Ferguson Commission member Brittany Packnett opened the meeting with a clear message: “This work isn’t about making people comfortable, it’s about telling the truth.”
And during Saturday’s forum at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College, young people responded.
“We’ve been saying for so many months that we want our voices to be heard, and finally, someone has listened” said Rasheen Aldridge, who at 20-years-old is the youngest member of the commission.
More than 100 people attended the roughly four-hour event that focused on young residents between the ages of 14 and 24.
As with previous commission meetings, strained relationships between African-American residents and law enforcement was a major theme. During an "open-mic" session at the start of the event, Keivonn Monger, a student at Jennings High School, told the story of leaving his school's computer lab and being stopped by a police officer who suspected he was carrying a firearm.
"They don't treat us like we're human, they don't give us the respect that we deserve," Monger said.
He said unrest in Ferguson and surrounding areas has only driven young people and the police further apart.
Participants spent much of their time in working groups that focused on what can be done to build stronger neighborhoods, improve relationships with police and bolster classroom achievement. As commission members listened, young people helped fill giant sheets of paper taped to the wall with suggestions that included community beautification projects and creating more safe activities for young people after dark.
Some students said teachers and administrators intentionally shy away from facilitating honest conversations about race in classrooms. Others said their teachers don't understand the life experiences of African-American students outside of school. One suggestion was to develop a way to report teachers who don’t seem to care about student success.
Like the public forum portion of the event, many students in the working groups said they are uneasy when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. Tyra Searcy, a senior at McClure North High School, encouraged her peers to speak up when they feel as though they have been unfairly targeted by police officers.
“When you have an independent problem with a police officer, we should take the time to report this person,” Tyra said. “By throwing it under the rug we’re not letting anyone know there’s an issue until something really big happens and everyone gets mad about it. If we start taking steps to make sure these police officers know how we feel, then maybe it wouldn’t have to get as big because there would already be a trust built between us and them.”
Searcy came to the event with her friend, DeAnna Harper, who is also a senior at McClure North High School.
“This summit is really inspiring me because it shows people haven’t forgotten,” Harper said.
She said events like the one held on Saturday can help keep young people engaged during ongoing efforts to address racial frustrations that boiled over in Ferguson.
“To become educated enough that you can take a seat on commissions and police boards and places you can actually make a difference,” Harper said.
Nieghl Johnson, a senior at Hazelwood Central, delivered the invocation for the event. He said the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 of last year struck a chord with him and his classmates.
“We are Michael Brown, we are young African Americans,” Johnson said. “Just like in the 1960s, things moved to change. History repeats itself, with the proper direction we can move things to change.”
For Ferguson Commission member and superintendent of the Hazelwood School District, Grayling Tobias, that change starts in the classroom. He said there needs to be more sharing of best practices in education, greater investment in early childhood education and a continuum of support for residents from birth to 20 years of age.
“The future of the St. Louis region is at stake,” Tobias said.
Packnett, who said in her opening remarks that the work of the Ferguson Commission is grounded in truthful dialogue, closed by thanking students for their honesty.
“I know that you guys don’t come with an agenda,” Packnett said. “All you guys come with is your truth and you brought that here. We have learned from it, and we will benefit from it.”
The 16-member commission was formed in November and is charged with recommending policies for addressing the underlying social conditions brought to the forefront following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. After gathering feedback from the community, the commission is expected to release a series of policy recommendations in September.
The next meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at Westview Middle School, 1950 Nemnich Rd., and will focus on inequalities in education and child wellbeing.
The commission also unanimously approved a budget for calendar year 2015 that projects total revenue of $1.47 million, $975,000 of which will come from the state. The remaining $500,000 is expected to come from private donations, of which $150,000 has been pledged.
Expenses listed in the budget are expected to total $1.36 million, of which $574,625 will be spent on hiring full time staff. Eighteen meetings are expected to be held in 2015, with an estimated cost of $9,500 a meeting. The budget also includes funds for an audit.