LOS ANGELES — Beron Thompkins remembers his first encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department when he was a 12-year-old. He and his 14-year-old cousin were walking down the street in their south LA neighborhood when two policemen driving by asked them to pull up their shirts.
“We were minding our own business. They didn’t ask us where we were going and they didn’t tell us to stop,” Thompkins said. “My cousin said, ‘Ignore them.' So, we kept walking.”
Thompkins said the police then sped up, swerved in front of them and threw them onto the hood. The police told them they had received a call that two black men had just robbed a lady in a nearby park.
“We were children, not men,” Thompkins said. “It was around 100 degrees out and the hood of the police car was burning our skin.”
He said the police continued their investigation for another four hours while he and his cousin waited on the sidewalk. They were finally released, having convinced the police they were innocent.
In 2011, Thompkins enrolled as a freshman at south LA’s Dorsey High School, which has a heavy on-campus police presence to monitor gang-related activity. Given his negative encounters, the police presence at school did not help him feel protected.
“There’s a huge gang infestation there,” he said. “I wasn’t supported in the area. It’s not a safe environment.”
One day when Thompkins was at a football game against their rival, Manual Arts Senior High School, a gang member who was a Manual Arts student approached him.
“He was asking me if I gangbanged, and I said no, so they tried to jump me,” said Thompkins. “I told my friends what happened, and they told me I needed to join a gang so that these things wouldn’t happen.”
And from the 10th to 11th grade, Thompkins did. At 15, he was arrested for theft and burglary, and put on probation and house arrest.
“The police and my peers at my school made me feel uncomfortable, and I wasn’t feeling safe anymore,” Thompkins said. “The gang was supposed to give me some kind of protection.”
Once he was on probation, Thompkins began homeschooling. Spending every day at home, he did not have much to do except his schoolwork until the LA County Probation Department suggested he try an alternative program.
He joined the BLOOM initiative (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men), which aims to create productive futures for 14- to 18-year-old south LA-based black males referred by the department. With grants from the nonprofit California Community Foundation, BLOOM invests in community-based organizations that provide academic and employment opportunities for participants.
Thompkins was assigned to the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) in August 2014. He works in the Urban Scholars program three days a week, participating in workshops covering SAT and ACT prep, understanding history, emancipation and civil rights, as well as team-building exercises. He also takes on civic engagement exercises such as speaking to state legislators on policy issues, which included a Boys and Men of Color Alliance Summit in Sacramento, Calif., last June.
At the summit, Thompkins talked about the challenges he continues to face with the criminal justice system as a black male youth.
“My peers may not feel like they can do these things,” he later said of the event. “No adults spoke. It was us, the minors, telling legislators what we wanted. And that what we want is change.”
One of Thompkins' mentors is Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza, who founded the institute in 2008. After watching Thompkins speak at the summit, Scorza praised his growth throughout his time at the SJLI.
“Beron landed on probation because of the environment he was in and the lack of opportunities that were available to him,” Scorza said. “As he shared his story, I saw him light up and help influence the way legislators think about his conditions and what they can do to help better support black male youth like Beron.”
BLOOM, a $5 million, five-year initiative of the CCF, was developed in May 2012 through a partnership with community members who serve as an advisory committee. It serves as a response to the high dropout, recidivism, imprisonment and death rates faced by young black males in the U.S.
In their lifetime, one in four black men will be involved with the criminal justice system, while white youth have a juvenile felony arrest rate that is 16 times smaller, according to the group. Correspondingly, while black male youth represent 10 percent of the youth population of LA County, they compose more than 30 percent of all youth under probation supervision, are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college, and more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated than any other segment of the population.
Lawayne Williams, project manager for BLOOM, said systemic racism is why his program is necessary to help black male youth, especially those who have been put on probation before they turn 18.
“This is a population that is often victimized, oftentimes forgotten. These are the students that tend to fall through the cracks in the juvenile justice system,” Williams said. “We try to make sure they get access to the resources they don’t often have and that every one of our students is on track to graduate and move toward a career.”
Because BLOOM focuses on black male youth in the concentrated region of south LA, rather than that of the nation as a whole, the program is more efficient, he said. “South Los Angeles is already a large enough area and there are many challenges associated with it ... When you look at a smaller area, you can take specific strategies to solve problems and cater to the needs of that area. It’s a more feasible model.”
To measure its success, BLOOM’s advisory committee corresponds with students in the program as well as their mentors to check on the students’ progress.
So far, evaluation reports show the program is doing well. Seventy-two percent of students in the program attend school regularly — a 17 percent jump from last year. Eighty-nine percent have not been suspended from school since participating in the program, which corresponds with the 90 percent of students who have not violated their probation.
Scorza said the model has proven to be effective for students like Thompkins. “The boys and men of color living in south LA and involved in probation have a number of issues and concerns that are often not appreciated and recognized when we are establishing policies that punish this behavior,” Scorza said. “In the meantime, [BLOOM] allows us to address those challenges with a context of the educational work that we do.”
With Thompkins especially, Scorza said he had witnessed a change in behavior over his time with the program. “Beron is phenomenal and we are really proud of him,” he said. “He’s grown more and more interested in his own future and in becoming a leader in the community.”
Thompkins said the institute helped him see how he could make the best of his circumstances as a black male youth in an impoverished neighborhood.
“They teach us what we need to know so we can take over and spread the word,” he said. “I understand more about my community and how to help improve it.”
In this way, Thompkins said, the program empowered him to take control of his future. “We are learning how to do things other than play basketball and play music or something like other programs. Instead, we’re taught that we can do anything we want to do and our voices matter.”
A high school senior in his independent study program, Thompkins is starting to consider college. “I would like to go to college and do some type of engineering, possibly music engineering,” he said. “I know that I can.”