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Groups seek a response to Ferguson that lasts

Groups seek a response to Ferguson that lasts

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Marches, protests and prayer vigils have been a constant in the region for more than two weeks, and as a grand jury pores over evidence in the Michael Brown killing, similar actions are expected to continue.

But other responses to the police shooting, designed to be more long-lasting, have popped up. They include getting more African-Americans engaged in their communities and challenging people to leave their comfort zones and talk about race.

On Wednesday, a storefront on West Florissant Avenue opened as the office of #HealSTL, which grew from a Twitter hashtag, and is being developed as an outreach center, including offering voter registration.

It’s on the same busy strip that has been the center of unrest, including looting, tear gas, arrests and a curfew.

“This has been a Twitter story,” said the effort’s organizer, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French. “It has touched so many people because of social media.”

French said the new group was focused on teaching the community how to get involved in local government. Right now, the startup is being funded by selling $9 T-shirts. But formal fundraising will begin soon, French said.

Next week, billboards are going up across the region asking “What Can We Do Better?” and “Start The Conversation,” a campaign launched by the Diversity Awareness Partnership. Meanwhile, a group of prominent young African-American leaders has put together a list of demands, including the city of Ferguson’s hiring at least 10 more black police officers by Jan. 31.

The city is 67 percent black, but only four of its 58 police officers — 7 percent — are African-American.

“We cannot continue to run from dealing with race in our region,” said St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, a member of the newly formed Young Citizens Council of St. Louis.

“Uncomfortable” conversations about race have to be had, with the participation of those who are not typically at the table, Jones said.

Referring to a town hall meeting last week at Harris-Stowe State University, she said, “The audience was very diverse, but it was people who already understand it, know about perceptions and about being more tolerant. We need to find a way to have a conversation with people who don’t get it.”

The council, which also includes state Reps. Michael Butler and Courtney Curtis and Harris-Stowe President Dwaun Warmack, is planning events for young people to talk about their fears and futures, and to see African-Americans in leadership roles.

The group also is encouraging those on social media to include “#dontshoot” to their postings to keep the conversation surrounding Brown’s death going.

The hashtag is a reference to a witness account that Brown, who was unarmed, had his hands above his head when he was shot multiple times.

Besides more black police officers in Ferguson, the council wants a civilian review board established by June 30. The group also has called for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to step aside in the case.

In a separate effort, the Diversity Awareness Partnership is launching a billboard campaign and offering free training on how best to have discussions on race. About 125 people have signed up for the four sessions, some representing corporations and nonprofit agencies.

“We have to instill in people that what we’re doing hasn’t worked,” said Reena Hajat Carroll, executive director of the nonprofit partnership initiated in 2001. “If your thinking has never been disrupted, you will continue thinking the same way.”

The goal in the training is to engage, not take a position, Carroll said. “There is no wrong or right.”

The worst thing that can be done is to shut down conversations people might want to have, she said. She referred to the Edwardsville School District, where administrators told teachers to “change the subject and refocus the students” when Ferguson comes up. Officials said teachers had been inserting their opinions into the discussions.

The partnership billboards, which also list the nonprofit group’s website, will go up on Interstates 44, 55, 64, 70 and 170.

Carroll said the Brown shooting was an international story, but it is the region that has to change the dynamic. “We don’t value differences because we don’t understand them,” she said. “We’re comfortable with what we know.”

For Warmack, St. Louis and its race relations were unfamiliar. He came to Harris-Stowe four months ago from Daytona Beach, Fla., although he was born and reared in Detroit, another Midwest city with similar challenges.

“I was told several times before I came here that St. Louis was one of the most segregated cities in the United States,” Warmack said.

After the Brown shooting, the university held three public forums. About 400 attended the first; 500 came to the second meeting. The meeting on Tuesday night, broadcast live on two local urban radio stations, had 1,000 in attendance, Warmack said.

More meetings are forthcoming, he said. And the university is talking about creating a social justice institute. “As the only historically black university in St. Louis, it’s a no-brainer why we have to serve as the intellectual think tank at this critical time,” Warmack said.

Nicholas J.C. Pistor of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Doug Moore is a former reporter for the P-D. Currently, policy director for St. Louis County Council.

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