For all of the progress that has been made, significant barriers to racial equity remain.
“The current systems were designed to keep certain people out,” says Erica Henderson, executive director of the St. Louis Promise Zone and the vice president for community investment in real estate at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. “Whether it’s the criminal justice system, the health system, economics, banking … there are systems that are impeding and minimizing access for people of color.” The formula for long-term, sustainable change in those systems, she argues, must include policy. “Until we go back and redefine or re-shape policy … we will continue to [find ourselves] here.”
St. Louis County Council member Lisa Clancy, a 2012 graduate of the Brown School, agrees. “I think policy is still a really huge barrier to racial equity in our region,” she says. “And we need more elected officials that understand that and are willing to change that in order to help us get ahead. I mean, we need change agents — people, systems, organizations at every level willing to talk about racial equity and be real about the impacts that racial inequity has on our region, and to figure out what their role is” in addressing it.
The St. Louis region has long had a broad number of programs designed to support people affected by inequity, and more of those programs have appeared in the five years since Ferguson. But “Programs aren’t meant to identify the root causes that, at their end, yield the differences we see in food insecurity or the differences we see in income by race,” says Karishma Furtado, a 2015 MPH graduate in the Brown School’s master, a candidate in the Public Health Sciences PhD Program and research and data catalyst for Forward Through Ferguson. Programs are limited in their long-term effectiveness because they, “by design, will only ever treat the symptoms of racial inequity or treat the most superficial manifestations of it. We need policies and systems change in order to get at those root causes.”
That shift to system-level change will not be easy. In his work with both the Ferguson Commission and Forward Through Ferguson, David Dwight, a 2015 graduate of the McKelvey School of Engineering, has gotten a close-up look at systems and policies that have contributed to racial inequity, and says too often people think, “If you just put a good person, a non-racist person, in this position of power that everything will be better and racism will be solved. But what we’ve seen and what we know is that it doesn’t take individually racist people for the system to perpetuate the outcomes that it does, and for people of color to still experience so many barriers,” he says. “So often when you actually get inside of those systems and you start to interact with things like hiring processes or ‘how we do things here,’ you start to really see … how these outcomes continue to happen, even if you have good people at the helm of them.”
Awareness of how systems perpetuate inequity is an essential first step in changing them. But Dwight says that even once institutions and organizations are aware and want to make a change, “There is often a gap between our willingness and desire to be different and our actual practice and muscles for how to be different. It’s one thing to want to be able to run a mile in a given time and it’s a different thing to have actually developed the skills and muscles and the know-how to actually do that thing. So that skill gap is a huge barrier.”
Bethany Johnson-Javois, a 2002 graduate of the Brown School, who served as the managing director of the Ferguson Commission in 2015, and is the CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network, identified a different barrier — a psychological one. “What’s most in the way of progress is the same narrative that is played over and over again … and prevents us from thinking about a new reality. The narrative sounds like, ‘We don’t have enough money. We don’t have the right people. We can’t find what we need. We need to go and study different organizations. There’s got to be a best practice, and that best practice is not here.’ It’s usually [believed to be] somewhere on a coast, that we need to bring back,” she says.
“What really stands in St. Louis’ way, in my opinion, is our inability to believe that we can and that we are sufficient and that we have enough,” she continues. “Other people fly us out to their locations to talk about our work, and people here, it’s difficult to convene them to talk about our work. That’s what stands in the way, actually, for me. It’s a willingness issue, and it’s a willingness first to believe that we can, because we are doing it. We are already doing it.”
What really stands in St. Louis’ way, in my opinion, is our inability to believe that we can and that we are sufficient and that we have enough.
Kameel Stanley, a senior producer for USA Today’s podcast, “The City,” and the former co-host and co-producer of the “We Live Here” podcast about race and class from St. Louis Public Radio and PRX, also sees narrative as a barrier, but in a different way.
“Go back to restrictive deed covenants, when the city puts on paper that Black people can be here, [but] they can’t be here. When ordinances with explicit or implicit racial implications get written into laws, one thing that does is bolster narratives, usually racist narratives, about the people who those laws are supposed to govern,” she explains. “It in many ways empowers and embeds these racist stereotypes, these racist hierarchies, these White supremacist ideas about people.”
