“I think what’s most encouraging to me is the way in which the dialogue has shifted in St. Louis, right down to the language that people use,” says Blake Strode, executive director of nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders.
“In 2015, if I said the words ‘debtor’s prison,’ very few people knew what I was talking about. We now have local reporting that regularly uses the phrase. The kinds of conversations that are playing out in public, in elections, and just in people’s living rooms, I think, are different today than they were five years ago.”
That change has impacted Strode’s work. “The shift in dialogue reduces the need for me to convince people that there’s something happening — people understand now that there really is a problem afoot, that there is something that is rotting in our system. The question that people [now] have is, What is that thing and what do we do about it? So instead of starting from zero, we are able to get into a more meaningful conversation about both diagnosing specific problems and talking about specific solutions.”
A key term in that conversation is ‘racial equity.’ The Ferguson Commission titled its report, “Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity.” But when the report was released, “there wasn’t a lot of shared understanding of what that meant,” says David Dwight IV, EN ‘15, lead strategy catalyst for Forward Through Ferguson, the nonprofit created in 2016 to carry on the commission’s work.
Racial equity was often confused or conflated with diversity or equality. Believing that shared understanding of racial equity was essential to achieving it, the Forward Through Ferguson team emphasized racial equity in dozens of public presentations, small-group meetings, and one-on-one conversations, each time articulating its definition of racial equity as a state in which race and zip code were no longer accurate predictors of life outcomes — and explaining why simply improving demographic representation or ensuring equal treatment will not be enough to change those outcomes.
“Our realities today can’t be solved just by treating everyone equal, because for the last 300 years of the United States, we’ve had policies, practices, and decisions that have denied opportunity from a set of people,” Dwight explains. “You can’t just ignore that history and start from square one. We have to be proactive in addressing these issues if we ever want to get to a place that’s different from today.”
You can’t just ignore that history and start from square one. We have to be proactive in addressing these issues if we ever want to get to a place that’s different from today.
David Dwight IV Jr.
As understanding of the term grew, so did understanding of what was necessary to move toward it, and who could impact that progress.
“There are more folks that hold power, me included, that are starting to talk openly about the disparity that exists, [and] also the role that we play in it,” says Paul Woodruff, executive director of Prosperity Connection and vice president of community development for St. Louis Community Credit Union.
“Today, every candidate for major elective office in St. Louis has to talk about racial equity and systemic racism,” Dwight says. “It’s a baseline today. We’ve been involved with several candidate forums for mayor, for president of the Board of Aldermen, where candidates had to talk about racial inequity and how racism affected housing, how it affected health, how it affected governance. Even if it hasn’t fully translated into policy [yet], it’s a different environment today. Candidates can’t ignore these issues anymore … they have to at least talk about them.”
Christie Huck is the executive director of City Garden Montessori School, a K-8 charter school in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis. “I’ve been doing community organizing and racial justice work, social justice work since the late 90s, and I didn’t ever imagine a St. Louis in which the term ‘racial equity’ would be used on a regular basis in news stories in mainstream media. And that is happening.”
“I think the movement that grew out of the Ferguson uprising demanded a different kind of conversation,” says Strode. “I think it demanded a more serious critique and inquiry into the ways in which our public systems and institutions are impacting different communities differently. And that’s always been a challenge in the American dialogue, to step away from this fallacy of American exceptionalism and the shining city on a hill and that all people have equal opportunity to achieve their dreams. It’s always been a challenge to say actually that’s a myth and that’s only true for some people. But there’s a bit more of an appetite to do that today.”
That appetite is appearing in unlikely places.
“We had begun doing anti-racism work several years before Michael Brown was killed,” says Huck, “and it was almost as if we had to whisper about it. Or … not say the word ‘racism’ too loudly, or too often, or in particular circles.”
Today, City Garden hosts “Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism,” a two-and-a-half day anti-racism workshop presented by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, multiple times per year. And in recent years, workshop participants have included not only educators and nonprofit leaders, but also corporate executives, Washington University senior administrators, and the mayor of St. Louis and her staff. “We have welcomed hundreds of people and institutions into our space to go through anti-racism training with Crossroads, and to engage in conversations about race and racism, about privilege, and about how each of us can leverage our influence,” Huck says.
