August 2014. I had just completed my first year as CEO of United Way when Michael Brown was killed. I was heartbroken by that event and disappointed by our inability as a country and region to grasp the enormity of the issues that underlie the people’s protest. At the time, our governor instituted a blue ribbon committee to “…study the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.”
The commission outlined that, “Change requires different choices, different decisions, and different actions. Change requires new effort, new relationships, new habits. Change requires letting go of the known and wading through the unfamiliar found in the dark of the unknown.” It served as a national declaration and suggested a way forward.
Michael Brown’s killing sparked a national movement with a thin ray of hope. Sadly, the momentum fizzled and the ray faded. Why? Because those who are in the most powerful positions in our country and region, up to this point, have chosen not to embrace fully the tenants of the commissions charge on a local, regional or national level. To embrace this declaration is perceived by the most powerful as a vote against self-interest. Instead it should be embraced as a necessity for the future prosperity of our country and region.
As a black man, I was really stunned by the intentionality with which so many in our region and beyond chose not to see the humanity of Michael and what this act truly represented for black America. I was both sad and numb by everything that I saw going on. I was dumbfounded that many in the most powerful corners of St. Louis were seemingly seeing, for the first time, the inequities and injustices that were generations in the making and not far from sight. I found it hard to believe that we as a region “didn’t know” life was this bad for many in black St. Louis. Sometimes denial is the sedative we ingest to avoid dealing with the really tough shit in life. And the toughest struggles always comes down to the fair dispensation of justice and economics.
As a child, I knew a fair number of black men who spent time in jail. It actually seemed more like a rite of passage. As an adult with a newfound understanding of statistics and probability, I found it absolutely abhorrent that such a disproportionate percentage of black men spend time incarcerated. I find it suspicious that black men are more likely to die for non-violent crimes and misinterpretations of normal behavior like retrieving license and registration upon command.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, I engaged in many conversations with top leaders in our region. It was rarely comfortable. I struggled with whether I should speak truth or placate these leaders by dodging the really thorny conversations that would have me challenge their world view. I didn’t agree with their common belief that the protestors were “anarchists.” I didn’t think that to say “black lives matter” was to suggest that no other life mattered, particularly “blue lives”. These were and continue to be the binary choices that African Americans who walk in this country have to face.
Six years ago I said, “Ferguson is the canvas on which so many people have chosen to paint the picture of their frustration, despair and hopelessness. I urge our region, for the sake of future economic and spiritual prosperity to search our hearts and be intentional with systems change that give all people a shot at winning”.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of another people’s protest. The core of the outrage remains the same: the absence of equity across any number of domains. If we examine our national, local and regional balance sheet, where would we find equity? In most conversations about positioning the St. Louis region for growth we typically default to our many assets. We tout our charitable, cultural, academic and healthcare prowess. But these assets do not match the scale of our liabilities.
We have chosen for generations not to see the humanity of all people. We have failed to consistently advance policies that promote justice. We have failed to address in any serious way the systems that continue to produce economic desserts and the means for upward mobility.
I still believe in this region and country. But I am frustrated by the lack of vision. I am frustrated that we keep doing and saying the same things and are expecting different outcomes. I am frustrated that we have not yet realized the interconnectedness of our destinies. If you are wondering what you can do right now, choose not to be silent. Let your voice be heard. Choose not to allow a handful of violent agitators, who have embedded themselves among otherwise peaceful protesters distract you from the real tragedy- a life was taken prematurely. A system continues to fail the most marginalized. Finally, choose to be counted in the US census and vote. Your vote matters locally and nationally. The way forward is through shared power, inclusive economic prosperity which demands accountability from systems and the people who build them. It is time to act.