That ultimately means, “The narrative is difficult to undo even when the policy is undone.”
Stanley points to the Brown v. Board of Education decision as an illustration. “When Brown happens, the law of the land says you can no longer do schooling this way. St. Louis — and a lot of other places in this country — did not in 1955 say, ‘Well, the Supreme Court said we couldn’t do it this way. We’ve been waiting for this. All right, cool.’ People had to be dragged.”
Stanley’s example points to perhaps the most stubborn obstacle to change: political will.
“We talk a lot about political will in our work, and about shifting the political will of the White community to see the role and their stake in racial equity and to work for it,” says Laura Horwitz, co-founder and executive director of We Stories. “I think that that is a huge obstacle, and I think the closer we get to moving that, the more we understand how hard that is to move.”
“I think initially the response to Ferguson was a wake-up call,” says Jason Purnell, associate professor at the Brown School and director of Health Equity Works. “But I think some people went back to sleep after the wake-up call. For many in the power structures of St. Louis, there was a tendency to say, ‘Let’s wait for this to blow over,’ or [to do] fairly surface-level interventions in response to the unrest in Ferguson, rather than tackling some of these deeper systemic issues,” Purnell says. “My fear is that some people just went back to business as usual, status quo, once the news cameras left and the heat of the moment had dissipated.”
“We need the type of political will that allows us to rethink and perhaps re-envision how we’re structured,” says Washington University alum De Nichols, a principal of design & social practice with Civic Creatives and a board member for Forward Through Ferguson. “We also need some leaders in our city who have both the political, the creative, and the social will to care more deeply about the North Side,” Nichols says. “There is a lot of progress that’s being championed and shepherded in our city, and our political leaders are proud of that. And at the same time, we are still vastly overlooking almost half of the city. I want us to have leaders who are both individually and collectively passionate and dedicated to our holistic progress and not just different parts of who we are as a city.”
Vernon Mitchell Jr., curator of popular American arts and culture for Washington University Libraries, remembers attending one of the early Ferguson Commission meetings, where Purnell presented the findings in the For the Sake of All report. “I thought, ‘This is it. They can’t argue about this. The status quo cannot argue about this,’” he says. “I thought, OK, we can start to actually move forward equitably, and in a particular type of truth.’” But, he says, “the response since that time leaves much to be desired. And so what that tells me is that the political will is still not there to move the needle forward.”
Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School, says not only does St. Louis need to muster that political will — it needs to muster it now. “If we don’t have the level of investment now — because I do think it’s a critical moment — then we will have blown the moment to do something transformative.” But any possible transformation is still on the horizon. What needs to happen now, Joe says, is that the region “has to determine, first of all, are we all humans that have value? Do we understand that what happens to the least of us impacts all of us? And do we really want to be better together? It has to make that decision.”
Understanding the barriers and assumptions in the way of racial equity helps clarify the scope of the work that will be necessary to achieve it.
“There is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us,” says Henderson. “We have begun the work of equity awareness, but how do we move towards implementation?”
“I think part of our problem is assuming that this deeply important work is going to happen just by virtue of altruism, or some disinterested motivations on the parts of people, and that’s not how things work,” Purnell says. “So how do we understand what those interests are, and try to get to a situation where doing the right thing is also doing the thing that’s in someone’s interests? We’ve learned that it’s really crucial for people to understand what their role and responsibility is in these sort of cross-sector collaborations, for those things to be clearly tracked, and for it to be someone’s job to manage that collaboration. It can’t just be something that folks are doing on the side, in addition to their day job, because we’ve seen those types of collaborations fall apart. St. Louis needs to build its civic infrastructure. It needs to set those tables and resource the kind of coordination that’s necessary to solve complex problems.”