As the leader of a school that has been outspoken about its anti-bias and anti-racism commitment, Huck is also seen throughout the region — and increasingly, throughout the country — as a resource for organizations who have only recently begun to engage in this work. She says she and her colleagues “are invited to speak about racial equity and anti-racism work on a regular basis — like multiple times a week — from organizations in St. Louis [and] outside of St. Louis. I was just asked to be on an anti-racism team for a major health collective and organization.”
Five years ago, anti-racism teams “did not exist in mainstream institutions,” Huck adds. But “now, we are seeing the largest nonprofit organizations in St. Louis making commitments to racial equity and anti-racism. We are seeing major corporations in St. Louis making commitments — deep commitments — in terms of resource, in terms of hiring, in terms of practice and culture in their own institutions, to racial equity and anti-racism.”
I didn’t ever imagine a St. Louis in which the term ‘racial equity’ would be used on a regular basis in news stories in mainstream media. And that is happening.
City Garden’s anti-racism work has also gained more traction internally. Through the school’s governing board and board committees, “We have been working to try to center equity in our institution for many years,” Huck says. “Before Ferguson, it was a major push to try to get people” to engage with their anti-racism work. “Now we are at a place where our building and grounds committee, which is made up of people in real estate development, architecture, engineering and a couple of attorneys, are on their own developing a plan so that we as an institution can ensure that we are prioritizing our anti-bias/anti-racism commitment in our vendor selection process. They developed a process that is both educating vendors and asking important questions of them, mandating that any vendor also makes a commitment to racial equity and shows that they are doing their own work in order to receive our business.”
This internal work is having an external impact as well. “All of the people around that table with that committee represent a different institution, and they are also taking that commitment into their institutions [where they] are working to implement similar things,” Huck says. “That’s an example of how we’re actually getting inside of systems, and it is rippling out into others.”
Bethany Johnson-Javois has seen similar signs of change in the health care space.
Johnson-Javois, who served as the managing director of the Ferguson Commission in 2015, is CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network. “There are different kinds of leaders being asked into rooms, being invited into discussions,” she says. “There’s more space to ask questions before making decisions right away. There’s also beginning to be a retraining of how systems should work, and so even in my own work, we do not proceed without the inclusion of the patient voice or the family voice.” That inclusion impacts “how decisions are being made and funding is being prioritized” in a way that she has not seen before in health care since she entered the field in 2001.
Johnson-Javois says health practitioners have also begun to think differently about the factors that affect patient health. Previously, “The way we would have thought about medical care would not have included the impact on transportation, the impact on the affordability on medications, [on] housing,” she says. “You can not get a person to where you want them to go in health care unless we understand that they have affordable and stable housing. That realization wasn’t even in our thinking prior to the [Ferguson Commission] report and prior to asking the community, ‘What’s most needed in order to make sure you are getting the health care that you need?’ The level of conversation and transparency — about what we will risk and what we can give up, and what we’re uncomfortable with — is dramatically different for the rooms that I sit in and the facilitation that I have to do for my day job.”
This rethinking of systems and process has impacted the structure and operations of the Integrated Health Network itself. Prior to the Ferguson uprising, Johnson-Javois says, “we were not able to come together to have hospitals join with health centers and the public health department, because of history. This momentum has carried into us undoing our bylaws and redoing our bylaws to say there is no way that we can actually meet the mission of access and quality care [for the region] unless all partners are at the table, whether we agree or not. The way that we actually practice doing business has completely, radically changed.”
Woodruff has seen changes in the financial sector as well. “More and more, rather than having a token response to some of the systemic issues that have been brought up, I see institutions that are actively committed to [racial equity work] and that are actively committed to working with organizations like Prosperity Connection that are trying to address the root issues of what’s going on.”
He’s also seen banks start to realize that taking racial equity seriously can benefit not only underserved communities, but their bottom line as well. “Not that anybody looked at Ferguson as, ‘How can we find a way to make banks make more money?’” he says. “But when you flip the script in terms of the value that a community has, well, communities of color should be served equally and equitably by the financial services industry.” But as the financial services industry provides “equal and equitable service, there’s an opportunity to drive income and revenue for those institutions. So having a double bottom line, I think, is interesting, and this is what more institutions are looking for.”
