By Dr. Isaac Cudjoe, CEO at Peace First

Growing up, only a few things could puncture the bubble of our boisterous laughter as we played outside: the summoning shout of a mother or the looming presence of a police officer. Even as a child, I was fascinated by how the world seemed to shift into a different gear at the flash of police lights. It was as if an invisible signal was broadcasted, compelling everything to mute and be still. At that age, I couldn’t put into words the phenomenon of this shared silence — the instinctive hush among my friends, the collective pause of strangers, the deceleration of our games, and the captivated focus on any police interaction. I was unaware of the undercurrent of tension that commanded this quiet, the cautious whispers that followed the police, or the reasons why our boisterous world suddenly dialed down its volume at their approach.

By the time I had grown old enough to understand the patterns, the tragic deaths of Tamir Rice (12), Michael Brown (18), Freddie Gray (25), Philando Castile (32), Alton Sterling (37), and Eric Garner (43) had starkly illustrated that at any age, an encounter with the police could fatally unravel. It’s a chilling reality that becomes ingrained, almost like muscle memory. The hush that descended in such moments was all too familiar to me. So in 2017, on an afternoon when Kevin and I noticed two undercover police cars peering at us as we sat outside a local Starbucks, instinctively, we fell silent, paused, and eventually decided to leave.

This was the same cautious stillness we had come to know by heart — the same rehearsed steps, so we left. But it didn’t take long for us to be pulled over by several police officers. What began as a traffic stop turned into being fingerprinted on the scene, car searched, and more. Eventually, the fourth officer on the scene said there were burglaries in the area, so they wanted to verify if we matched a description. It didn’t matter that we went to school in the area, were involved in the community, had no criminal record, how we spoke, or how we dressed. At that moment, we were suspects all because of how we looked.

This experience forced Kevin and me to confront a stark reality: how could we, within our power, respond to this injustice? How could we care for the youth who may know this silence and fear and address a community need ourselves? It took many conversations to process this incident and the compounded weight of similar experiences. We discussed what was broken, what efforts were underway to mend it, and, crucially, what role we could play in supporting our community. We deliberated on the importance of taking action and collaborating with others, recognizing that the path to healing and empowerment lay in our collective effort.

These reflections birthed Brothers With Books, a community action group with a mission to dismantle barriers to literacy and create avenues for empowerment through education. Our initiative was a direct response to our shared experiences of profiling and systemic bias, but it took an interesting form. Brothers With Books became our contribution to that vision, leveraging the support and generosity of our community to distribute approximately 40,000 books, launch scholarship programs, and mentor the next generation.

Through Brothers With Books, Kevin and I provide resources and hope,demonstrating the power of a community coming together. Our journey from a frightening encounter with law enforcement to Brothers With Books underscores a profound truth: out of moments of despair can come opportunities for growth and impact. I like to think of this as a narrative of resilience, of refusing to be defined by the circumstances of our profiling and instead choosing to rise above it.

For me, a fundamental part of changemaking is turning the pain of injustice into a rallying cry for change. Brothers With Books is a testament to the strength of collective action, the beauty of a community that comes together to support its own, and the enduring power of hope over despair.

Support our cause by donating to the Youth Investment Fund today: