Bridging the Gap with Bocce
A Rhode Island nonprofit brings cops and teens together on Federal Hill for tough conversations over the classic Italian game.
In late July, Ibn-Hashim Bakari received a photo on his cell phone. The selfie came from an unlikely group: four young people he knew from the West End of Providence and two state troopers they’d run into at the Kent County YMCA.
“They recognized the two troopers that were out of uniform and took a selfie and sent it to me,” he recalls. “As they say, a picture says a thousand words, and I don’t know how better to explain that interaction.”
The teenagers, as well as the officers, were all participants in Lights and Sirens International, a nonprofit organization Bakari founded in 2009. The group runs an annual summer bocce program on Federal Hill to introduce young people and members of law enforcement who wouldn’t normally get to interact in a positive setting.
“It gives [law enforcement] an opportunity to share from their perspective, and it helps them to better understand the perspectives of minorities,” Bakari says.
Every week, middle and high school-aged youth, many of them from the West End Recreation Center, gather at the Federal Hill bocce courts where they’re split into teams for an hour of bocce with officers. Often, the gathering includes coffee and doughnuts or lunch from a nearby restaurant.
In addition to the game, the weekly sessions also include conversation and role-playing about important topics. Each week covers a different topic, Bakari says, with recent sessions touching on ego, implicit bias, profiling, accountability and conflict resolution. A final session covers how law enforcement and civilians should conduct themselves during a traffic stop.
“With a lot of these kids, a lot of them are approaching getting a permit or getting their driver’s license. We feel that that’s when they’re going to start having more interaction with law enforcement,” he says.
His own journey to founding the program took some unexpected turns. Growing up in foster care in Detroit, Bakari spent some time in juvenile detention as a young person before receiving a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Rhode Island. He went on to play professionally in Italy, where he was introduced to the sport of bocce. Back in Rhode Island, he worked as a juvenile program officer at the Rhode Island Training School, his first introduction to local law enforcement.
Lights and Sirens was initially founded to bring members of law enforcement together for a humanitarian trip and international basketball tournament in the Dominican Republic. Later, Bakari recognized there was a divide between local law enforcement and minority communities and added the bocce program in the summer of 2020.
Asked why he chose to adopt bocce instead of basketball for the program, Bakari says he preferred to use a sport that neither group was familiar with instead of a popular contact sport like basketball.
“It’s a social game. It helps relax the individuals,” he says.
In addition to the summer program, Lights and Sirens hosts an annual cornhole clinic in the spring. On Sunday, Oct. 8, the organization will hold a bocce tournament fundraiser at the Federal Hill courts. Teams of four can register for $400 per team by emailing email@example.com, with games starting at 10 a.m. Bakari says all skill levels are welcome, and the fundraiser will contribute to upgrading the surrounding bocce courts.
Four years into the summer bocce program, Bakari says, the biggest impact for teenager and officers has been social change.
“The big takeaway is that both sides are seeing the perspective of a social change at a grassroots level,” he says.