“Well, the way that I had always imagined movements, I had only ever seen very charismatic, individualized leadership,” says Brittany Ferrell.
When the Ferguson uprising began, Ferrell was about to begin her senior year in the College of Nursing at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Today, she is a registered nurse, a candidate for a Master’s of Public Health degree from the Brown School at Washington University, and a fellow with the Black Futures Lab.
But in Ferguson, leadership emerged “from various organizations, from different people. It became clear to me that there were multiple leaders, and also [that] there was no one person who this movement was going to uphold as being the spokesperson or the leader of the movement,” Ferrell says.
“I think there was an initial desire to try and contain or control what was happening in Ferguson, to look for a traditional set of leadership that could calm things down and make sense of things.” says Jason Purnell, associate professor at the Brown School and director of Health Equity Works.
“I remember having discussions with people asking, ‘Where are those leaders, and where are they going to come from?’ I think people were unprepared for a new generation of activists and leaders who themselves were on-the-job training every day out on West Florissant,” Purnell says. “It took some time for people to realize [that] those were the leaders, they were leading in different ways, they were leading from different perches, and they had more credibility in some circles than what would be considered traditional leadership, and that that needed to be respected.”
The leaders that emerged in Ferguson not only came from untraditional places — they presented differently. “What happened in Ferguson did not match up to what I had been taught my whole life of what a leader is supposed to look like,” Ferrell says. “Very seldom, if at all, would you be able to see a woman in leadership, especially in movement work or Black resistance work, any type of liberatory work.”
But in Ferguson, “A lot of leaders were young, Black, queer women.” Ferrell says that by definition, this translated into more inclusive leadership. “We’re freeing ourselves,” she says. And when that happens, “Everybody comes with us. Because when you take the people who are on the fringes of society and who are impacted by multiple oppressions, and those people receive equity, those people are able to obtain the type of freedom that allows them to live in dignity and in power … then everybody else will feel the effect of that.”
In his work with the Ferguson Commission and Forward Through Ferguson, Dwight has frequently found himself “in rooms where I’m a decade younger than anybody in there.” Though he has been immersed in this work for nearly five years, some often can’t see past his youth.
There’s a need for some real institution building in St. Louis, and it’s going to have to look different.
“We think traditionally about wisdom as something that you gain with age, right? I think in some aspects, that’s true. Obviously with more years … you understand systems more deeply, [and] you’re gaining more understanding and knowledge and skill in a certain way of doing business,” he says.
But “in a system that has a certain set of assumptions behind it that has led to a certain [kind] of outcomes, I think there is a wisdom that comes with being a young person and [having] a freedom from” those assumptions. Dwight says questioning the assumptions inherent in the status quo are “a vital part of getting to racial equity, of getting to a place that’s different than where we are today. So often I’ve found that that’s not recognized or seen as important, and it’s been a huge barrier. And I think to the detriment of St. Louis.”
Purnell sees similar assumptions at work, and similar limitations to that outlook. “We’re used to a top-down, ‘old-boys’-network, connected class of folks setting agendas in St. Louis, and we’re seeing that that’s no longer sufficient for the types of problems that we face in the 21st century,” he says. “There’s a need for some real institution building in St. Louis, and it’s going to have to look different. It’s going to have to respond to the fact that there is a new generation of leadership, and it doesn’t lead in the same ways. It’s going to have to be inclusive.”
When Adelaide Lancaster first heard the news about Michael Brown Jr., she was with her three children on a playground, “surrounded by lots and lots of White families.”
“I tried to have a couple of conversations with other moms that I was meeting there about what we were hearing in the news,” but few seemed willing to engage. Over the next several days, as protests in Ferguson dominated the headlines, she says, “I found myself just continually thinking about Michael Brown’s mother, and particularly her inability to access his body when he was laying in the street, and thinking about what that would feel like as a mother to be prevented from reaching my child in harm.”
Laura Horwitz grew up in St. Louis, but had gone to college, started her career, and started a family on the East Coast. She moved back to St. Louis on Aug. 9, 2014. Like Lancaster, she found herself thinking a lot about Brown’s mother, and “encountering a lot of silence about race.”