Furtado expands on the need for stronger civic infrastructure. “The nature of systemic inequality is that it cannot be corrected by acting in one small space. It is necessary to correct the system, and the system is made up of organizations, institutions, across sectors, who have wittingly or unwittingly, over the course of many, many decades, built structures that have turned out disparate outcomes. To act on that will require all those organizations, institutions, and actors that have been a part of this system to help correct it.”
She appreciates the scale of the effort. “It’s massive work. It can’t be done on the fringes, it can’t be done as a side-of-desk activity. It’s taken many, many years to create the inequities, and a great deal of capital went into creating systems that work for some but not for others, so we need to be realistic about the kinds of resources it will take to undo that.” But, she says, “I think the greater realization that racial equity work is everyone’s work, that it does not exist in a single space, and it’s not the mission of just one or a small number of organizations, is key to the broader change that we’re hoping to see. We need every individual, every institution, every organization to own that racial equity is part of their mission and to find ways of operationalizing it into their work, to move beyond just saying, ‘I want a racially equitable St. Louis’ to ‘And here’s how I can act on that commitment in practical, actionable ways in my spaces, in my organization, my sphere of influence.”
Adelaide Lancaster, co-founder and director of community & collaboration for We Stories, acknowledges that in a region where so many were comfortable with the status quo for so long, “the work of change is really hard,” even among the White families We Stories works with who have opted in to challenging conversations about race.
“We have a large community of people who are learning things for the first time,” she says. “So we have helped them consider the role of race and racism in the way that our region is constructed and the ways that their families show up in our region, and the role of race and racism in their everyday lives, but we’re also trying to teach them: What does it take to make change? What does it mean to be civically engaged? How do you build coalitions? How do you suffer disappointments? How do you build that resilience? I think one of the biggest obstacles that we have as an organization and as a region is to really grapple with the question of: How long are we willing to try and what are we realistically able to expect?
Lancaster adds, “If we are clear that it’s taken us 400 years to get here, and that a lot of superhero capes on some White families is not gonna save the day, but [rather that] we need to work really, really hard for even incremental generational change and that that’s worth it, then I think that we will move forward and have a lot of progress in this region.”
Courage and persistence, Johnson-Javois says, are essential in this work. “It takes courageous people that stand with other courageous people on multiple issues, to keep echoing the same message and to be present. It does take disruption and discomfort, over a long period of time, to be able to awaken people.”
Washington University has an incredible opportunity, probably an opportunity of a lifetime.
Johnson-Javois also sees a unique opportunity for the university in this moment. “Washington University has an incredible opportunity, probably an opportunity of a lifetime,” she says. “The role that I can see and the role that I am expecting and hopeful about is one that models what it means to acknowledge pain, that articulates what happened, and the role that the institution has played, and sit in that for just a minute. There’s opportunity to model that because others, through the courage of the university to do that work, will step forward.”
Based on her work throughout the region, she feels, “All eyes are on the university, and so in acknowledging that trauma and acknowledging the opportunity to enter into a different relationship [with local communities], that is defined and co-created together, is the second step of what I can envision the university doing — and have seen some signs that the university is doing. But they go together like hands: the one hand is extended to say, ‘This is what I know I have done and contributed to,’ and the second hand reaches out to say, ‘This is what I’m willing to do and to give, and this is what I’m willing to be, and I want you to help me to define a new way to be in space together.’ I see those as things that need to happen, and fairly fast.”
When it comes to the university’s role, Mitchell says, “The questions that a university needs to be asking itself at this moment are: How are they engendering a relationship with the community that is real? How do we make this community better, beyond the rhetoric? How do we create systems that will provide a type of equity and equality that we say we support?”
Community expectations of the university have changed in the last five years as well. Purnell says, “We’re still trying to move things like school-based health centers forward. We’re still trying to move towards a holistic understanding of health within schools. We’re still trying to get child development accounts done for children, now throughout the state of Missouri, and talking about things like housing,” describing several projects in which Health Equity Works has been engaged.
