Chances are that your first visit to Washington, D.C. came during a family vacation or as part of a school field trip and you did all those things first-time visitors do: toured the Capitol Building, checked out the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and maybe visited a few of the museums along the National Mall.
It’s also a pretty good bet that you did not get a closed-door meeting with White House staff or discuss important issues of the day with a member of Congress. Well, that is exactly what two young adults from the St. Louis area did on their first visit to Washington this past week.
Akyiah Phillips of Ferguson and Brandon Hart of St. Louis traveled to Washington with the Rev. F. Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson. Both say they want the Obama administration to acknowledge the troubles facing young people in Ferguson.
Phillips, who wants to be a defense attorney, says she was asked by one of the White House staff members what they could do to help.
“Reach out, just like you asked us to come, reach out to the kids in Ferguson,” Phillips said she told them. It wasn’t that long ago, she added, when “nobody knew where Ferguson was, nobody knew that Ferguson existed. All they knew was St. Louis, Missouri.” She says now that Ferguson is known nationally and now that the young people are asking for help, Phillips says someone from the administration needs to go to Ferguson and let them know that they are being heard -- in other words, “acknowledge Ferguson.”
While Phillips said she doesn’t believe that the president has to visit Ferguson, she does want him to say, “I know what you all are going through, I feel what you all are going through.”
In the end, though, Phillips said real change for Ferguson will have to come from its residents and its young people. “I don’t think it’s going to come by whooping and hollering and vandalizing buildings and setting things on fire,” she said.
She said education is the key for young people in Ferguson to change the future. “So, if I go get my education, I become the mayor of Ferguson, then I can take control of things as well.”
As for future contact with the White House, Phillips said, “We all plan to keep in touch. We exchanged information and I plan on holding them to their word.”
Hart, who wants to be a social worker or counselor, said his objective in traveling to Washington was to let individuals in power know about the situation in Ferguson: “That we need help, we need somebody to take control, or help us take control because the city of Ferguson is going crazy right now.”
Hart describes U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, as being an “outstanding person” and said the two talked about the situation in Ferguson and about Hart’s future plans and about how he hopes to make things better in Ferguson.
As for relations between young people and the police, Hart said that not all officers are part of the problem. “Some of them actually want to help, but others do not.” He says he once had a detective for a basketball coach who wanted to help. “And there’s a lot of police out there that just want to help, but they can’t because everybody sees them as the same police officer. So, it’s kind of hard for people to understand who is trying to help and who is not.”
Asked about participating in a meeting at the White House on his first visit to Washington Hart said, “It’s big, and I’m blessed to even be here… I’m still shocked and excited just to step inside the White House.” He said he wants his friends to know that he didn’t make the trip just for himself but rather to help make things better for everyone. “I am one of the people trying to do something, and that I’m going to continue to try to lead and try to handle the situation as best as I can.”
Hart, too, said that real change for Ferguson will have to come from within. “If we all put our brains together and figure out what we want, I think we can take control and calm the situation down.”
Johnson said one of the goals for the trip was to reconnect with student leaders at Howard University in Washington who had traveled to Ferguson in the days after the unrest to show support for the community by participating in worship services and helping to register Ferguson residents to vote. Johnson said that he, Phillips and Hart participated in two days of student forums at Howard University.
Johnson described the visit to the White House as both a privilege and a responsibility. “There are people who are listening and who care and now want to know how we can help them help us. It is a responsibility, it is an honor and privilege, but it’s now a burden and a blessing to take back to our community and serve as intermediaries, as agents for change.”