Backpack, Hoodie & Sneakers Town Hall event bridges the gap between youth & community leaders

Published 10:49 am Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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NEW ORLEANS — When homicide sergeant and NEX Metropolitan founder Robert Walsh responded to an active school shooting in Texas, the subject description that came across the radio was hauntingly vague: “African American male — backpack, hoodie and sneakers.”

As a police officer, a mentor and a parent, Walsh contemplated how a common style of dress and the implicit biases associated with it could be viewed from multiple lenses. It inspired him to put together “Backpack, Hoodie, and Sneakers,” a program that focuses on communication, cultural awareness and education to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and teens.

“As an officer, it sucks to have to stop any kid that looks remotely similar to our suspect, but it’s something that we have to do. I also understand that kids like hoodies and backpacks. It’s fashion for them. I see both sides as a Black man and as an officer and as a mentor,” Walsh said. “I wanted to do something to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community. We are always trying to find an opportunity to learn about each other.”

To bring the program back to his home state of Louisiana, Walsh partnered with former classmate Shalinda Austin, a member of the W.R. Grace team in Norco and “FoundHer” of the nonprofit organization “We’re Going ToGetHer & Show Her Everything.”

The 2023 Backpack, Hoodie and Sneaker Town Hall was held on January 14 at Bonnabel High School. Youth from Monroe to New Orleans were present at the event, representing East St. John, Riverside Academy, Lutcher, John Curtis Christian, Nevell, Bonnabel, Chalmette, Ascension and Donaldsonville high schools.

St. John Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre, licensed clinicial social worker Deishonda Greenwood of LaPlace and Edgard native Dr. Reginald Ross, regional chief clinic officer, were among the familiar local faces who served as panelists for the event.

Panelists also included community leader Glynda Williams, Dr. Jeffrey Fobbs Jr. of National Organization for Black Law Enforcement/ NEX, Judicial District Court Judge June Berry Darensburg, and social justice advocate Sullivan Walter. Johnathane Gaffney served as moderator.

More than 80 youth attendees received Zion Williamson Jordans, Footlocker Jordan backpacks and NEX Metropolitan hoodies. The town hall also included giveaways for gift cards and prizes.

During the event, parents were invited to attend an educational component on gun storage safety geared toward adults, hosted by the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement in collaboration with NOPD.

Workforce development and STEM resources were also available on site.

While the first Backpack, Hoodie and Sneakers event in Texas was geared toward young males, Austin thought it was important for the 2023 event reach all groups, from boys and girls to mothers and fathers and local leaders.

“Our ‘why’ is building healthy communities. We wanted to present an opportunity to view everybody through each other’s lenses so we could have an understanding of each other and make change,” Austin said. “My belief is that you need to get to know people; we can’t continue to be afraid of each other. We are more alike that we are separate, and once you get to know somebody, you have the opportunity to understand them. Once you understand them, you can love them. The only thing that is going to bring our community, our households, our generation together is love.”

One of the student attendees shared her testimony after the event: “Many people have a negative perspective on backpacks, hoodies and sneakers because of their suspicions. But when we look at what these three things symbolize with their purposes, we learn to look at them in a positive light. The backpack’s purpose is to carry and secure your things. This can signify security instead of suspicion. A hoodie’s purpose is to keep you warm and comfortable. This can symbolize comfort instead of cynicism. The sneakers’ purpose is to protect your feet in whatever stylish fashion you like. This can symbolize identity instead of irrelevance.  Backpacks, hoodies and sneakers are all a part of the black culture used to represent social standing, wealth, popularity and even to make political statements. Therefore, the idea of these three things should be embraced instead of criticized.”

Walsh said the event assured him that kids are listening, and making connections is the first step toward making a difference.

“One kid told his mother, ‘I need to change who I hang with.’ That let me know we’ve reached one,” Walsh said. “Another kid came up and said he didn’t know if he wanted to come because he was supposed to have a basketball game that day, but he was glad that he came because he enjoyed it so much.”

Other contributors of the 2023 Backpack, Hoodie and Sneakers Town Hall included the following: Footlocker, BSN, Coca-Cola, Hampton Inn & Suites New Orleans, Walmart/Sam’s, Councilman Dominick F. Impastato III, Senator Troy Carter, the New Orleans Pelicans, Chick-fil-A, Reginald Brown– videography, Katherine Kimball – Photography, Gerald Washington – DJ, Jasmine Robertson – balloon décor, Dr. Dickerson – STEM production engineering, Louisiana Workforce Development, People’s Organization for Social Equality, NOBLE/NOPD, Forever Care Resource Center, Bourg’s Signs, Absolute Health Inc., Chase Bank, W.R. Grace – Norco, SAI-PR Firm/ToGetHer, River Parish Disposal, college volunteers, and anonymous donors.