- All I wanted was a haircut,
but the moment I walked into the barbershop
someone teased me by saying,
"Uh-oh, 5-0 is in the building."
Soon I was talking about matters related to the police force
with the barbers, a pastor, a young man,
and a community leader.
As it turned out,
the conversation was humanizing, candid, and refreshing.
That experience gave me an idea.
I launched a program called Cops and Barbers
where police officers in uniform
visit barbershops around the city
and spark authentic conversations
with the hairdressers and their clients,
the people we promise to protect and to serve.
It's a liberating experience
when we step into community spaces
and have honest conversations about our common concerns.
We are able to see the shared humanity that bridges us
and not so much what divides us.
Hi, my name is Omar Salem.
I'm a police sergeant and a SWAT team leader
with the City of Napa, California,
and a practicing Muslim.
Let me share with you my story.
A few years ago,
I was assigned as a school resource officer
at a local high school
where rival gang members were fighting
in an endless cycle of an eye for an eye.
It got to the point
where we could not arrest our way out of the problem.
Something had to change.
I thought I'd be able to relate to these teens
because I'm the son of parents
who fled the war in Iraq and Afghanistan
and moved to America.
I grew up surrounded by Latino culture.
My stepmom was Mexican (speaks in foreign language)
and I learned to connect with people
from very different backgrounds.
So I sat down with the rival gang members at school
and we talked about what they needed
to break the cycle of violence
and how we might bring about change.
I realized what they were really looking for
was a sense of belonging and validation.
In each of them, I saw a Malcolm.
Let me explain.
Malcolm X was an African American Muslim
whose short life was full of radical transformations.
He started as an idealistic boy
in an all-white grammar school
whose dreams of becoming a lawyer were shattered
by the murder of his father
and a racist schoolteacher.
Then came the rebellious Malcolm Little,
a youth who landed in prison
for larceny and breaking and entering.
In prison, he began to read
and embrace the life of the mind
that transformed him into the man we know as Malcolm X,
who became a leader in the nation of Islam,
a black nationalist religious movement.
- [Malcolm X] Or freedom for nobody.
- Based on his early life
and the doctrine of his new teacher, Elijah Muhammad,
he saw all white people as devils and as enemies
and believed that African Americans
should advance their cause by any means necessary.
Later, however, after falling out with his teacher
and making the pilgrimage to Mecca,
Malcolm found himself within mainstream Islam
and was transformed once more.
He recognized the universal dignity of all humankind
and he even welcomed
working with well-intentioned white people.
What inspires me most about Malcolm
was how he changed his views when he learned new truths.
It takes strength to seek knowledge and purpose
and to admit that our assumptions are wrong.
From Malcolm, I learned to see the strength in others
and to understand their potential to change themselves.
I was also inspired
by the story of Muhammad Ali and Joe Martin.
Muhammad Ali grew up as a black kid named Cassius Clay
in the segregated city of Louisville.
One day when Cassius was 12,
someone stole his bike,
so he went to police station to report the theft.
He met Joe Martin, a white officer,
and told Martin that if he ever caught the thief
he would whoop him.
Officer Martin was not only fighting segregation in the city
but was also a local boxing instructor,
so he asked little Cassius if he knew how to fight.
When Cassius said he didn't,
Martin invited him to the integrated Columbia Gym
where he taught boxing.
A kind and caring officer,
Martin continued to coach him
and in 1960, accompanied him to the Olympics,
where Clay won the gold medal for the USA.
Clay later embraced Islam and became Muhammad Ali
and always credited Martin with launching his boxing career.
The African American Muslim and the white policeman
became lifelong friends.
The common thread in the stories
of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali
is the importance of reaching impressionable youth
with care and compassion
and mentoring them before they take the wrong path
that inevitably leads to prison.
That brings me back to those teenage gang members.
When I saw the humanity and the desire to belong
buried beneath their aggressive exteriors,
it motivated me to co-found Legacy Youth Project,
a program to provide a safe,
transformative space for students.
It was all about heart work,
about developing character.
Like Malcolm taught me,
once the character was refined,
knowledge and learning follows.
And like Muhammad Ali showed me,
a caring cop can make all the difference
in the life of a youngster.
We asked the rival gang members
to participate in a pilot project for six months.
We went back to the basics.
They learned how to enter a classroom
in a respectful manner.
Then they had to understand
that their typical derogatory greetings were dehumanizing
and learned to use words that honor the receiver.
Overall, they realized to break the cycle
of conflict and pain,
they had to confront their misconceptions
honestly and humbly
and work to understand and empathize
with their fellow human beings
no matter how different they seem.
The result was phenomenal:
100% high school graduation rate
and a 75% increase in the average GPA.
The project was later featured
in a documentary called "The Mask You Live In."
Years later, one teenager wrote this
on his college application:
My participation in the program
led me to a transformational academic and human experience,
where I discovered layers about myself
that my former gang affiliation had suppressed.
He's now married and working successfully.
That's a life saved. That's prophetic.
His story will always remind me of the power of empathy
and the influence a conscious police officer can have
in the lives of troubled youth.
Can you imagine what our communities would become
if we all used our spheres of influence
to relate rather than alienate
and to connect rather separate?
Let's grow comfortable with being uncomfortable
and learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
There's a lot of work to be done
to begin to change this great nation
and some of it is most certainly in the way we police,
but let's also celebrate
and never forget this nation's continued move
towards a more perfect union.
Our work begins with the light
of an honest and humble conversation
at a barbershop or a school
that may lift the fog
from the bridges that have always connected us.
I'm Sergeant Omar Salem for the Emir-Stein Center.
If this message is meaningful to you,
please share it with a friend or colleague.