Both discussed issues of race online with friends back on the East Coast, hundreds of miles away. Though they had never met in person, they had been part of the same online mother’s network in Philadelphia, “so we had exchanged some emails, we had become Facebook friends,” Horwitz says.
“When we finally met up, we got to talking about our life, and our interests, and our kids, and also all these really important questions about what was happening in St. Louis right now,” she explains. Both had professional experience exploring systems change, and “we were both gravitating to a sense of obligation as parents to think about, ‘What then are my kids being socialized to think is normal and okay, and topics to discuss or not to discuss?’ We were both turning to children’s books as conversation openers to talk to our kids about skin color, about history, about race and activism in a number of different ways, and that passion ignited a really deep friendship.”
Soon, “We began to wonder together if there were more people that we could pull into a parenting community,” Lancaster says. “And, I have to say, we weren’t very optimistic at that point in time.” But when they “asked basically anyone we knew who had kind of sort of ever indicated that they might be willing to sit down and talk to us about race” to participate in small focus-group conversations, Horwitz says, 37 people signed up. They introduced those focus-group participants to the idea they had been developing: a program that used diverse children’s books to start family conversations about race.
After the focus groups met, they “sent around an email to people and asked them to forward it on and to sign up if they needed support in starting conversations about race with their children,” Lancaster says. “In 48 hours, we had 125 kids signed up, which was 80 families. We had budgeted for 50.”
We Stories was born.
“What we learned and heard right away was that parents came because they wanted to give something to their children, and they immediately realized that they had their own work to do,” Lancaster says. “They had a lot of gaps in history, so once they opened up this conversation, there were a lot of questions that they didn’t have a good answer for.”
As the We Stories community has grown — to 850 families across 86 zip codes in the region over three years — Horwitz, now We Stories’ executive director, and Lancaster, now We Stories’ director of community & collaboration, have noticed a change in the conversations White families are having. “The biggest change is in the notion that it’s important for White folks to talk to their kids about race in early childhood,” Horwitz says.
“Everyone talks all the time [about] the conversations we need to have about race,” she says. But “the majority of White families never or almost never talk to their children about race,” while “the majority of families of color talk about race with their children in an ongoing manner from a very young age all through their childhood, because it’s incredibly significant to their experience in the world.”
If conversations about race don’t have “the same starting place, then we’re really not talking about the same thing,” Horwitz says. “I don’t see how that conversation could be effective if we actually don’t have similar levels of fluency. We don’t try to put people who are learning a language with native speakers and then talk about the great conversation they’re having.”
As parents in these White families began to initiate conversations about race within their families, they also became activated to address racial inequity outside of their homes and in their community. Horwitz says We Stories parents started “canvassing for the first time for candidates people really care about, showing up at school board meetings, showing up at municipal city council meetings, getting involved in civic action and advocacy efforts, including in their schools,” and repeatedly showing up in their communities “as parents who are willing to say ‘Racial equity matters to me.’”
One of those We Stories parents was Lisa Clancy.
In 2018, she ran for St. Louis County Council, challenging a two-term incumbent. “I did enough homework to know that it was possible for me to win that seat,” Clancy says, “but a big piece of my exploration and decision about whether or not I should go for it was, will I be supported? And I knew that I could call upon a lot of different groups to support me, and We Stories was one of them. I knew through talking with friends and neighbors, many of whom are We Stories families, that they were ready … for bold and courageous, they were ready for feeling represented as White families doing anti-racism work in the St. Louis region to have a voice in positions of elected leadership.”
With this support, the regional climate, and her own understanding of how the dynamics of racial inequity were playing out in St. Louis County, “it felt natural to center racial equity and anti-racism in my campaign,” she says. “I felt like my messages around racial equity and anti-racism was something that resonated very well in my district.”
They resonated at the ballot box as well. “I beat my opponent by 22 points,” she says. “I think that says something too because I have some very wealthy areas in my district … the pieces right around Washington University, Clayton … Webster Groves, Maplewood. I think … my victory and the 18,000 votes of support that I got does tell a story here about what people want to be true in our region and what they’re willing to get behind to make it be true.”
