‘When we collaborate we’re so much stronger’ | Charlotte workshop brings at-risk teens, police together through art
The workshop provides a way for at-risk teens to connect with art and grow closer to the police community in Charlotte.
Author: Emma Korynta
Published: 8:03 PM EDT July 20, 2019
Updated: 4:13 PM EDT July 21, 2019
FEATURES 4 Articles


A Charlotte program is using art to bridge the gap between at-risk children and the police community.

Decorated paper crowns and art materials line the walls of the east Charlotte building. Two large, long tables in the room are filled with teenagers and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers. The two groups are talking and sharing stories all while making art. 

That’s the goal of the Promoting Peace Program: to bring communities together.

“The Promoting Peace Program really helps kids and officers come together in a positive way over art,” said Natalie Allen, the founder and CEO of the Arts Empowerment Project. “There’s a lot of stereotypes that are built around both groups, and we want to break down those stereotypes, and I feel like art is a wonderful vehicle to do it.”

The workshop provides a way for at-risk teens to connect with art and grow closer to the police community in Charlotte. Coordinators join small groups of teens with officers to foster a safe place. The program hosts speakers, visiting artists and activities to bring the groups together.


‘When we collaborate we’re so much stronger’ | Charlotte workshop brings at-risk teens, police together through art

Chapter 1

"I'm still the same person"

The officers

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Rene Nuñez started working with the program last year. He was partnered up with a teen for a culinary workshop. 

To help establish trust and a bond, Nuñez said he dressed in plain clothes the whole week instead of being in uniform. The teen did not actually have any idea he was a police officer. 

Nuñez said a lot of the teens involved have had negative experiences with police officers. On the last day of the week, he wore his uniform. He said when the teenager saw him, the teen was in disbelief. 

“I felt a little bad because it was like a betrayal almost,” Nuñez said. “I could feel it, he was kind of torn apart.”

He said the teen told him, “You’re too cool to be a police officer.”

Nuñez said the teen hated police officers. The teen’s initial impression of him was not shattered. The teen did not know what to think, Nuñez recalled

“I responded to him, ‘Well, you thought I was a cool guy up until a couple of seconds ago. So what’s the difference?’” Nuñez asked. “I’m still the same person, I’m just wearing this uniform.”

Nuñez said the teen came over and hugged him. It really hit Nuñez hard when the teen started crying. 

“I was sold on the program after that,” Nuñez said. He is back again to help this year. 

Chapter 2

"When I work with kids, there's a moment where they have a shift"

Working with the kids

Tom Thoune is an artist working with the group currently. Allen first told him about the program two years ago, then again last year. Thoune was drawn to the program because of his work with Arts+, a program focused on providing art workshops for individuals of varying income levels.

Thoune is helping the students with mosaics, which are pieces of art made by joining together small pieces of different materials. 

“My job is to take their concepts and blow them up into a larger art piece that can be permanent outside,” Thoune said. 

The teens had recently worked on crowns that were lining the walls. They were covered with images that spoke to their frustrations, hopes, dreams -- what they want to see change in their lives. Thoune said many see imagery of hope and peace as typical cliches, but he said they are empowering, especially to these teens. 

“In all the projects when I work with kids, there’s a moment where they have a shift,” Thoune said. “They’re letting go of looking good, looking cool. They’re still cool, they just have a shift where they become playful again.” 

Thoune said he had noticed that as children get older, they start to become more concerned about looking more like adults. They abandon the ‘intuitive childlike curiosity’ that’s useful to art, Thoune said.

He said he has seen that shift with this group of teens. They are making mosaics that will work together with a crown-related piece. They get to mix cement and use materials that they otherwise could not. 

“It’s nice to break things and repurpose [them], that’s the thing I want them to walk away with,” Thoune said.  

Chapter 3

"Art is such a healing force"

History of the program

The program aims to use that power of art to bring together these teens with the police officers in their community. 

Allen said the idea first came to her in the summer of 2016. She was trying to figure out some way to make a difference.

“My first go-to is art,” Allen said. “I think that art is such a healing force, and I said, ‘What about if kids and cops started talking to each other over art?’”

Allen said using art as a vehicle to bring the two groups together has been working since they first started. 

Chapter 4

"It takes a village"

Teens' art showcased in uptown Charlotte

The impact on teens does not stop there. They get to see the art they help make become part of an installation for all of Charlotte to see. Installations are being showcased at the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City. The gallery is open until July 31 and contains murals and other pieces the teens, officers, and visiting artists all worked on together.

Yolanda McCormick, a licensed professional counselor, has been working with the program for two years. She works with CMPD through Child Development‐Community Policing. Like Thoune, she said she can see the shift in teens during the program.

“It’s really enlightening to see,” McCormick said. “Initially when the kids come in they’re very stand-offish and then toward the end, they’re laughing and having a good time.” 

The program has a number of partners, including: Arts+, CMPD, artists, facilitators, guest speakers, engagement officers, and the Transforming Youth Movement. It is a lot of moving pieces but Allen says they could not do it without everyone’s help. 

“It takes a village, it sounds corny but it really does,” Allen said. “No one organization can carry the weight of all the issues we all have. I think when we collaborate we’re so much stronger.”