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Keisha April MS ’18, PhD ’20 Works to Change Policies, Practices in Criminal Justice

By Alli Fossner

October 27, 2021

In recent years, with the increase in national conversations surrounding racialized police violence, more people have learned about “The Talk” – the conversation that Black parents have with their children about the police. While the idea might be new to some people, it has long been a practice for Black parents to help prepare their children for the realities of life in a systemically racist society.

This topic became the focus of Keisha April, PhD’s work. The recent graduate of the Clinical Psychology PhD program won the Art Nezu Dissertation Diversity Award for her dissertation “Let’s ‘talk’ about the police: The role of race and the intergenerational transmission of police legitimacy attitudes in the legal socialization of youth.” This prestigious award recognizes an individual whose doctoral dissertation makes an outstanding contribution to the field of professional psychology and diversity and/or multiculturalism.

"This is an incredibly meaningful award for two reasons,” explains Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences Naomi Goldstein, PhD. “First, this prestigious award offers recognition of the quality of Keisha's work and her commitment to addressing a critical and timely social justice issue with important real-world implications, particularly for Black youth and families. Second, this national award has extra meaning, as it is in the name of Dr. Art Nezu, a member of Drexel's Psychological and Brain Sciences Department—our department—and preeminent scholar who values diversity and multiculturalism in professional psychology."

April’s research examines factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. Her work seeks to promote greater understanding of the relationships between communities of color and the police.

Keisha April

"People regularly refer to 'The Talk.' However, few researchers have examined 'The Talk’ empirically, and Keisha did so using rigorous quantitative methods to identify how conversations about the police differ between Black and white parents with their same-race children,” says Goldstein. “Keisha's dissertation was critical to understanding intergenerational thoughts and feelings about the police, and it will serve as a foundation for her future work to improve relationships between police officers and Black communities."

April is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. In addition to her PhD from Drexel, April holds a JD from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and an AB in Psychology from Princeton University.

Goldstein, who advised April’s dissertation, sees great promise in her career. "Keisha is well on her way to being a leader in the interdisciplinary field of psychology and law. She uses research not only to understand but to effect change in pressing social justice issues, including the relationships between police and Black communities."

April recently discussed her work as a public defender, her decision to return to school, and her dissertation.

After working as a public defender, you decided to make a change and get your doctorate in clinical psychology. What prompted that change?

I went into law because of my commitment to social justice. I wanted to be able to contribute meaningfully to making changes in people's lives, specifically people who were involved in the justice system. While the work that I was doing as a public defender was really rewarding, I noticed problematic patterns, in which people would continue to pick up charges and show up in our courtroom over and over again. Each time they come back, they're getting more serious sentences, and ultimately having much poorer outcomes. Many of these people were struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems, or they were engaging in criminal behavior as a function of their environment or lack of access to resources. Specifically for young people, it was often the case that they needed interventions earlier on, but didn't have access to them, and then they get pushed into the justice system and start to move on to more serious offending. I knew in my work that there were problems in our overall system, and what we really need to change is more at a policy and practice level to help these individuals. That set me off on this path and I chose to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, because I really wanted to use findings from science to support the need for changes in justice system practices.

What attracted you to the Drexel program?

In thinking about where I wanted to go and where I could get the best training to pursue my ultimate goals, I was really motivated to join a department that had a focus in forensic psychology. Forensic psychology is a really rare focus across graduate programs in the U.S. There are only a handful of programs that have a forensic concentration and that was important to me because I wanted to understand individuals who are in contact with the justice system and the policies and practices of justice system practitioners. The training provided by a forensic program helps me understand how individuals with mental health needs are served in the system and what resources are available to them. Drexel, honestly, is a leader in forensic psychology, and I was super excited about the opportunity to work with and learn from the faculty in this department.

Was there any faculty member in particular whom you worked with who really was meaningful to you?

I applied to work with Dr. Naomi Goldstein, who is a leader in juvenile justice. That was a vantage point that I really wanted to gain more experience in and that's what I focus my work on. In the youth stage, we can intervene a lot to push kids off the path towards later, more serious involvement in justice system as adults. Having the chance to work with Dr. Goldstein was an invaluable experience.

How did your work as a lawyer guide your research and give you a better perspective on how to make systemic changes to the justice system?

I worked in public interest law, which means work that is usually state-funded or funded by nonprofit agencies that serve individuals who are low-income or otherwise marginalized or underserved. I think this prior experience of working with individuals in real legal matters helped give me an important perspective on the challenges that people face when trying to navigate these complex systems. For example, if a client misses a probation hearing and gets a violation, it's not always the case that they just didn't care, or they just didn't want to show up. A young person, for example, could be the sole caretaker of her siblings because the parent has to work, so she can’t make it to court because there is no one else to stay home with the kids. Having experience working with the populations that you ultimately want to serve with your research helps to define what questions to ask, and what areas of the system need changes.

Your dissertation focuses on “The Talk,” or legal socialization. Can you talk about what you found?

My dissertation focused on understanding what parents say to their kids about the police. How do we socialize our children toward legal authority figures or to the legal system in general? There isn't a lot of research on the topic. But culturally, as we've been having these discussions, it's a practice that is well known in Black communities in which parents have to have serious conversations with their children about how to navigate interactions with the police because Black individuals tend to be subjected to police force at much higher rates than others. My dissertation sought to examine whether parents of different races talk to the children about the police in different ways.

I found that Black and White parents placed importance on different messages, with Black parents being more concerned about safety, compliance, and unfair treatment. While police legitimacy did matter for white parents, it mattered less for Black parents. This means that even if a Black parent had confidence in the police, and trusted them to do their jobs effectively, they were still likely to find it necessary for their child to know these broader important messages about what to do, and what to expect if they come into contact with the police. This is this idea that your own experiences with the police might not change the fact that you still think, “Before I send my child out into the world, because of what my child looks like, because of history and all those experiences, I need to prepare them for these interactions.”

These findings are important for the national conversation that we are having about policing and relationships within communities of color. We don't currently know enough from the perspectives of the individuals who lived these experiences. I want my research to help give a voice to those perspectives. These are currently foundational questions that we still need to build on. But ultimately, the long-term goal is to use the knowledge that we gained through these types of research questions to help understand how to improve these interactions between police and communities and to build greater trust between police and the communities that they are serving. Broadly, systemic change takes a long time. We can't extrapolate from one study, but this is a building block. All these pieces help us understand what we're missing.

What inspired you to investigate this topic?

My interest initially came from personal experience and understanding the perspectives of communities that I was raised in. As a Black woman, I'm aware of many of the concerns that parents expressed in raising Black children, especially young Black boys. While this is a very important issue to people around me, I did not see it as a focus in scientific literature. Currently, we're engaging in a more national conversation on this topic, especially given the high-profile cases that we've seen portrayed in the media, but this has been a conversation that has been happening for decades and even centuries in other communities. These experiences shape beliefs in these communities in deeply rooted ways. I wanted to better understand how these experiences and historical relationships affect Black parents and, ultimately, their children—how Black children see themselves, and how they think others perceive them.