The commission’s job is to be absolutely and fundamentally accountable to the people of this state and this community. It’s impossible to do that without listening. That’s part of the reason why our meetings are structured the way they are, because if we only used the mass meeting public comment format, it’s much more difficult to hear the nuance in what people have to offer, both in their lived experience and in the suggestions they want to put forward. That’s why we engage in public comments and small group work. Commissioners have gone all across the region, presented the work thus far to many different groups, and have heard suggestions from them. We encourage people, and they almost always rise to the occasion and exceed the expectation that they are giving actionable, concrete solutions that are based in reality. Our job is to take that and make sure that we are not only putting something on paper that directly responds to what people have been kind enough to give us, but that we do everything we can as 16 individuals with various networks, roles, and responsibilities, to actually see that these things become reality.
People keep using this phrase of “translating tragedy into change.” That is a really wonderfully branded phrase, but what does it mean for someone if 10 months ago, they walked out of their apartment and had an M16 rifle pointed in their face and you want to tell them that now there’s this bright shiny report that’s been presented to the governor? That doesn’t actually mean anything for them. That tragedy doesn’t feel like it’s been transformed into anything but more of the same thing.
So, getting to the point where there’s a felt and palpable difference for folks – in how they interact in municipal courts, how officers treat them in their own community, in the kind of respect that they receive from politicians when they stand up to make their voices heard – if we can make those kinds of things happen consistently, then I would feel like we would have done at least something. Making sure that people’s daily lives are important, and that the kind of systemic changes that are required, such that good people don’t end up making bad decisions in bad systems and cultures, is the only way we can see long term traction. Otherwise, the good relationship that I had with the nice police officer ends as soon as he retires and takes his pension. If we are shifting to the place where, systematically, we are ensuring that that nice, caring police officer that’s responsible to build relationships, and treat everyone not only with dignity and respect, but to respect their constitutional rights as an officer of the law, when we make sure that that’s not just one officer, but every officer in the department because of the way the department conducts itself, then we will see long term systemic change, which is ultimately what we’re responsible to do.
You are whole, beautiful, brilliant, where you come from matters, and I’m going to teach you in a way that acknowledges all of that.
When I work on issues of education, when I train teachers with my organization, we are talking fundamentally about empowering children as learners and as leaders to be able to access a life of full choice. There’s a theory of education called Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. A Black educator named Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the term in the early 90s, and it is this idea that instead of the kind of deficit based pedagogies that we’ve previously trained teachers on in which they see kids with all their deficiencies, they instead look at a kid in an asset based way and see every child for what they uniquely bring to this space, individually and culturally, and that teaching should be responsive and affirming to that. It sounds like total common sense, and yet it is not the way that we typically train teachers. A lot of people will be well intentioned and say, “Well, it’s Black History Month. Let me make sure we read a book on Dr. King.” Or, “It’s Hispanic Heritage month, so you might learn about Cinco de Mayo.” That is teaching kids that, “If I am not White, not affluent, if I don’t speak English as a first language, then I should be relegated to one week, one day, one month a year, and I am not important the rest of the time.” Instead, what we have done at Teach for America St. Louis, is to say that culturally responsive pedagogy is important, but especially important here after what our kids have seen and been through. The idea that they are coming into the classroom as whole, full people is necessary. Teachers, counselors, coaches, pastors, mentors, tutors, everybody needs to be approaching a child saying, “You are whole, beautiful, brilliant, where you come from matters, and I’m going to teach you in a way that acknowledges all of that.”
I studied African American history in college, so I am somebody who gives full recognition that I sit in the shade of trees that I did not plant and drink from wells that I did not dig. People were doing work before I got here. Every single generation goes through this. For us, it was hip-hop. For the generation before mine it was rock ‘n’ roll. This happens every single time. Hippies with the long hair, now it’s dread locks. There is always something that the next generation is doing that the former generation deems inappropriate, and the former generation did something that their parents thought was inappropriate. The cycle continues, but even if the music doesn’t sound the same, even if the dress doesn’t look the same, or the chants don’t sound the same on the street, how quickly we forget that we were in the same seat long ago.
I spoke to a group of 10 high school graduates, all African American young women, headed to college next year with an event that the National Council of Negro Women held to support them. I told a story about Dianne Nash, and when she started to lead the student sit ins and do non violent civil disobedience, her parents told her she had fallen in with the wrong crown. They had seen it as not important and historic but as dangerous and unseemly. When I was done with the speech, the president said, “You woke up so much history for me.” It was just about telling a story that was familiar to her and reminding the group that this is actually not unfamiliar territory. The same things that you wanted people to do for you are the same things that people are crying out for now even if they’re not using the same words to do it.
The reason why there is a Ferguson Commission, the reason why there is a President’s Task Force on 20th Century Policing, the reason why we have seen protests in Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, Florida, Hong Kong, Palestine, and everywhere is because these young folks who were encountered with weapons of war on the very streets they grew up on, kept coming out night after night. They would go home at 5 AM. Some would go to school or work. Some are unemployed or underemployed. And they were there the next night, and the next night, and the next night. Youth has the capability to have that kind of endurance. We have to have respect for that, and also tap into the power of that level of endurance and resiliency that one can have at younger ages. Youth have embraced creativity, and innovation, and propelled entire movements forward. We would be wise to recognize that we have the same power here in our young people even if they didn’t go to Harvard, or do what Steve Jobs did. They have built and are building a movement. So, following them in their lead is of critical importance.
I think about how many of our societal ills we could fix if those folks that we’ve been busy writing off got a good education, got a good job where they could feed their family and be productive members of society, and unleash their gifts and talents in the world because they’re not hidden by all the oppression that they’re facing daily. I remember in my sophomore year of high school reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and he talks about all of these men that he was in jail with when he was still running the streets as Detroit Red. And he said some of the greatest mathematical and scientific minds of my generation were behind bars with him. Think about all of the things we lost because of that, and all of the things we continue to lose because we are not tapping into the full gifts, talents, and potential of every single one of the people in this region in that age bracket. There’s a lot there if we would pay attention, empower, and teach those folks well.