Over the past four years, Andrew Howell has lost a daughter to an overdose and a son to a murder in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. “It all blends in with what I do,” says Howell. “Race for Peace is my therapy. I’ve had death in my life. Now, I’m searching for life.”
Right now, the Race for Peace founder and chairman is darting around Havertown’s Skatium in a white jumpsuit as Haverford Township Police Lt. James Kelly mingles nearby. Like other members of local law enforcement, Kelly is here as part of a joint community effort to further bridge racial divides—something that’s come to be called 21st-century policing. “They learn from us, and we learn from them.” says Howell.
The third Race for Peace open skate at the Skatium has attracted a mixed crowd of 100. “I call this Skatetopia,” says Alletta Parris-Olday, the nonprofit’s secretary and treasurer. “We’re trying to cool relations within all police departments—not just in the cities, but all the police departments in all communities. This is a super-fantastic way of bringing everyone together.”
A 6-foot-4 senior basketball player at Philadelphia’s Constitution High School, Jamal Carr isn’t so sure about the skating part. “This is my first time,” he says. “I’m thinking I shouldn’t do this.”
And he doesn’t.
A graduate of Lower Merion’s Citizens Police Academy and a former director of its Town Watch sector in the mid-’90s, Howell also ran (unsuccessfully) for a Lower Merion Township commissioner’s seat. He now lives in Delaware County. He truly believes it takes “one” to make a difference. He’s always holding up a single index finger—a feature of the organization’s logo. “It takes one vote to win an election, one point to win a basketball game and one person to start a movement,” he says. “One person can also sit around and do absolutely nothing to solve a problem. My biggest measuring stick is myself, and I judge myself by what I’m doing.”
Formed in 2016, Race for Peace is ahead of its time. Just over a year after a massively divisive national election and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Howell’s organization couldn’t be timelier or more relevant. It stages events at King of Prussia Mall and the newly dubbed Kobe Bryant Gym at Lower Merion High School. At committee summits, role-playing skits provide traffic-stop training to avoid outcomes like the George Floyd incident. “We want to see the positive side of the police,” says Howell. “For police who act out, we’re very much against that—and we want other police to stand up and help make those guys accountable.”
At the Skatium event, a young boy wearing a Radnor ice hockey sweatshirt approaches Pennsylvania state trooper Loretta Miree, who’s on her community service shift. Minutes after he thanks her for being there, other kids follow suit. “We all bleed the same color,” says the 40-year-old Black officer, who’s stationed at the barracks in Skippack. “A lot of people think we’re robots. We’re not. We need to show people that we’re like them, but our careers require us to uphold the laws. Montgomery County might be supportive of law enforcement, but some areas don’t really care for us. We’re having a horrible time in society. There are a lot of cop haters, and our heads are on a swivel all the time.”
Radnor Township Police superintendent Chris Flanagan is also on hand at the Skatium. He notes that Race to Peace events allow members of various police departments get to know each other. Flanagan has two younger officers on hand and also recruited five Radnor families to attend. “We want this to become a contagious feeling,” he says. “With the troubles in the country, we need to have a more direct relationship with the community. It’s more than just getting out of the car or being visible in the schools. Now, we’re fist-pumping, saying ‘hi’ and having conversations. Then, if there is an incident, we already have a level of trust.”
Such was the case in mid-June, when a BLM march involving some 1,000 people went flawlessly, Flanagan says. During the past school year, there were also two peaceful social injustice walkouts at Radnor High School. “Our experiences here transfer directly to other success stories,” says Flanagan. “We build a skill set. We operate more responsibly and comfortably with different people.”
In July 2016, Howell sat down with Lower Merion Police superintendent Mike McGrath at Bryn Mawr’s Ludington Library and sold him on his idea for Race for Peace. “Here we are, and now all the chiefs are on board for real,” says Howell, who spent 18 months with McGrath recruiting others, like since-retired Upper Darby Police superintendent Michael Chitwood. “Now we have the state police involved. Next is the FBI.”
A general contractor by profession, Howell grew up in Philadelphia, then lived in Lower Merion Township for 20 years. Back in the ’90s, he founded the Main Line Minority Community Economic Development Association and the Main Line NAACP Job Fair. In 1997, he organized a protest in Ardmore against police officers who flew the Confederate flag from their private cars. “Most people are on a holy hustle or a political push, but I have no agenda,” he says. “I do it from the heart because of what I believe, and because of what I saw in a dream where God told me that we’ll soon not have to live in such a violent world.”