An ominous chant echoing down a New York City street spurred one American woman into dramatic action in the fall of 2014 -- and she hasn't stopped since.
In the wake of the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida, and the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, tensions between law enforcement and minorities in U.S. cities were at a zenith. The chant she heard was chilling: "What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!"
Community-focused activities get people talking to one another -- and in the process, forming lasting connections.
Dallas resident Toni Brinker Pickens, wife of the global financier, business magnate and philanthropist T. Boone Pickens, was stunned and alarmed. "I thought, I can't believe I am hearing this. So I turned on the television and realized it was, in fact, the message in the street," she told LifeZette. "I immediately thought, 'This is not the America I want.'"
Pickens took that feeling one step further. "This has to do with America. We have got to make people understand we are in serious trouble, and it is critical we unite."
Growing up in the Texas panhandle, Pickens, 67, said she was raised to believe in the pledge of allegiance, prayer in schools, and respect for law enforcement.
She wasn't quite sure what her next steps would be, but she could not rest.
"We need to get back to two-way discussions in this country," says the founder of Operation Blue Shield, Toni Brinker Pickens.
"I grew up believing in the American flag, which formed me and formed my generation. Our strong beliefs created the best of patriots."
Pickens picked up the phone and called Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown. "I cannot sit back any longer," she told him. "I know there are issues that can't be solved overnight, but you don't deserve this."
Pickens said the chief replied, "In all my 31 years I've never had a citizen call out of the blue and say that. What are you going to do?" he asked her.
"I don't have the faintest idea," she responded. She hung up the phone -- and Operation Blue Shield (OBS) was pretty much formed at that moment.
Now a 15-month-old non-profit with the motto "We're All In," the organization Pickens founded creates, promotes and funds programs that bring citizens together with law enforcement, first responders and local government officials. Community-focused activities get people talking to one another -- and in the process, forming lasting, mutally beneficial connections.
"In June, Operation Blue Shield visited The Men of Nehemiah family ministry service," said Pickens. The residential faith-centered program in Dallas serves the homeless and formerly incarcerated men with addictive disorders through treatment, life skills, and job placement.
"We had real dialogue that meant something to these families," Pickens continued. "I was talking to ex-convicts and their families, and I said, 'I understand how you came to be incarcerated. But for you to have the job you want and the life you want, that involves working with, and not against, law enforcement."
One of the men in attendance told her, "I have hated police all my life. My father hated them, and that's one of the reasons I'm incarcerated. If I had known I could really control my own destiny by being a part of the process, things could have been different for me."
"I've talked to many people in low-income neighborhoods. When people stay scared long enough, they get angry -- and they get suspicious." -- Toni Pickens
As another way of bringing people together, Operation Blue Shield organizes church swaps: A pastor from one community preaches from the pulpit of another community.
"Issues of race are brought up that need to be talked about," said Pickens, in her clear and forthright manner. "OBS allows for those conversations to begin. 'I know your faith, and you want the same things I do' is the underlying tone," she said. "The country is having one-way discussions right now -- we need to get back to two-way discussions."
Pickens relishes the chance to be actively involved in lower-income communities that experience a deep mistrust of law enforcement. She travels to cities like Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; and Savannah, Georgia, to speak to communities and the police, and she participates in each program OBS offers.
"I've talked to so many in low-income neighborhoods. When you stay scared long enough, you get angry, and you get suspicious," she said. "Our programs allow for direct interaction with law enforcement -- that develops trust, and that allows us to connect a young single mother with programs that can help her. She then becomes a taxpayer, a voter. Her taxes help her community -- it can now afford better streets, better schools and churches. And business becomes interested in investing in that community."
Among the corporations and businesses that admire the work of Operation Blue Shield is Chic-fil-A.
A March road race brought key groups together. "When people start walking and talking together, good things happen," says Pickens.
"They said they loved our message and wanted us involved in a Dallas road race in March to support our efforts," said Pickens. "So we had community members pair up with a members of law enforcement. When they start walking and talking together -- good things happen."
Children are not left out of the equation. "Getting children to see law enforcement as community partners and friends is critical," said Pickens. For this reason, she created "Murdock's Army" -- Murdock is the organization's canine mascot -- on the OBS website, where kids can become involved in their own way. "It takes every man, woman and child to create lasting change," she emphasized.
OBS also offers a "Power of One" guest speaker series, as well as a "Blue and You" program, in which first responders and community members gather over lunch to begin a conversation.
"It's interesting. At the first meeting, everyone is segregated -- blacks over here, Latinos over there, whites over there," said Pickens. "By the third or so meeting, people are mingling and talking, getting to know one another."
She is acutely mindful of what is at stake in achieving the goals she has set for this organization.
"We will grow, but we will grow slowly, because our message is life and death, literally," Pickens said. "I call Dallas our petrie dish. We bring communities together in formats that are structured, which is important. I don't want to grow so fast that we do something wrong or create a problem on either side -- it could cost someone their life."
Careful planning extends to every aspect of this non-profit, including its theme colors of yellow and blue.
"We came up with yellow and blue for all our messaging," said Pickens. "I presented yellow and blue ribbons to one community and I said, 'Please put these on your front gates, on your trees, on your car.' The blue on either side represents the protection of law enforcement. The yellow the community."
Donations are critical to the growth of Operation Blue Shield.
"All of the money we raise from average citizens, groups and corporations goes directly back into the community," said Pickens. "If someone would like to support us and they aren't in Texas, we will donate the money to a fully vetted organization local to them that mirrors what we do, until OBS grows there. We want this money in the hands of first-responders -- police officers, firefighters, and prosecutors who break up drug operations and are so critical to a safe community."
She said with conviction, "We're 'all in' to support them in every possible way that we can -- for them, for all the communities they serve, and for the strength of this great country."
For more information about Operation Blue Shield, click here.