On Accountability and Fragile Hope

One year ago, the Ferguson Commission staff wrapped up 5 days with no more than 12 total hours of sleep as we stood in a packed room with commissioners, working group members, citizens, government officials and the press to mark the official delivery of the Ferguson Commission report to the Governor of Missouri. We couldn’t know what was ahead—mostly because all we could think about was sleep—but we knew that the momentum created over the previous year was that of a moving train. One we, along with the region, were solidly on.

The driver of that train was not the Governor. It was not the Commissioners. Nor was it the staff. The driver of that train was hope. Hope undergirded by 204 pages and 40,000 volunteer hours. And those pages and those hours were driven by the passion, pain and desperation of youth and change-makers who took to the streets. And those souls took to the streets because of the death of Michael Brown, Jr. on August 9th 2014. And, as the report was asked to identify, his death became a catalyst due to generations of policy-level inequities that systematically create disproportionate outcomes for people of color. The hope? The hope was that this time, this time, someone had listened. The facts were there in black and white. A government sanctioned body spoke the problem out loud.

From Lindsey Lupo, author of “Flak-Catchers: One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America:”

My previous work on riot commissions had me studying and analyzing five American race riots between 1919 and 1992, focusing particularly on the American institutional response to these uprisings. I found that these riot commissions typically “processed” the violence into a discredited, anomalous event that appeared to be devoid of any deeper racial, economic, or social grievances. The result was a management of the violence, rather than an attempt at true understanding and problem-solving.
In my analysis of the Ferguson Commission — albeit in the incipient stages — I have found that genuine attempts have been made to truly understand, wrestle with, and work through social issues and racial tension. In particular, the Ferguson Commission’s focus on racial equity turns the modus operandi of other riot commissions on their head — where others, such as the commissions that followed the 1992 Los Angeles riot, tried to remove race from their study, the Ferguson Commission has boldly pushed for sweeping reforms that would promote racial equity in the St. Louis region.

The hope was that someone had listened. And that there was a chance it would be different this time.

That’s not hope that comes easily. Anyone with a small knowledge set of the ways in which we have historically gone back on our promises, re-written laws in an effort to maintain “business as usual” can understand. Those who live small injustices, slights or feelings of being invisible daily have a great deal of emotional risk in hoping that things might be better this time. And yet, the train continues.

At the time, I’m not sure we planned it that way, but after the release of the report we began to institutionalize the honoring of that hope and its fragility: As the future of the report and its work was decided; as we began to discuss what governance would look like; as we designed a process for beginning to add leadership to the work beyond the commissioners; and in smaller day-to-day ways—which one could really argue have the most power. At each of these junctures, we ask ourselves:

  1. Are we remaining accountable to the report? To the voices in the report? To historically under-represented people and people of color? (Radical Listening)
  2. Are we keeping our eye on how this is closing the gap on our racial inequities? (Racial Equity)
  3. Are we putting the work that needs to be done first and leaving “business as usual,” invisible lines in the sand and competition at the door? (Radical Collaboration)
  4. Is the work being done in a way that is sustainable, institutional (as opposed to based on a single or set of charismatic leader(s)), and will live on past us? (Policy and Systemic Focus)

The 4 phrases in parenthesis above are now recorded and solidified as the core principles of our work and the core of every partnership we undertake.

September 14 is here again and again we mark a major milestone. After a two month community designed process, we are adding seven board members to our leadership. The process—an open call to the public, including an application, recommendations, an open forum and interviews—was humbling. Twenty-seven people stepped forward and once again, the train was reflected.

But also reflected is the depth and the importance of the work ahead. Of the people who stepped forward, who saw themselves in this work, who saw a place for themselves on the train, who felt invited, there were voices missing. Two of the most glaring—to me—were black men and law enforcement. This work can not be done, we cannot answer the questions outlined above, without those and other voices at the table. The board’s first assignment will be to apply those questions to the seats that need to be filled and to radically listen for the answers. And to act.

When the Commission began, the report was the goal—stated and otherwise. But through the process of opening a channel of listening, intently, and reflecting back the pain and the truth that was told the report became a catalyst for something the region needed more than it knew. A catalyst for learning how to become accountable to each other, to those among us most affected, and to see clearly how that accountability is the only way forward if this region is to heal, thrive and achieve all of the goals it has for itself. To take the small flames of hope and care for them, actively, with consistency and accountability until there’s no way that train can be stopped.

Read the Ferguson Commission report. Meet the Forward Through Ferguson board.