You Work to Stop It

Staying here long-term wasn’t in my plans, but St. Louis has that way of keeping you here once you move here. Having lived here for many years, I notice how divided the community is. The tensions that are existing, the segregation, the separation between downtown and the county – all these different divides are just keeping people apart, and that was something that had always struck me. It even struck friends and family when they would visit me. They would pick up on, “Wow, I noticed that when I’m driving around your neighborhood, they have it blocked off right there. What’s up with that?” I had to explain to them, “Well, this is how the city works,” and they’d look at me with this strange face. It’s easy to almost get comfortable or complacent with those divisions rather than realizing that having that reaction of questioning these divides is natural. Finding an organization like Forward Through Ferguson, that’s going to help unpack all of that and dismantle those divides, is really empowering and exciting.

I grew up in a town in Connecticut where I was one of a handful of other black kids in my school. I was the only one in my elementary school. When you grow up in that kind of environment, where nobody else looks like you, and you’re the “other,” it compels you at a young age to strive to eliminate that “otherness” for other people. I was raised to use your platform and your privilege to help others. Sure, I was one of a handful of Black people in my town or school, but I was so blessed and privileged in other ways that it was important to me to reach out and do what I can to dismantle other systems that divide our communities.

FTF Board member Nelson Williams, photos by Lindy Drew

I can remember one incident in particular when I was nine. I was on the bus, I just got dropped off at my house, and this person spit on me. I didn’t tell my parents until about a year ago. I didn’t want them to feel hurt by it. We had just moved to this town. And a lot of times, particularly in the Black community, we want to do better and we want to provide a great living for our families. I didn’t want them to feel as though they had made any kind of mistake by moving into this town. But it’s all about what you choose to make of situations. You can stay and be defeated and be a victim, or you can oppose that kind of treatment and try to prevent it from happening to others. In the moment, I was heartbroken and sad. But I also remember eventually developing this feeling of, “You work to stop it from happening to others.”

Now, experiences like that are less overt, but they’re in the subtleties. It’s when I meet someone, they question me, I start telling them about my background, and they realize, “Okay, you’ve accomplished things, so maybe I should respect you a little bit,” which is ridiculous to say out loud, but it’s true. I can tell someone that I went to Duke, and I’m a lawyer, and their demeanor changes to, “Alright, so let me speak to you like a normal human being.” I’ve seen it happen so many times. There’s a shift in their posture and in the way that they’re interacting with me.

After I graduated law school, I got a job at my current firm, Thompson Coburn, and I have been working there ever since. Over the past few years, I established my roots in the community and made some really good relationships and networks. Prior to getting involved on the board, I didn’t have that much direct involvement with the commission or the board. Obviously, just by living in St. Louis, and being present here since Michael Brown’s death, you are constantly entrenched in these conversations and confronted by the impact of his death. Honestly, the biggest challenge is now communicating my commitment, showing my interest in helping to make changes, but doing so in a way that doesn’t come across as holier than thou, because I’m not a native of St. Louis. For me, it’s important that I’m an active listener and that I’m always remembering who I am responsible for in this community.

I found out about the call for board members when I participated in Crossroads Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism training in August 2016, and I thought, “This is it. This is what I need. This is what I’m already involved with.” Maybe not my formal professional background, but my extracurricular background was that kind of work. In college I was intimately involved with the race relations group on campus that was committed to creating a community that was inclusive of everyone’s individuality. My experiences with that organization were amazing, because Duke is a relatively diverse school, but despite its diversity, like many institutions, there are still divides. That group was great at bridging those divides and bringing people together in ways in which I don’t think they would have been able to in the absence of those discussions. I’m thankful that there’s an organization like Forward Through Ferguson that I can be part of in some minor way to help continue that work.

My firm is very supportive of me, my individual aspirations, and the things I consider to be important. It takes diversity work seriously, as well. For example, my firm has an annual scholarship that is in its tenth year and gives a diverse law student a $15,000 scholarship and a summer associate position. It’s been a successful program that has helped bring amazing talent to the firm, and it’s a great way for me to also help mentor the next generation of lawyers.

I am someone who is committed to inclusion on all fronts and I recognize that there is a severe lack of dialogue in our country and our community.

I hope that I can bring a unique perspective to the board. I’m not from St. Louis, and I’m not from the Midwest. Because I’ve been so attracted to and committed to these ideals and principles from such a young age, it’s something that I care about a lot. And since I work in the corporate sector, I can try to infuse those ideals in my day-to-day work. I am someone who is committed to inclusion on all fronts and I recognize that there is a severe lack of dialogue in our country and our community. So I’m hopeful that through FTF, I can help expand that dialogue or help start those conversations that are missing.

The people that I’m held accountable to for this work are all the individuals who have been negatively impacted by all the areas that are being addressed by the calls to action in the Ferguson Commission’s report. They are the individuals who aren’t getting the proper schooling that they need. They are the individuals who are being disproportionately affected by excessive policing. They are the individuals who aren’t getting the proper health that they need. They are the individuals who are being disproportionately targeted in comparison to their peers. That’s who I’m accountable to. In whatever work that I do, if I can ever help make life easier for anybody, for any other young Black kid who was like me, a somewhat preppy, Black misfit out there, then that is inspiring. It would be amazing if someone came up to me and said, “You helped make my life a little easier.” But, really, I just want to help where I can.

My 10-year-old self would probably tell me to remember to always give a voice to the voiceless. That’s what I see as one of my primary responsibilities as a Forward Through Ferguson board member, is to be a conduit for those individuals who have been ignored. I remember who I was at 10, and I was a big dreamer. I’m 31 now. So, I think he’d tell me, “Whenever you can, fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.” From the standpoint of the issues that I care about – division, diversity, and racial inequity – there’s a lot of work to be done here, and there are people actively engaged in doing that work. Being able to find my niche and help do my part where I can is important to me.

In terms of FTF’s definition of racial equity where you can’t predict outcomes based on race, can you give an example of how your understanding of this region’s need for racial equity has deepened or become more urgent?

I’ve heard a lot of talk about revitalizing downtown St. Louis. Many have identified safety as an issue that they care about. I couldn’t agree more. But if your solution to improving safety is throwing a bunch of police officers at a particular community without unpacking or addressing the underlying tensions that sometimes exist between the police and the communities that they are sworn to protect, then you’re going to exacerbate the problem. I thought a lot about that and specifically about the Ferguson Commission report’s call to action about working on peace officer standards training, or just examining what kind of cultural understanding is part of a police officer’s training. I’ve been thinking a lot about this call for added security or added police without ever talking about the scores of incidences that have happened over the past few decades, and that have been brought to light in particular over the past few years. And it seems like if you’re doing nothing but more of the same, then you’re going to have more and more problems. We don’t need another Michael Brown, another Trayvon Martin, another Sandra Bland, another Philando Castile. We don’t need more tragedies, we need more solutions.