Clancy sees the growth of We Stories as a leading indicator of change among White families in the region. “I think [it] shows us that there is a massive appetite for White people to be part of the solution, and to be part of forging a more equitable St. Louis region for all of us. I don’t think we can underestimate the power of White families getting organized to right some of the wrongs in this region.”
Huck agrees. “From personal relationships to professional relationships, families in our school, families in our neighborhood, but also, just more broadly, the conversation in St. Louis among White people is different than it was five years ago,” she says. “There are many, many more White people who maybe were not aware of the systemic inequities that exist and the realities of racism in St. Louis who are now much more aware. And so in that regard, the capacity of White people in St. Louis to have conversations about race, to make commitments to change, to transformation, has dramatically increased.”
Says Clancy, “What’s different now compared to August of 2014 is I think more and more people, especially people that look like me and my family, are willing to look in the mirror and to try to understand what role they have played and what role they can play, as we move St. Louis forward to a place that is more equitable.”
As the ripple effects of the killing of Michael Brown Jr. by Officer Darren Wilson and the Ferguson uprising revealed the depths of the racial inequity in the St. Louis region; brought forth a new generation of leaders who look and operate differently; changed where and when and how and by who race is discussed; changed how corporate, nonprofit and political leaders think about their role and responsibility regarding race; and changed the way White families throughout the region talk about and engage in issues of race; changes in policy — the key barometers of sustainable change — have begun to appear as well.
One of the signature calls to action from the Ferguson Commission report was reforming school discipline policies. The report cited data from “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” published by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies that ranked each state on the difference between the percentage of Black children suspended and the percentage of White children suspended. Missouri had the largest gap in elementary school suspension rates: 14.3% of Black students were suspended in 2011-2012 compared to 1.8% of White students.
In the St. Louis region, “There are no limitations on how young a child can be in order to be suspended,” says Karishma Furtado, a candidate in the Brown School’s Public Health Sciences PhD Program and the research and data catalyst for Forward Through Ferguson. That means children as young as kindergarten through 3rd grade can receive out-of-school suspensions.
“Often behaviors that are just normal for children are seen a different way when it’s a child of color,” says Dwight. Those children will “be suspended out of school, [and] they have higher rates of referral to law enforcement, which then just continues that school-to-prison pipeline, which has unfortunately taken so many people of color, and especially Black men, and put them in the jail system and the justice system and restricted their rights.”
To change suspension policies, Forward Through Ferguson joined with regional partners Ready by 21 St. Louis, Metropolitan Congregations United, West County Community Action Network, and FOCUS St. Louis Impact Fellows to develop “a coordinated, collaborative strategy around how to push for … policy change within school districts,” Furtado says.
At a public event in 2016, representatives from more than 25 school districts in the region gathered to share their work to reduce out-of-school suspensions, and three announced their decision “to ban out-of-school suspension for our region’s youngest students,” Dwight says. The number of districts banning the practice has grown, and now includes St. Louis Public Schools.
Policy change is happening at the state level as well. In 2018, grassroots organizers mobilized behind three state-level ballot initiatives: a repeal of a “right-to-work” law that had been passed by the state legislature in 2017, a minimum-wage increase, and a change in redistricting policy known as “Clean Missouri.”
“Those wins were really important, structural wins,” says Lara Granich, director of the Shared Roots Donor Alliance and Missouri Wins Investor Network, who worked with organizers on those campaigns. “We structurally raised the floor for income for families in this community by raising the minimum wage. We structurally changed how districts will be drawn so that we can restore that healthy, critical tension between voters and their elected officials. We structurally protected the ability of workers to bargain with their employers and vice versa.”
Would a set of victories like that have been possible pre-Ferguson? “I think it was possible years ago, but I don’t think it was probable. I think what Ferguson did is make something more probable and powerful,” Granich says.
Many of the policies that contributed to the underlying causes of “the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality, and safety in the St. Louis region” are still in place, and changing them will not be easy or happen quickly. But in the last five years, Granich says, the foundation for significant, sustainable change has been built.
“I think that true moment of crisis in our community made people with power understand that they needed to pay more attention to what was happening on the ground,” Granich says. “And I think it made people working closer to the ground take ourselves much more seriously in the way we need to organize and add up to real concrete change.”