Five years ago Friday, police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, where he tragically died and was left in the middle of the street for four hours.
The uprising that followed in the streets of Ferguson sparked an intense conversation here and across the country. Eventually, the tear gas cleared and the national news crews left town. But the need for meaningful positive change remained. Because for so many people in our community, the killing of Michael Brown Jr. was not a stand-alone event, but a flash point, a marker in time of a much longer story that has been taking place for generations.
In the wake of the Ferguson uprising, then-Gov. Jay Nixon created the Ferguson Commission, on which we served as co-chairs and the managing director. We were given the solemn responsibility of shining a light on the problems that existed well before the Aug. 9, 2014, problems that were voiced on the streets of Ferguson and across our region in the following days, weeks and months.
We worked to develop community-led solutions for how to move our region forward. The report we issued contained 189 calls to action — 47 of which the commission deemed “signature priorities” to assure a broad level of impact — to which our leaders and institutions should commit to and act upon in order to bring about real change.
Throughout the report and its calls to action are two main principles that must continue to guide our efforts moving forward: a commitment to racial equity and the need to focus on changing systems and policies instead of just investing in programs.
On Dec. 31, 2015, the statutory mandate for the Ferguson Commission ended, and since that time, some progress has been made.
Perhaps most critically, the work of the commission is being carried forward by Forward Through Ferguson, which last year released its “State of the Report: Tracking the Ferguson Commission’s Calls to Action.” Its work found that each of the report’s 47 signature calls to action “have experienced some degree of implementation,” although only five have been fully achieved. And earlier this year, the report, “Equity Indicators: Toward a St. Louis that Works for All of Us,” rated the progress toward the Ferguson Commission report’s goals at 46 out of 100.
Regional civic, human service, and health care organizations and the business community have invested time and money to develop educational, occupational and recreational opportunities in Ferguson and across the St. Louis region. Community-based organizations that sustained the tension of accountability and accepted the commission’s report as “the people’s report” have kept up the conversation with elected officials and civic leaders. We have seen racial equity placed at the center of platforms for office by political candidates who have won election and are focusing on the hard work of policy change that is so urgently needed.
Key indicators demonstrate the work that lies ahead, however. In St. Louis city and county, infant mortality rates are three times greater for black babies than white babies. Black children in St. Louis live in poverty at a rate five times more than white children. Black elementary students in Missouri are eight times more likely to be given out-of-school suspension than their white classmates. We knew much of this before Ferguson. Our region now knows much more vividly the devastating facts about racial disparities in our region. We cannot unknow them.
A key reason these disparities exist is that, for too long, our focus regionally and nationally has been to address these problems with siloed programs instead of addressing the systems that sit at the core. We are treating symptoms and managing the pain of generational injustice and inequity; it is long past time that we get to the business of curing the underlying disease.
What we called for then and what we are calling for now is a renewed commitment by our leaders to systemic change that gets to the root cause of inequity. No longer in our region can it be acceptable that anyone’s life span, health outcomes, education, or anything else are determined by race or zip code. We must continually focus our moral, spiritual and ethical compass on a more compelling direction to realize the commission’s call for “a path toward racial equity.”
Generations of systemically driven inequity cannot be eliminated in five years. But it most certainly will not be eliminated unless we all step up and recommit to the blueprint laid out in the Ferguson Commission report.
Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson is the president and chief executive of the Deaconess Foundation and served as co-chair of the Ferguson Commission. Rich McClure is the board chair of United Way of Greater St. Louis and served as co-chair of the Ferguson Commission. Bethany Johnson-Javois is chief executive of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network and served as the managing director of the Ferguson Commission.