“What the response to Ferguson has done has amplified the importance of those efforts. It has elevated the conversation that we were just sort of tentatively starting in May of 2014,” he says. “It’s actually had more of an impact beyond research. Because what the community said was, ‘Reports are lovely. Thank you for your reports, but we’re going to need to see some action come as a result of those reports.’ So it’s forced us to be more intentional about what is the action that comes from this and what is our role in facilitating some of that action, which has been a real learning experience.”
Despite the numerous barriers to racial equity, and the challenges inherent in clearing them, many of those who have been working toward racial equity see signs of progress that give them hope.
“I think despite the days that beat me down and make me more pessimistic about this work on the whole, I am actually more optimistic now than I was a couple of years ago, largely because I’ve seen the people who are engaged in racial equity work in St. Louis and how much passion and skill they bring to that work and how they find different ways to contribute their skills,” Furtado says. “I think the robust and growing network of individuals and organizations who see racial equity as part of their work and who are making specific commitments of time and resources to building their capacity to address it within their spaces is extremely heartening. I think that the fact that not a single election will happen without a demand for a specific set of strategies around racial equity is extremely heartening.”
“You know, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about progress is the election of Wesley Bell,” Nichols says. Bell defeated seven-term incumbent Robert McCulloch for election to St. Louis County Prosecutor in 2018. McCulloch gained national attention for his handling of the grand jury assigned to investigate Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown Jr. “His election symbolized a turning of tides, that perhaps we would have someone who would take a more empathetic glance at what was happening in our justice system … and that we have someone who can represent for more St. Louisans, not just in name or color, but in values.”
Dwight is inspired by who is engaging in racial equity work now, and who is being heard. “There are people having voice at tables and in spaces where five years ago it would have seemed unimaginable, which is exciting,” he says. “I also see more White people who are actively grappling with their Whiteness, and what their role is in changing St. Louis and in what ways they’re accountable to changing St. Louis. There’s a long way to go there, but that’s been heartening.”
Brown School alum Lindy Drew is encouraged by the new resources available to everyday St. Louisans to deepen understanding and empathy for their neighbors. Drew is the co-founder and the lead storyteller for Humans of St. Louis. Since 2014, she has been photographing and interviewing everyday St. Louisans, which has given her the opportunity to ask hundreds of people questions about race, and share their portraits and responses with the more than 120,000-person following Humans of St. Louis has built on social media.
“It fascinates me to go out and ask these questions again and again and again,” she says. “As much as I’ve learned from hearing the answers, now there’s this body of work that exists — not only on Humans of St. Louis, but also on Forward Through Ferguson.” That repository of stories means that people who might not be comfortable talking about race can still hear candid perspectives on the topic, and learn about different life experiences. “Anybody can read them for themselves and use that information to do what they like with it,” Drew says.
Joe has studied the work other regions around the country have done in seeking to address racial inequity, and found that “St. Louis is better positioned to have a plan and deliver on a plan than most other regions.” Though he says, “I don’t think we’re drastically different in prioritizing or valuing it,” the other regions he has analyzed have not been “as systemic in terms of their thinking, and the ability to have the right set of collective organizations or infrastructure [in place] that could then be marshaled” toward racial equity.
Johnson-Javois, who is frequently invited to speak across the country to discuss her work, says others have noticed this difference. “People outside of St. Louis that I’ve spoken with are fascinated by the progress, the acceleration that they feel” is happening in the region. She is often asked, “‘How did you even get that call to action? What was the process that you’ve used to even lay out this kind of path and this narrative?’ For many communities, they’re stunned at our ability to articulate the journey and the direction, and the buy-in of the magnitude of tables that we convened to do that.”
As the fifth anniversary of Aug. 9, 2014, approaches, what do those who have been researching, reporting on, and advancing the work of racial equity want people to know?
“I want the average St. Louisan to know and to trust that even though it may seem that progress is slow, things are shifting, things are moving, entities are being held accountable,” Nichols says. “Sometimes that work is not always visible immediately. And with regard to the fact that this has been a 400-plus years struggle, we can’t expect the first five years after this one incident to show us a total overhaul of all of these systemic issues and injustices. So I would encourage us all to give ourselves some grace and perhaps an inch of patience, but I would also encourage people that if they have that sense of urgency to get more stuff done, that perhaps diving even more passionately and consistently into the work can also be one way that we can get there faster.”
