Just when the SkyWay Leadership Institute was hitting its stride, everything ground to a halt.
The frustrating part is that its flagship work, the Community Trust Champion, is needed now more than ever.
Most people know it as the HelmZar Challenge Course that began as a ropes course under Tulsa Public Schools. TPS had to sell the property at 1006 N. Quaker Ave. due to budget cuts.
It was about that time when protests and unrest hit Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.
Looking at that devastation rooted in the distrust between people of color and police officers, Tulsa residents Walker Hanson and Jerry Dillon wanted to take action locally.
They worked with TPS to lease the ropes course in 2018 with the idea of developing a program to bring officers and youth together on a level playing field.
From that grew SkyWay, a nonprofit research institute with a mission to build trust, create leaders and increase hope. The curriculum and outcome measures were created in partnership with the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa Hope Research Center.
It took three months to get the facility in shape, establish the oversight board, train facilitators and have the program ready to launch, said CEO Sarah Guardiola.
It has four pillars: Trauma awareness, science of hope theory, experiential learning and intentional sequencing of activities.
“Everything is data-driven. We don’t want to do something unless we can provide evidence of it being effective,” Guardiola said. “Success lies in the use of evidence-based programming. These four methods, when used correctly, build community between people or two groups.”
This program is unique because the emphasis isn’t just on the kids changing their view of police. It also works on changing police perspectives.
“This is not a one-way thing. Social trust involves two parties,” Guardiola said.
SkyWay began with the Tulsa Police Activities League, often called Tulsa PAL, which puts officers into groups with kids from various youth organizations.
That five-hour program — the Community Trust Champion — begins with uniformed officers taking questions.
“A lot of times, they don’t open up at first,” Guardiola said. “Young people have turned their chairs or backs to the officers. I’ve heard them say how every time officers show up, someone is taken away. Or that their mom says something about police.
“We want to challenge their perceptions about what is possible.”
Then officers in plain clothes go through the ropes courses as teammates with the youth. The SkyWay facilitators have 500 hours of training to guide the groups through exercises.
It’s designed to create anxiety then de-escalate. There is trust, team building and plenty of purposeful discussion.
“Police do not lead; they do not guide. They are participants the same as the youth,” Guardiola said. “We are creating intentional moments to change the direction of their thought process and think about where they are heading in their lives. We see behavior change in the youth but also in officers who participate.
“We’ve found that often the most reluctant officers end up having the best outcomes.”
After a year and at least 500 youth, the data showed enough significant increases in trust, hope and leadership that it grabbed the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. It had already impressed some local and state funders.
“We were getting noticed with our data,” Guardiola said. “Historically, most departments in outreach programs have no way to track impact. We’re told this is the first time we can communicate not only about changes in children but also in the way police officers engage.”
On Friday, Guardiola testified before the Presidential Commission of Law Enforcement and the Administration on the academic work the group does with law enforcement.
“Tulsa is in the national light for really important community building,” Guardiola said.
Additionally, SkyWay was working with Tulsa Public Schools and the city on a three-year study that pairs officers with youth from neighborhoods where they worked. This idea came from the city’s quality indicators report, which showed disproportionate police use of force on black residents.
“By working with students and police officers from their areas and see a behavior change in police and youth, how would that would affect hope and trust would translate into the community,” Guardiola said.
“With the quality index in the city showing such mistrust in police, they were excited about it and had funding for it. There’s so much good that SkyWay can do and support it with data if we can just survive.”
That is not hyperbole. SkyWay is on the precipice of folding.
Before the pandemic, there was enough funding committed to cover the facility operations for three years. All of it has been re-directed for other emergency uses.
“I understand why,” Guardiola said. “But as a result, because of the shutdown, it devastated us. We are desperately trying to figure out how to serve our community and the legacy program of community building.”
This isn’t just about the police-specific program.
Skyway offers training for corporate leadership, community groups and other professional and collegiate clubs. Also, it has a school-targeted option called High Hope for school groups, and another program includes school resource officers.
The facility operations and staff for a year costs about $400,000. The Community Trust Champion is at about $300,000 annually and the High Hope is around $425,000.
SkyWay put together camp packages at deep discounts as a financial bandage. For front-line workers, the discounts for their children are even deeper.
Nonprofits and businesses everywhere are struggling, and some won’t survive.
SkyWay’s work is uniquely Tulsa in its approach to data collection and partnerships. It could be a player in avoiding crime and tragedy by altering relationships between police and youth.
It’s worth saving.
“We are hoping that will carry us to continue. Unless we get funding, the doors will shut,” Guardiola said.