CLAYTON, Mo. – Inside Clayton High School’s cafeteria, in a space that could occupy hundreds, sat approximately 50 participants for the Ferguson Commission’s 9th meeting on Monday, April 13. The audience – 41 percent black, 41 percent white, and the rest evenly spread between Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and other groups – discussed race equity and reconciliation.
For the first time at a commission meeting, breakout groups were divided by race.
“I believe in caucusing as often as necessary,” said Rudy Nickens, director of MODOT’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Division.
Nickens, who provided a PowerPoint presentation to the audience on creating a community of equity, says dividing the group into race caucuses was used as a strategy.
“I don’t believe we’re doing it as an intention to divide people, but creating a resource for people to have rich, deep conversations without being concerned about offending someone,” Nickens told The American.
White privilege, microaggressions, colorblindness and internalized racism were topics Nickens dove into during his presentation.
Nickens highlighted people who claim “to not see color” as part of the issue with racial equity. Nickens defined colorblindness as “the minimization of race as a relevant construct.” Adding on, Nickens said the colorblind concept trivializes racism.
Nickens reminded the audience of the Ferguson Commission’s mandate.
“This work isn’t about making sure we all get along,” Nickens said. “It’s about making sure we check the policies that are endowed in the community that changes peoples lives.”
During the breakout group sessions, the caucuses were asked to respond to specific questions as individuals and as a race.
The two people-of-color groups were asked what were their strengths and what were lies spread about their race. Perseverance, resilience and integrity were some of the strengths mentioned. When asked what lies have been spread, one group’s first response: “Not all black people are criminals.”
All groups were challenged to reflect on what they can do to continue the conversation about racial equity. One of the white caucused groups suggested they could help carry on the reflection by having the “courage to take risks to initiate the conversation.”
Attending his first Ferguson Commission meeting was 47-year-old insurance salesman, Pat Redington. Redington traveled an hour away from his home in Washington to attend the race equity meeting.
“Tonight, I see that change is the ultimate goal,” Redington said. “There’s some insight that I see that I can carry on to my kids and share a lot of what I learned from this. I’m going to take it back to my kids and teach them something that can hold value and something they can appreciate.”
Despite thought-provoking dialogue and community equity initiative, the audience turnout was the lowest the Ferguson Commission has ever seen.
Commission’s Co-Chair Rev. Starsky Wilson noted the low turnout.
“Many of us enjoy the privilege of middleclassness, like me, or of whiteness, like many in this room,” Wilson said. “There are those who don’t get to come to spaces and places like this.”
He said some regular attendees of commission meetings in the city missed the session in Clayton, the St. Louis County seat, “due to the intractable issues of transportation difficulties in our region.”
Others in the region, Wilson said, have reached a “Ferguson fatigue.”
As for “Ferguson fatigue,” Nickens reminded The American about the abundance of town hall forums in the region since August 9.
“There are lots and lots of meetings going on – there may be a bit too many and too often, sometimes,” Nickens said. “However, I don’t believe people have lost interest in the topic.”
Rich McClure, co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, said the racial equity dialogue was rich.
“It was thoughtful and very thought-provoking, and that’s why it’s important for the region to understand why this is important for all of us to engage in,” McClure said.
“These problems have been here long before August 9 and they continue to be here, and we need to focus on them as a region,” McClure told The American. “We cannot afford to grow tired of attacking these very serious issues.”
Ferguson Commission Co-Chair Rev. Starsky Wilson’s speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KvGmqlYPRs&feature=youtu.be.
Ferguson Commission’s 100 day report <http://stlpositivechange.org/sites/default/files/meeting_attachments/FC_100Days%20of%20Learning.pdf>.
This story is published as part of a partnership between The American and The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.