Philadelphia. That’s a big contribution in our opinion.
College: Drexel University
Major: Philosophy and Political Science
Expected Graduation Year: Spring 2020
Was there a certain moment or experience that made you realize the lack of awareness about police brutality in the US and the need for the law enforcement institution to be reformed?
In my freshman year of high school, my older brother came home and told my mother he was pulled over because he resembled a suspect police were looking for. He was only cleared of suspicion because another officer had found the suspect near the scene of the crime, which my brother was extremely far from. My interracial parents expressed their distaste with the experience my brother had undergone, but they were afraid of what could have happened as well. I had not paid a lot of attention to police officers before this moment. You could say I was in “blissful ignorance” of law enforcement.
Soon after, the case of Trayvon Martin was publicized in the media. Not long after, the case of Eric Garner was as well. These stories made me think about the day my older brother was pulled over. What if he was not lucky enough to have the actual suspect arrested? What would have happened to him? I found myself filled with rage as the stories of police brutality continued to be publicized. I was angered further when I noticed the media would lose interest in cases that were still ongoing. It was as if cases of police brutality were only being used to garner views, without a call to reform the system that is continuing to hurt and harm people.
Luckily, I was offered the opportunity to be part of a testing group for the “Policing in a More Perfect Union” program that was steadily being developed by the National Constitution Center. It aimed to create an open exchange of ideas and beliefs between the recruits/officers and students. Law enforcement officials can be seen as the figures of our society that demand authority, but in the discussions I led with students, and the discussions other students led, we were the ones demanding authority. It was through this exchange that I found I could make a difference, even if the difference may be small.
How could the public most effectively advocate for more media coverage of police brutality?
There are numerous ways to advocate for more coverage on police brutality, but the most appropriate would be to approach media outlets that are interested in compelling stories, such as those about groups or organizations working on the issue. Social platforms also allow for issues to gain more attention through reposting and sharing. I would also advise people who care about police brutality to research nonprofit organizations in their area that are focused on law enforcement reform; a larger organization would have more connections and an ability to draw the media’s attention through their larger-scale activism.
Through my work, I have found that students and the youth typically have more time to dedicate to causes. And it is especially important that the voices of the present continue to speak on issues that have not been solved. As the future leaders of this world, it is our responsibility to make sure that the current events do not continue to echo the mistakes of the past.
What impact do training programs like “Policing in a More Perfect Union” have on police officers and students? Why is expanding programs like these important?
Typically, officers and recruits have a preconceived notion that the students they will be having a discussion with will dislike them. It’s not uncommon to see them wary, but it’s this moment of wariness that I love to compare to the moment of friendliness at the end of the conversations. It’s as if it’s a regular discussion amongst citizens of a community. In all actuality, it is a conversation amongst regular citizens. Officers are active members of their own communities, whether they are wearing their uniform or not. They’re people, first and foremost. The warmth shown afterwards between two groups who have reached an understanding shows that the public-police dialogue is possible, and able to be productive. It shows the promise of change and progress. The program itself allows officers to take away what they’ve learned and apply it properly to their own communities and policing practices. It calls for a moment of self-reflection not just on their own behavior, but the behavior of their colleagues.
For the students, it allows for their self-confidence in their ability to make a change to grow. But most importantly, the students are taught to be reactive listeners. Just because you are able to hear someone speak does not mean you are listening to or understanding what they have to say. Students are able to listen to the officers’ words and then properly convey their thoughts in response to what they understood was being said. They get to take these skills and use them in classroom and public settings.
It has affected me long-term, as my confidence has been utilized in working on the expansion of the program. I’ll never forget what one officer in particular said to me after the discussion was finished. She told me, “Conversations like these need to happen everywhere. They’re needed. We have to talk about what issues are in our practices and find a common ground and eliminate the hatred.” She could not have been more correct.
How do you hope to continue to be involved in combating police brutality in the US in the future?
In the very short term future, I will still be actively working on the program itself. I hope to help the program expand to a city-wide program that all students from Philadelphia would be able to participate in.
Long term, I am aiming to become an attorney. I’d like to be able to do pro bono work on civil rights issues and police brutality cases. Not every person who has been wrongfully treated is able to afford an attorney, but a lack of income should not be a barrier to justice. “Policing in a More Perfect Union” may not need me forever, but I will continue to work against police brutality for a long time.
What, in your opinion, is your biggest achievement to date?
I would say one of my biggest achievements is being able to speak on stage at the 2014 Liberty Medal Ceremony for Malala Yousafzai. Meeting her while I was still in high school definitely influenced me to fight for what I believe in. I was motivated to be one of the leads in starting the expansion of the program to other schools and to begin the progress of integrating the newly acquired schools. Helping to give other students the opportunity to have a productive discussion with officers about law enforcement practices has by far been one of my biggest achievements to date.
While Malala’s experience and my own differ greatly, she did show me that progress is progress, regardless of how big or small it may be. For this very reason, I try to make sure the students I do interact with understand that as well. They may feel their participation in the program leads to very small achievements, but that does not take away the fact that the achievements are achievements in and of themselves. I want to stress that the students are so important to this program; they are the liaisons of the community. Without them, this program would not be possible.
What would you say to college women hoping to bring about change regarding issues that they are passionate about?
Do not underestimate yourself. Yes, you are young, a woman, and a college student, but none of these labels should prevent you from pursuing a cause you are passionate about and bringing about change. The very fact that you are passionate about an issue is the starting point you need. Where would you go from here? If you care about a particular issue, it's more than likely that you are not the only one. It then becomes a matter of what will you do about it? This can be anything, no matter how big or small. It can be starting an organization on your campus dedicated to that particular cause, or using your social media platform to bring awareness to the issue.
As young women, we are typically put down due to stereotypes about our gender and age. It can be scary to go and pursue an issue you are passionate about, because there are people out there who (sadly) go out of their way to put you down. But don’t let the haters try to dictate what you should and should not do. Follow your own intuition, and soon they’ll see they were wrong to doubt you. This world cannot progress without change. It’s a matter of who is brave enough to make change about prevalent issues. Let that person be you!
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Determined, Motivated, Courageous, Charismatic and Confident.
Elizabeth is a second year student at Durham University, studying Sociology and Anthropology. She is currently a News x Social Media Intern at HC headquarters in Boston and has been involved in the Durham University chapter of Her Campus since January 2018.