Montreal·Q&A

How do you talk to kids about the police shooting deaths of black men?

Stephen Hennessy, a black man who works with children and has three of his own, shares what he tells youth about being black around police officers.

Youth worker Stephen Hennessy on how he talks to kids about the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling

Cameron Sterling, left, Alton Sterling's son, cries, as his mother Quinyetta McMillan speaks about the shooting of Alton Sterling during a press conference. (Bill Feig/Associated Press)

The deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were not a surprise to Stephen Hennessy.

Hennessy works with youth in the child psychiatry department at the Jewish General Hospital. He's also a black man, and father to three children, aged three, nine and 17 years old.

He spoke with CBC Montreal's Homerun about how he talks to his children about the fatal police shootings of black people.

Here are some highlights from that conversation.

How are you reacting to these latest events?

Unfortunately I can't say this is the first time we've heard or seen things like this. I wish it was the last but this is the reality of what's going on in some parts of the world. It's not good news. It's not good to see anybody lose his life. It's sad.

I think all these situations didn't necessarily have to end that way. It's very final when it's someone's life. It's very saddening, it's unfortunate that it's happening, and we've seen it in our own city.

How much do your children know about what happened?

Kids are on social media. They're tapped into all sorts of things. A lot of kids have an attitude — they don't see it as something that happens here in Montreal. The teens I speak to, they say, "Oh God, in the States it's crazy." There's definitely a higher rate, an alarming rate, of those types of situations going on there.

But you know, as I've had experiences with other teens and even young black adults having interacted with police here, there are definitely problems with how some police people handle situations.

What kind of advice do you give young people?

It's all about risk. You try not to put yourself in a situation where there is a risk or a possibility of a police person being involved, especially in a negative way. That doesn't mean that (people who are stopped by police) are necessarily in the wrong. Of all of the black friends that I know, I don't know any males — especially ones that are my age — that have not at one point been pulled over or been stopped by police. Myself included.

That will happen even if you abide by the law to the fullest.

What should you do if you have an encounter with a police officer?

The first thing is know your rights. Let the police officer know that you know your rights. You have to do your part — be as human as possible to the police officer. Understand they've got their job to do.

Weigh the temperature of how things are. You don't want to get things even more heated. And again, that does not necessarily mean they will not try and heat things up. You have to be able to balance your emotions and keep them in check.

How is your 17-year-old son reacting to this?

We've talked about it, and he's been in these types of situations before. Again, I remind him that staying out of those situations. He's been stopped by police. If you look like you're willing to fight, or avoid, or run… that will give them reason to do something even more dangerous. So he abided by them and I think at that point, the situation worked out well. But again, that happened to be by luck.

With files from CBC's Homerun

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