#BeLove: A Seat at the Table

Forward Through Ferguson

When recently-elected St. Louis Mayor, Lyda Krewson, appointed Nicole Hudson as Senior Policy Advisor for Racial Equity, she knew that Hudson would bring “the people’s report” to City Hall. This week, Hudson walked into the rotunda at 1200 Market Street with 18-months of radical listening from both the Ferguson Commission and Forward Through Ferguson behind her. And the question ahead of her: now that there’s an actual seat at the table, how can she leverage community voice to drive structural change?

The Ferguson Commission was appointed by MO Governor Nixon, in the wake of the unrest that followed Michael Brown Jr.’s death in 2014. The commission was charged to address root causes of the tragedy and make regional and statewide policy recommendations for action. This group included 16 volunteer commissioners and a small staff, but the bulk of the work was done by citizens. Over 3,000 citizens spent over 40,000 volunteer hours discussing and debating St. Louis’ most entrenched issues while the commission “radically listened.” One of the co-chairs, Rev. Starsky Wilson, took to calling it “The people’s report,” and a local journalist, Tony Messenger, called the process “the region’s kitchen table.” They engaged over 100 researchers who wrote calls to action based on actual citizen input. One of the biggest products of the final report was this community engagement process and commitment to embedding citizen voice into regional action. The final act of the commission was to ask former staff and commissioners to figure out a way forward.

Forward Through Ferguson emerged as an independent body that partners with area organizations to execute the calls to action from the Ferguson Report. Nicole Hudson headed the organization under the title Lead Catalyst, because that’s the precise role that she saw for an organization like Forward Through Ferguson in the local ecosystem. Their ultimate goal is to build the region’s capacity to solve problems stemming from racial inequity. Over the past year, they codified the core principles from the Commission, principles that prioritize accountability to the communities of color and poor communities that have been disinvested throughout the region:

  • Racial equity
  • Policy & systemic focus
  • Radical collaboration
  • Radical listening

As a result, the organization’s first actions demonstrate their commitment to the communities: design an evaluation and monitoring plan, define the community accountability structure, confirm the advisory council structure with built-in accountability to youth and people of color communities, and launch the first signature priority: “Justice For All.”

The entire reason that Forward Through Ferguson exists is because of the interaction between police and a young Black man. Unlike the other signature priorities (Youth at the Center, Opportunity to Thrive, Racial Equity), there was no existing infrastructure in St. Louis that convened the criminal justice community and advocated for collaborative, systemic change. Hudson is mindful that “Justice For All” also includes introducing best practices in trauma-informed care. “For example, instead of asking what’s wrong with you, asking what happened to you? When applying a trauma-informed lens to policing reform, that extends to the community feedback process as well. How do we recognize that, when asking a resident from a heavily policed community to provide feedback on policing, they have likely been traumatized by police presence?” With “Justice For All,” Forward Through Ferguson is committed to centering their work on the multigenerational trauma in heavily policed communities and providing stability, opportunities for community feedback, and healing.

What’s next for this work now that the lead catalyst is in City Hall? In her first four days, Hudson has already learned how quickly governments must react (the region is flooding after heavy rains) and is humble about the role of capacity-building anti-racism transformation in solving immediate needs. She’s most hopeful about leveraging “Justice For All,” to advise on the selection of the new police chief. This presents her first opportunity to use Forward Through Ferguson’s equity framework and respond to what public safety means for people in their communities.

Forward Through Ferguson is searching for a new catalyst to lead their work and Hudson sees her transition as an opportunity for the city government and the community to lean on each other. The government has to keep the city moving and, coupled with deep intentional anti-racism, anti-bias work that Forward Through Ferguson can lead across the region, they have a real chance to advance next practices in equity for all.

#BeLove profiles organizations committed to ending structural racism and bias. Our goal is to tell the stories of change in our communities that result from the capacity-building work at individual and institutional levels. In the words of Assata Shakur, “ We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough to change the system, we need to change ourselves.”