Ferguson, MO is not unique. Although Ferguson may be the site of the most recent flare-up, other communities have experienced similar unrest in the past, and other communities are at risk for the future. Many of our communities experience divides and inequities similar to those in the Saint Louis metropolitan area. Our communities, and our country, need to address these issues.
Will we? These are hard issues. It’s easier to say “they need to fix their problems in St. Louis” than to look at what needs to be fixed in our own communities. Or to decry the violence and ignore the inequities that exist and the lack of hope that many feel.
Martha McCoy from Everyday Democracy once observed that the that “lack of civility is a symptom of a structural problem that requires a structural remedy.” Part of that structural problem is our unwillingness to listen to those whose experiences differ from our own. Another is the limited opportunities for many citizens to be heard. As we have noted before, all conversations occur at three levels, information, emotion, and identity. When difference or conflict is strongly rooted in the lower levels, emotions are easily inflamed and decisions aren’t always made in rational way.
We can see all three levels of conflict at work in Ferguson – Info: what exactly happened when Michael Brown was shot? Emotion: sadness, anger, fear are all present and being expressed. Identity: what does it mean to be “American”? to be a community? to have hope for a future? to “follow the law”? to care for one another? to help one another? who are our fellow citizens? When we don’t have good ways to discuss and resolve issues like this in our communities or in our country, the hurt and distrust build and get loaded onto other issues, and often explode in unpredictable ways. We need more direct, and more frequent, dialogue over values, and identity, and community, and justice.
All people need real opportunities to be heard, to address the difficult issues that affect their lives, and to know that their thoughts and concerns — their very existence — matter to others and will be taken into account when decisions are made by those who allocate our resources and write or enforce our laws. Building those opportunities is as much, if not more, the work of citizens as of our elected leaders. If you are a member of a church community, a service group, or other network, start a dialogue about what troubles you and what can be changed. You can find many resources here. Share your vision of what could be if our divides were bridged. Raise the question of what we collectively lose when those divides are ignored. When leaders promise action, ask from the outset how progress will be evaluated and reported. Evaluations should be honest, transparent, and rigorous, if we are to learn and grow together. If leaders ask for input, sign-up and participate. Much has been asked of the Commission appointed by Jay Nixon to address many of the inequities in the St. Louis region. Whether real change occurs depends on citizens watching, listening, sharing, and being willing to work together.
I frequently end trainings with a quote from Admiral Hyman Rickover: “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.” In addressing the events in Ferguson, President Obama has at various points asked us to “listen and not just shout”, to “understand not just divide”, and to lift up the kinds of “constructive dialogue” that can lead to “real progress”. Engaging in serious dialogue with those we don’t know or trust takes courage, patience, and practice. It also is the only way that builds community and creates real and sustainable changes.
We can do this. If we are willing.
“America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance won’t you? Knock down the fences which divide.” -Justice Thurgood Marshall