For decades, despite serving thousands of youth around the country, the National Police Athletic/Activities League (National PAL) isn't well known in many communities. As discussions around policing and law enforcement interactions have taken center stage in recent months, the group is continuing to move forward with a message that reiterates it as the world’s foremost leader in engaging kids, cops, and community.
Never has that message been more appropriate than the Voices of Youth Community Town Hall Series that began in late August and will continue with a dozen events through October. The 12-city Town Hall Series provides a voice for young people to discuss topics such as social justice, racism, equality, law enforcement relations, education reform, and activism directly with key stakeholders in their communities. Each event includes a variety of panelists, including chiefs of police or sheriff, elected officials, government representatives, community advocates, sports figures or other celebrities, and other key decision-makers. Of course, the young people in the communities figure prominently as well.
At a recent Series stop in Houston, Texas, supported by the area’s PAL chapter, local young people led the discussion as moderators and question-askers, where they were joined by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Microsoft Citizenship and Market Development Director Raamel Mitchell, and former NBA legend Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, among others.
The young people were given a chance to connect directly with these key stakeholders, asking honest and pointed questions on race in policing, law enforcement interactions, business development, and much more. The panelists were able to hear the voices of young people in their communities and share their insights, experiences, and hopes for a better path forward.
This Town Hall Series is the latest outreach program offered by National PAL as it works to fulfill its mission to “...aid in the preventing of juvenile crime and violence by providing mentorship, civic/service, athletic, recreational, enrichment and educational opportunities and resources to PAL Membership Chapters.”
The very first PAL chapter was founded in New York City in 1914.
“It was birthed from the standpoint of law enforcement officers seeing kids out in the street sometimes being kids, but sometimes getting into mischievous things,” said National PAL CEO Jeff Hood. “There were some officers who said, ‘Let’s try to get you into some more appropriate behavior.’ They got them involved in playing baseball, and basketball, and football. So kids started gravitating to it.”
Over the years, the initiative that would become known as the Police Athletic League continued to morph and evolve, eventually spreading to other areas of the city and the eastern seaboard. Roughly 75 years ago, the National PAL was founded to oversee the PAL chapters and provide additional support.
As time went on, the scope of the program was expanded.
“Not every young person plays athletics, so what are some of the other things that we can endeavor into,” said Hood. “After-school programs, horticulture, horseback riding, STEM, robotics all started taking off.”
While not offered at every chapter, the list of available on the National PAL website includes 14 different athletic-based opportunities, 20 character development and educational programs, and 20 different activities in the arts.
Today, there are more than 300 local PAL chapters in 47 states serving a total of 1.5 million kids annually. In some areas, PAL may be the only activity or athletic program available for young people.
While the popularity has dropped off over the years, one of the earliest and most popular programs involved the “sweet science”.
“Back in the day, one of the things that PAL was uniquely known for was its boxing program,” Hood said. “Our boxing program was second to none, including Golden Gloves.”
Among the PAL alumni who have made their mark in the ring are Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, and George Foreman.
The list of well-known figures to come out of PAL programs extends well beyond boxing. Two of the top 11 picks in this year’s NFL Draft were PAL participants: Jeff Okudah and Mehki Becton. Budding NBA superstar Damian Lillard, former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, talk show host Larry King, and singer Alicia Keyes are just a few of the PAL alumni who have moved on to do great things.
In addition, National PAL has partnered with groups such as the NBA, Major League Baseball, Microsoft, SportsEngine, and many others to provide opportunities and resources to local chapters and the youth they serve. Support is also provided by national PAL ambassadors such as actors Vivica A. Fox and Tommy Davidson, Tennessee Titans player Walt Aikens, NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, and Black-ish actor Miles Brown.
While support is provided at the national level, it is the 300-plus local chapters that engage directly with the youth they serve. Whether housed in their own facilities or using schools or other spaces, these programs are often staffed by volunteers from local law enforcement agencies, and sometimes operate under the direction and supervision of a police or sheriff department. In other cases, an independent local group may start a chapter, though they must always have a partnership with a local law enforcement agency.
The local chapters provide a safe and secure environment for young people to engage in athletics and activities, with outreach often made to school guidance counselors, principals, and school resource officers to promote the programs to children in the area.
By involving law enforcement in coaching, volunteering, and mentoring, the PAL chapters work to bridge the divide in the communities with structured out-of-school activities featuring a stated goal to, “...effectively increase social-emotional skills development, positive classroom behavior, school attendance, and high school graduation rates, helping youth to excel in their future.” These opportunities also provide an example of positive interaction between law enforcement and young people, especially those of color.
The National PAL has hosted a Youth Leadership and Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C. for several years, where nearly 700 kids not only connect and take part in sessions at the event, but also conduct a “march” on Capital Hill to connect with elected officials from their communities to talk about things important to young people.
With the current pandemic forcing the cancelation of that event, the Voices of Youth Community Town Hall Series was born. Guided by a diverse leadership group of staff and board members, the National PAL will continue the series in coming weeks. Anyone is welcome to take part in the events, regardless of membership in a local PAL group. For a schedule of events, more information, and to view the video sessions, visit https://www.nationalpal.org/page/show/5919196-voices-of-youth.
Providing not only activity and athletic opportunities, but a voice for youth continues to be an important part of National PAL’s mission.
“I just think that across the country in times that we find ourselves in now, it’s always fashionable as adults to consider the dynamics of what is going on, but unfortunately a lot of times the voice that is left behind, not considered, not invited to the table to be heard from is the voice of the young person.”
If you are interested in starting a local chapter of PAL or learning more about the organization, head over to www.nationalpal.org/membership.