‘We are in the middle of a social movement:’ College professors reflect on the ‘lessons of Ferguson’ | St. Louis Public Radio

‘We are in the middle of a social movement:’ College professors reflect on the ‘lessons of Ferguson’

Aug 9, 2016

The police shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, which happened two years ago today, sparked a plethora of conversations about race, policing, protest, and social justice in the United States. One of the places these conversations have taken place is in institutions of higher education.

While higher ed is notoriously slow to move, what happened in Ferguson has set off a wave of new curricula, discussion, books and ways of thinking about race in the classroom. On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, three professors joined host Don Marsh to discuss the “lessons of Ferguson” and how they have come into play in their classrooms.

For Marcia Chatelain, who teaches history at Georgetown University and created #FergusonSyllabus as a resource to help professors teach about Ferguson two years ago, the classroom has been a place for students to learn “nuance, empathy and really clear listening to sort out complicated feelings this moment in history has presented them.”

“It is interesting to see the fundamental changes in my students since 2014 in terms of their relationship to social movements,” Chatelain said. “When I taught my History of Civil Rights class in the fall of 2013, one of the big questions I opened with was: ‘Is protest dead?’ Now, I could never ask that question. Students all around us regardless of their own thoughts about Black Lives Matter, they have the sense we are in the middle of a social movement.”

Kim Norwood, a law professor at Washington University and the editor of “Ferguson’s Fault Lines: The Race Quake That Rocked a Nation,” said that while she is able to teach some of the issues her book brings up, students who take those classes self-select them. She hopes to create a class and curriculum that would be mandatory for all first-year law students to expose them to the legal, criminal justice and policy issues that led to protests following Michael Brown Jr.’s death.

Stefan Bradley, a professor who also directs the African American Studies program at Saint Louis University said that his experience teaching students about Ferguson has been different because many of his students were part of the protests there.

“I taught them about civil rights and the black freedom movement,” Bradley said. “Having experienced this, they can’t go back. Their ability to analyze things, in moments rather than themes, that has been tremendously beneficial to them. The Ferguson uprising was one of the all-time best civics lessons that were ever taught.”

"That feeling [of empathy] is something that is difficult to teach, but it is something that is better taught now than at any other time." - Stefan Bradley

Bradley said that the most important thing his students have learned over the past two years has been empathy.

“I just left Canfield Drive where I saw the father of Mike Brown,” Bradley said. “For us, it was coming to remember something. For him, it was a feeling. … that feeling is something that is difficult to teach, but it is something that is better taught now than at any other time.”

Later in the segment, conversation turned to how teaching about protests in Ferguson, the death of Michael Brown and systemic social justice issues could lead to cultural change. Listen to the full discussion below:

In the end, the greatest lessons may be held in store for educators themselves.

“I don’t know how long it is going to take, but I think our conversations about what it takes have gotten better,” Chatelain said. “In the past two years, there’s all this nonsense about a ‘Ferguson Effect’ in a negative sense because now everyday citizens are so anti-police. That’s not real. But there is something I like to call the ‘Ferguson Affect.’ We have a generation of organizers and young people who are leading this country, that are teaching us how to grieve and reminding us how to have joy in these moments. They are teaching us a valuable lesson about people left behind and situations that are unattended to.

“I don’t know how long it will take but every day as I spend time with young people, they are teaching me what is at stake and what it will take to make change.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.