Since its inception, the Ferguson Commission faced doubters wondering whether a group of gubernatorial appointees could heal decades-long divides throughout St. Louis. And before she joined on as the commission’s communications director, Nicole Hudson shared some of that skepticism.
“When I was first approached to work with the commission last year, my initial response was ‘Like, no way,’” Hudson said. “It’s government-appointed. It’s not going to do anything. St. Louis is St. Louis, compromising since 1820.
"And I have seen over last year this region be ready and open to things that it wasn’t before.”
The Ferguson Commission dissolved at the end of the year after producing a report full of recommendations aimed at bridging the region’s racial, economic and social gaps. Before ending, it put in motion the creation of a non-profit group called Forward Through Ferguson. Hudson is the organization’s “lead catalyst,” and she and several former staffers of the Ferguson Commission are carrying on “the functions and desires and community trust that was built in the commission.”
Forward Through Ferguson's mission isn't implementing the commission’s recommendations. Rather, it is helping the people and organizations that want to do the work – especially with items that don’t require legislative approval. Hudson said there’s been plenty of interest.
“Whether that is a moral imperative that people have kind of awoken, whether that’s people who have been doing this work forever and were tired, but are now re-energized, or whether it’s people who are just worried about their bottom line and worried about reputation, we have a real opportunity and a real window,” Hudson said.
What is Forward Through Ferguson?
First some background: Before the commission disbanded, it was mulling over whether to seek an outside organization to “provide infrastructure and support to advance the work of the Ferguson Commission." FOCUS St. Louis was the only organization to apply. And after they asked Focus, in November, to refine its proposal, commissioners put in motion a plan to establish Forward Through Ferguson to work with FOCUS St. Louis in monitoring implementation efforts.
FOCUS St. Louis President Yemi Akande-Bartsch said her group has collaborated with Forward Through Ferguson on several forums on municipal courts. She added that her organization’s Impact Fellows are making the Ferguson Commission’s report a big priority.
“This inaugural class is using the Ferguson report as the class text in which they’re diving into all the calls for action, getting a better understanding of it with a goal that they’ll zero in on about three or four,” Akande-Bartsch said.
Several Forward Through Ferguson staffers were involved in the Ferguson Commission. And five former commissioners -- Rose Windmiller, Felicia Pulliam, Kevin Ahlbrand, Dan Isom and Brittany Packnett -- are helping. Although it plans to apply for grants, Hudson said Forward Through Ferguson is using some of roughly $500,000 that the Ferguson Commission didn’t spend.
(Hudson said about $200,000 isn't available, because it was strictly for planning and not implementation. Forward Through Ferguson has access to the remaining $300,000.)
The group has three main goals: Championing the idea of “racial equity;” being a resource for people or groups that want to pursue some of the commission’s recommendations; and spurring on momentum for policy change.
“It is clear that what is in the report as a document are long-term generational policy changes,” Hudson said. “A lot of people who read the report will say ‘Well, these are all under the control of legislators. This is out of our control. How do we play a part in that?’ So through education, strategic communication, we’re helping more people understand their individual way in to be part of this long-term systemic policy change.”
Will people – and legislators – listen?
Hudson said her group has a developed a “giant” Excel spreadsheet detailing the different groups attracted to following through on the commission’s work. She said most have been interested in working on recommendations related to education and economic development – things that don’t necessarily need a governmental go ahead.
For instance, Hudson said in education “there is good traction and where people are communicating, we want to shine a light on that and support it and point more people toward it -- but definitely not take it on.
“So I would say in that case, I think the work happening with Ready by 21, some work happening in 24:1, Normandy School Collaborative -- there’s a lot of movement happening there,” Hudson said. “And those people are naturally already engaged around tables.”
But perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot less movement on the commission’s recommendations to overhaul the state’s law-enforcement policies. Many of those suggestions need legislative buy-in – which has been lacking, to say the least. And the situation isn't like to get better with the election of a new governor later this year.
Todd Swanstrom is a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He’s also involved with the Community Builders Network, which has a proposal to enhance strategic development throughout St. Louis.
Swanstrom said the foundation and corporate community and banks “are probably more likely to step to the plate to do some things than government per se, government itself.”
“I think it’s helpful that Forward Through Ferguson has put this on the region’s agenda,” Swanstrom said. “But I guess just because an issue is on the agenda doesn’t mean it’s necessarily on the decision agenda. It doesn’t mean it will be acted on. I feel like we’re kind of all dressed up and ready to go. But you know, we haven’t been invited exactly [by government officials].”
For Hudson’s part, one of Forward Through Ferguson’s other goals is to make people knowledgeable about policy change.
“I think that is where this challenge really comes back to our third reason for being: this idea of fertilizing the soil,” Hudson said. “Having more people armed with more information about why these things are necessary, who’s impacted if they don’t change and understand the interworkings of the system enough to know where to apply pressure.”
The other big question? Since many of the Ferguson Commission’s suggestions could take years to implement, will Forward Through Ferguson exist in perpetuity?
“Another way of looking at this is it’s a marathon – it’s not a sprint,” Akande-Bartsch said. “So when you ask ‘Do we know what the timeline is for getting to what does success look like,’ at this point in time I can’t give you a definitive answer for that. I just think the more people that are widely education that have a deeper knowledge of what the issues and challenges are, and the opportunities that exist for them as citizens of this region, then we can begin to see change.”
Added Hudson: “If we can do those things and help become sort of the natural way of doing things here, I should hope that we should be able to significantly change the list of things on our 'to do'.”
“These are generational issues ...,” she added. “But I believe that this region is poised and is moving in the direction of being able to do those without Forward through Ferguson having to stick around forever and be a big, giant organization.”
Note: Tim Eby, general manager of St. Louis Public Radio, chairs the FOCUS St. Louis board of directors.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.