The following was adapted from Prayer for Ferguson, published in the St. Louis American:
Prayer is important to me. It is what I do for guidance. When the events of Ferguson unfolded last August, I, like many of you, prayed and reflected even more.
With being fairly new to my role (just over a year), I struggled with how United Way, the region’s largest nongovernmental funder of health and human services, should respond. I also struggled with my personal response as a leader who happens to be an African American man. I didn’t wonder if we would take action but when and how would be best.
In a crisis it is easy to make rushed decisions and hurried judgments. I have found that in these moments pausing for intentional prayer and reflection is critical to gaining clarity, so I did. Amidst the tears and sadness for our community, I emerged even more resolute to hold our region accountable to provide people with options.
Ferguson took a huge toll on me because of who I am as a person and what I have seen in my life. My mother, an uneducated woman, died in her twenties. Her life was cut short because of the poverty, prostitution and drug-induced choices she made. She placed me and my three siblings at constant risk because she perceived that she had limited, if any, other options.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, I thought about my mother and the young people and families in our region who face a similar reality. When you live in a neighborhood with 20, 30 and 40 percent poverty, where violent crime is familiar and exploitation routine, you become numb and don’t believe it can be different. I believe United Way’s role, in partnership with many others, is to ensure that our region’s long-term plan increases real options for people in need.
United Way’s position continues to be that there are three phases to the work in Ferguson and beyond: immediate crisis stabilization, intermediate response to address critical needs, and long-term action and accountability to change lives. This long-term work requires that the systems to help people live better lives and move toward self-reliance become more integrated. Government programs have to work more intentionally with other government programs, nonprofits have to partner in more strategic ways with each other, and United Way and other funders have to invest strategically and align resources to foster change at scale. Part of this work is manifested in United Way’s support of the community-led processes East Side Aligned and Ready by 21. As you may have seen, Ready by 21 was recognized as an important effort in a recent Post-Dispatch editorial.
During those early days last August, I found peace in the notion that my response as a black man and leader of a mainstream organization could be one in the same if the values were consistent. I found peace in remembering that to achieve anything significant, to catalyze the change that moves our region forward — together, regardless of our race, as a whole community – would require multiple strategies, many voices, and committed hearts. To make our region even more competitive and a compelling destination, we’ve got to have honest discussion and purposeful action.
Ferguson for me has become a symbol not of what is wrong with our region but what is possible. This is my prayer.