Christie Huck, executive director of City Garden Montessori School, says, “When the media arrives in St. Louis in August 2019, I want them to see our children. I want them to see our children and listen to them, and listen to what they have been calling for over the last five years. I want them to really try to understand why the community, why Michael Brown’s family came into the street and didn’t leave, after he was left for hours out in the sun, and what that means. I want the media, and I want the world, I guess, to really see St. Louis, and see the pain and the suffering that has existed here.”
But she also wants them to see “the courage of our young people who have said, ‘Enough. We are not going to live like this anymore. We’re not going to be silent anymore.’ I want people to see that we have strived to listen, and that there is incredible work happening in St. Louis, that has been led by our youth. That we are working to build a model for what equity can actually look like.”
Stanley says, “I want national media, when they come back to do these five-year-anniversary stories, to focus on the people who didn’t get to hop on planes [and] go back to the coast — who live here and deal with these things and are trying to figure it out,” But she also wants them to focus on “the people who are not — who have no problem with how things have been and how things are for their neighbors in the region.”
She also wants her media colleagues to “make the connection [that] “what’s going on here, what’s gone on here, what went on here five years ago, is everywhere in this country,” and “not treat St. Louis as a pitied Petri dish that we can examine race and class through on an anniversary. As a journalist who has reported, and lived, in other communities, I know that the issues here in St. Louis, and what happened here in St. Louis five years ago, are sadly not unique to St. Louis.”
Joe says, “As national attention turns to St. Louis once again, I think it’s going to be critically important that they understand that there’s some short term changes that are demonstrating that there’s some improvements and there’s some investment” that suggest that “systemic work is on the way. We know there still remain a lot of challenges, but at least now we are mature in our understanding that we have to plan and build the type of environment that we want in order to have the outcomes that we want for our children.”
Horwitz says, “I would want to read stories that both really paint a picture of the amazing and incredible work” that has been done, “and I’d want them to tell the heartbreaking truth that not much has changed, too. The story I’d really like to read is how much is changed and how far we have to go.”
Henderson says, “What I want people to understand is that we’re still hurting from Ferguson.” Though “Some great things have happened … we still have a tremendous way to go,” she says. “There’s more work, there’s more resources that are needed. There are many gaps. There are many challenges that [still] need to be addressed.”
Johnson-Javois welcomes the acknowledgement of those gaps and challenges. “The most impactful thing, the most loving thing that external people could do for us coming in,” she says, “would be raising the level of attention to what still remains undone. Would be to say, ‘Why is this still left exposed, with all the assets that you’ve got?’ We do best when we respond to accountability, and that for me is what I hope happens. That, yes, we celebrate that some things have happened, but I’m still in a space of wanting to be exposed, because that is what leads to accountability, and to pivot faster to get those things done.”
Purnell takes a broad view. “What I know is the reality is that the history of race in this country runs very, very deep, and the kinds of advantages and privileges that have been assigned to certain groups [are] still meaningful,” he says. “We can’t expect to replace that without a compelling narrative about a larger ‘us,’ about a community that we want to see, that is a positive vision for that community. It’s got to be something that calls out the best in people. It calls for their hopes, calls for their dreams, calls for their highest aspirations for themselves and for future generations. And we have to articulate that in a way that finally includes everybody, and be very clear that that’s not just the right thing to do but it’s the most effective thing to do. And that our future as a region, our future as a country depends on it.”
The last five years have brought dramatic change and a reckoning with race to a region that still has much work to do. Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, wants people to understand that those five years are just the beginning of the work that must be done to achieve racial equity.
“I want you to understand that the thing we call Ferguson is not over,” Strode says. “That the Ferguson uprising started a movement that continues very much to this day. That many of the same people that started that movement continue to be in the work and the communities that have suffered too long because of the systemic inequities that came to light during the Ferguson uprising, that those communities are also working every single day, struggling every single day to make a difference for themselves and their families and future generations. The work very much continues.”