As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, Mo., there are three questions we must ask ourselves: What are we to make of what is happening there? How can Ferguson not be the victim of empty promises of aid and justice that so often come after tragic events? And how can the community productively move forward?
The events that occurred in Ferguson are chilling. Can anyone imagine a loved one being shot dead by police – and then left in the middle of a street for four hours, as happened with 18-year-old Michael Brown? This terrible incident – and subsequent violent protests and looting of stores – were matched only by the militarized response of law enforcement and their escalating use of armored vehicles, advanced weapons, and heavy-handed tactics.
The facts surrounding Michael Brown's shooting remain in dispute. But this much we know: something went awfully awry on August 9, touching a deep and aggravated nerve in the community. No one questions that maintaining peace is a basic need in all communities. But not to respond to people's anger and frustration and pain is to deny the reality of their daily lives and risk further alienation in Ferguson and throughout our country.
A good society hears people's cries and responds.
But what of our response? I fear that various groups and organizations and self-anointed leaders will turn Ferguson into a playing field to advance their own agendas, with local residents becoming mere pawns in their gamesmanship.
I fear that Ferguson will become a "poster community" for those who seek state and federal legislation – as if a single law will heal the pain and problems of the people of Ferguson.
I fear that various political leaders and sundry organizations will rush to Ferguson with promises of aid and assistance that never materialize, or that such help will arrive at some distant date in a patchwork of band-aids.
The only thing worse than no hope is false hope.
After working for more than 25 years in places like Flint, Mich. and other hard-hit communities that have suffered vast economic and social crises, or Newtown, Conn. which endured the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults, I am convinced there is a better path.
In order to go forward, Ferguson must pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope.
But this can happen only if the community makes this choice. This process won’t work with some new comprehensive plan laid out by well-meaning experts or political leaders. Instead, the community must have opportunities and spaces to engage in constructive conversations where they can express their anger, pain and frustration in public ways.
This is a critical step that is often bypassed, to the detriment of people and their communities. Why? Because many of us are uncomfortable with hearing raw emotions. It can feel out of control, and we fear this.
But to side-step this piece of the conversation is to deny people their humanity. It puts into question their legitimate frustrations and concerns. It says to them, "Come and talk, but don’t make things messy." When people are aggrieved, they must know that what they say will be heard, and that their pain will not cause others to turn away. They must be shown that what they feel holds value.
To make this pivot, conversations ultimately must turn to people's shared aspirations for themselves and their community. This is critical. The community must marry its despair with hope. The expression of shared aspirations enables people to identify what they can create together moving forward.
People don't want just to talk. They want to be builders. They want to create something better.
There is a deep yearning among Americans from all walks of life to come together and build. Being builders is part of our DNA, our character. It is who we are.
It is who the people of Ferguson are, too: Amid the protests dominating the air waves, many Ferguson residents quietly came together to build human walls between demonstrators and law enforcement. Residents gathered in front of looted stores to help clean up the debris. Tables were set up for residents to register to vote, volunteer in the community, and learn about job training opportunities. When the first day of school was cancelled, the Ferguson Public Library opened its doors and held educational activities for children. Scores of them came.
Ferguson residents have an opportunity to build a stronger relationship between the police and various parts of the community. There are openings for the police to understand the need for diversity and other training to better work with the community.
There are other issues that also must be addressed. Inadequate public schools must be fixed. Economic development and jobs are needed.
These and other tasks will require the community to generate the public will to act and to marshal its collective skills and resources to make a difference. Rebuilding trust is essential. So, too, is developing the community's belief and confidence that change is even possible. To do this, the community must start by taking actionable steps so that it can produce short-term wins. These wins can create the conditions to tackle tougher issues down the road.
Key to making progress is to find the trusted leaders and organizations that can bring people together to develop a path forward. In my experience, these groups and individuals are often not the ones we see daily in the news media, but who have been diligently working with residents over time and have gained their trust and respect.
But for these groups and individuals to step forward means that others must be willing to step to the side. This won't be easy for some. They will need to exercise a commodity that is in very short supply in public life nowadays: humility.
The challenges in Ferguson have captured the nation's attention. The people of Ferguson can now find ways to build the community they seek. It is up to the rest of us to find ways to support their aspirations. And we must recognize that the conditions in Ferguson exist in many American communities. Let us not turn a blind eye to those communities and their aspirations.
Let us hear their cries. Let us support a better community in Ferguson and across the country.