World Trust

Story of Hope from Ferguson: Building Bridges Before a Racial Incident

Posted by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong on November 13, 2014

In the weeks since police shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, much of the news out of Ferguson, Missouri has been focused on the fraught relationship between the largely black town and its mostly white police force. But there are less-often told stories coming out of Ferguson as well, some of which offer a great deal of hope.ferguson_market-thumb-640xauto-11744

This dispatch from Colorlines examines the relationship between South Asian and Arab-American business owners and the African-American population in the town. The work that had already been done to foster understanding between those communities meant that racial tensions did not flare up.

Of course, the building of those bridges was not done expressly to forestall such an event. But it underscores the fact that strong and equitable communities are more resilient and less susceptible to the kind of breakdowns that occurred after Brown’s killing between the black and white actors in the town.

The piece speaks about an immigrant clerk at Ferguson Market & Liquor convenience store who said that he knows and appreciates his regular customers, who are mostly African-American. He said that even though the store suffered some damage, people from the community stood guard outside of the store during the unrest. When asked about racial tensions between the immigrant store owners and African-American residents, he shrugged it off. There’s some shoplifting and name-calling here and there, he said. “But the real problem is with cops who stop African-Americans” without cause.

What went right between convenience store owners and the African-American population? What community-building lessons can this offer your organization or town?

Monitor the Media
Before the Colorlines team’s visit, they spoke to a prominent civil rights attorney who told them to monitor the media – their portrayals of a situation can often inflame tensions. Within an organization or on a campus, the more insidious effect of media can be to reinforce unconscious bias.

We’ve written on how to spot and counteract that pattern by reframing the lens offered by news coverage. The example in Ferguson, in which storekeepers push back against the media narrative of unrest, is an example of such reframing in action.

Remember the Underlying Problems
In the example from Ferguson structural racism, economic distress, and neglected neighborhoods are issues that African-American, Arab American, and South Asian populations all share.

But even at an institution that does not share these socio-economic realities, systemic inequity can be damaging to profitability and the overall mission. This post about Google’s push to change its institutional culture examines the costs to an organization of failing to self-examine in order to grow.

Give People Opportunities to Connect
The final point, about offering people the chance to connect around the issues that their communities face, is critical for change. The investment made by immigrant store owners to dialogue with the African American community in which they do business strengthened the fabric of the community as a whole. The ability to interact with and understand people from a variety of different backgrounds may also be an important skill that some white people have not had to develop.

How can your organization build in ways to facilitate dialogue, and cross-cultural understanding? How can you look beyond prevailing stereotypes and media coverage of the individuals in question, and examine the flawed system that convinces us of our disconnections? By taking steps toward resilience now, you will be building a community that is agile and more able to thrive amid difference.

World Trust offers films, diversity workshops, and educational material to promote racial equity that is rooted in love and justice. To learn more about Cracking the Codes, our film-based approach to engender dialogue across racial divides, click here.

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Topics: Talk about Race