Social Justice Game Changer: Tekoa Pouerie

by Josh Cohen

Name: Tekoa Pouerie

Game Honored: Orlando Magic vs. Houston Rockets (4/18/21)

While growing up in Clewiston, Florida, a small city in Hendry County, Tekoa Pouerie saw a huge cultural divide and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In that environment, Pouerie had some tough decisions to make. Her parents, first her mother when she was 14 and then her father two years later, passed away and things, as you might expect, were blurry and ambiguous as she tried sorting her life out.

It was at that critical time when a non-profit organization called People Who Care stepped in and showed her the love and support a teenager going through tribulations needs. The organization was a group of retired school teachers, who saw her potential and felt with some extra guidance she could flourish in whichever career she chose to pursue. They taught her about applying for college, financial aid and all the amazing, exciting options that could be available to her in the next phase of her life.

With their encouragement and advice, those mentors, whom to this day she is incredibly appreciative of, helped steer her in the right direction and now she is one of the most respected and influential leaders in our community.

After graduating high school in the top 10 percent of her class, Pouerie made her way up to Orlando where she attended the University of Central Florida, majoring in Criminal Justice with a concentration on juvenile delinquency.

“My heart was wanting to give back to the community because the community helped me,” she said. “I knew that everything that I dealt with – poverty, losing my parents, not having anyone in my family that had ever gone to college, having parents who had dropped out of high school – I was that make-up of a child that could have made some delinquent decisions. Because I was able to make it out and stay away from crime and make the right decisions, I wanted to major in criminal justice to help other individuals that maybe were in an environment that was leading them down the wrong road.”

Her story was so inspirational and heartwarming that after graduating college she was invited to speak at various conferences and assemblies across the country, where she spoke directly to at-risk youth and motivated them to fight through adversity and not let the naysayers discourage them.

Several years later, another opportunity arose. She hopped on with the non-profit Power Promise, with whom she went into schools in the Orlando area and taught students how to make the right decisions. During that time, she also wrote books as part of a You Got the Power series, which taught life skills to youth.

It was then as she was working with teens that she made a critical discovery.

“What I found out was that it wasn’t just the youth that needed our help. It was the people that were working with the youth,” she said. “As I began to mature and matriculate and became an executive director who had to work with board members, I realized there was a huge disconnect. There was a lot of people that were working with youth that were dealing with trauma, people that were working with things that were unique to Black kids that they could not relate to.”

To strengthen the communication between counselors, police officers and others in similar positions, Pouerie started cold calling various departments in the community, including the Orlando Police, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and the Department of Juvenile Justice. Eventually, she reached Jerry Demings, then the Sheriff of Orange County and now the Orange County Mayor, who agreed more needed to be done.

Pouerie applied for a grant and put together a framework and a curriculum and it was approved by the Department of Juvenile Justice. With 12 team members at that time, which was in 2010, they worked with four nearby schools -- Wekiva High School, Evans High School, Meadowbrook Middle School and Robinswood Middle School – where they worked with students who were either on the verge of being expelled from school or on the track of entering the criminal justice system, trained the schools’ resource officers, talked with the parents of the kids and then united everyone together.

“It took a lot of prayer and a lot of ‘we’re going to make it,’” Pouerie recalls. “We were breaking together some biases. We had youth of color that said I don’t trust the police. We had police officers that had a love for the community but never truly went into the Black community unless they were being called by 911.”

Over time, Pouerie started seeing progress. Initially, there was some reservation, as few kids, their parents and the officers were fully onboard. However, with some extra persistence and determination, things evolved.

By the end of that year, police officers started walking into the community centers where meetings were held with toys for the kids. Pouerie saw white officers hugging Black kids that were angry when they first congregated. She saw grandmothers bringing desserts for everyone to enjoy.

“It just showed that if we take time to really get to know each other beyond our skin color, beyond our biases, beyond our past experiences and get to know individuals for who they are, we can build a true community,” Pouerie said.

From a civil activist to a sought-after certified bias trainer, Pouerie has worked with over 10,000 criminal justice professionals. From courtrooms to boardrooms, she has brought awareness of racial bias and social injustice. In addition to that, she also works with Pace Center for Girls, which provides girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training, and advocacy.

To date, Pouerie has trained and worked with the Department of Juvenile Justice, Governor’s State Advisory Committee, National Criminal Justice Training Center, Department of Children and Families, Florida’s Attorney General Office, Florida Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Among those surveyed, 92% stated that her training increased their knowledge as it relates to racial bias when serving Black communities. In addition, she has recently trained over 3,000 trial lawyers for the Florida Bar Executive Council on understanding explicit and implicit bias.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” she said. “I’ve had some tough, tough rooms to walk in. Being a Black woman who is a civilian, I’ve had some tough rooms. Some of the hardest trainings I had to do was after the Trayvon Martin murder. I would walk in the room and I can identify at least twenty police officers that did not want to be there. I had to be with them the entire day. By the end of the day to see them melt, to see them open up, to see them share (their feelings), to see them listen to others’ perspectives, so many of them came to me afterwards and said this was life-changing.”

Extremely appreciative of the Orlando Magic’s involvement in the community and the action they are taking against social injustice, Pouerie believes it’s crucial for professional sports organizations and other high-profile companies to take a stand and convey messages to their audience that promote change.

“I commend coach (Steve) Clifford a thousand percent. I think what he’s doing is stellar. I really strongly suggest that other coaches look to him as a model because the NBA makes up a large percentage of African Americans and people of color,” she said. “It’s that idea of having compassion for the people that you serve and showing that their lives matter to you too, not just their talent. I played sports my whole (life). I actually used to coach for the Junior Orlando Magic for the second and third graders. It is such a great way to show how we can be eclectic and also show that we have unity, that when we take off our jersey, when we take off our uniform it doesn’t stop there. I think that’s what coach Clifford is doing. It’s not just on the court. But even when it’s over, I still have love for the people I work with and I still have love for the communities I serve. That speaks volumes.”

About the Program: As part of the Magic and Clifford’s continuing efforts toward social justice reform, he created the Social Justice Game Changer program to honor one local leader who has made a difference in the realm of social justice issues. A cause close to his heart, Clifford is extremely active in programs that support equality and justice for all people in the Central Florida community.

Through this program, Clifford looks to put the spotlight on those continuously doing the hard work, day in and day out, fighting for sustainable change. As part of his program, one person is selected and honored each game. The honorees are given tickets, provided by Clifford, to the game and featured in-arena on the Magic Vision screen at center court.

“The purpose is to honor and to celebrate so many of the people in the Orlando community who are fighting for change and who commit their lives to making Orlando a better place,” Clifford said. “It’s just a way to celebrate them, what they stand for, and what they do for our community.”

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