By: David J. Smith, September 28, 2014
In the last few days, more protests have taken place in Ferguson, Missouri. Last week the chief of the Ferguson Police Department issued an apology to the family of Michael Brown. The Brown family has recently asked the Department of Justice to take over the case against Officer Darren Wilson. And the grand jury continues to meet with an report expected in October.
Going unnoticed in the midst of these events are ways in which local schools are responding to events, and how educators are using the Ferguson situation as a teaching opportunity. On August 28/29, 2014 I visited St. Louis Community College. I was asked by the college’s leadership to meet with and listen to students, faculty, staff, and administrators about their concerns, and facilitate a conversation about how the college might respond to the current situation. During my visit I met with nearly 150 individuals including the chancellor, vice chancellor for academic affairs, presidents from several campuses, and faculty and students from the Forest Park and Florissant Valley (which is located in Ferguson) campuses. After my visit I issued a report to the college making recommendations on how it might promote racial equality, conflict resolution, legal understanding, and social justice.
Students shared stories with me about their experiences of being harassed and abused by law enforcement. Young black men in particular have been the targets of profiling and unfair treatment. The stories were powerful ones. I also learned about the overbearing and militarized tactics that police engaged in during the unrest in August.
During my meetings with students, I asked them to rate their feelings or opinions regarding “challenges,” “goals,” “means,””people,” and “resources.” This document, titled “Moving Forward” is found below. Students felt the most critical challenge related to racism and violence, their most important goals focused on creating community and racial equality, the means they desired involved peaceful confrontation and dialogue, the people they would work with included peers, family, and strangers, and the resources they would rely on included community organizations and schools. Many students felt a sense of frustration and overall exhaustion. I also asked students what they expected from their community and the college, and how they could contribute. I engaged in similar exercises with faculty and staff.
In my recommendations to the college I urged that immediately the college consider large scale legal education, building capacity for students to engage in dialogue and learn nonviolent means for change, and have an opportunity to “process” events (focusing especially on trauma and psychological well-being). Long term recommendations focused on curriculum development including in racism, social justice, service learning, human rights, conflict resolution, and peace studies. In the area of student activities, sponsoring activities that would be sustainable over a long period of time to raise awareness of race issues and allow for dialogue was needed. Faculty and staff development in race relations and social justice issues was suggested. Working with the community to position the college as a resource was also recommended. Finally, I recommended that the college establish a center that could be the focal point of student activities, community outreach, and academic coordination. The models of Virginia Tech and Kent State might be considered.
During my visit, I was impressed by the dedication of the faculty, staff and administration of the college to serve the needs of students, but also the greater community. As the only college in Ferguson, the Florissant Valley campus, in particular, is in a unique position to be a catalyst for positive change and to promote important social justice issues.
The college library has developed a valuable website for those teaching about the Ferguson crisis: Events in Ferguson, Missouri. My visit was covered in The Montage, the student newspaper of the Meramec campus; and The Scene, the student newspaper of the Forest Park campus.
Besides the document “Moving Forward” I also distributed a document titled “My Comments” that I used to urge students to make supportive statements when talking with fellow students.