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Ferguson’s Only Black City Councilman Says Addressing City’s Problems ‘Takes All Of Us’

Ferguson City Councilman Dwayne James
City of Ferguson

It’s been a tumultuous year for Ferguson and its residents.

After the August shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, questions about race, bias, government, community and civil disobedience were raised and confronted to varying degrees. Among those working to address problems is Ferguson City Councilman Dwayne James. Nearly 70 percent of Ferguson’s population is black. In a city criticized for its mostly white leadership, James is the only black councilman.

“I always wanted for Ferguson to grow and for Ferguson to be known. But you always wish for it in a more positive way,” James told St. Louis Public Radio editor Shula Neuman. “No one wants this to happen in their community, to their region, to their nation. You put in work. And you put in work thinking you’re going to have a certain outcome. And then you realize that the work you put in isn’t good enough, that there’s always more to be done. So you sit back and say ‘I wish I would have learned that differently. I wish there was another instance or another lesson that could have been taught to wake us up as a community, to say look, these issues need to be addressed.’

“There were little things along the way that St. Louis region didn’t pay attention to, that Ferguson community didn’t pay attention to, that the nation didn’t pay attention to. This was an incident that basically woke us all up and said you basically have to address the issue now.”

For James, addressing the issue means working with the community — something he said he was already doing. He cited helping establish community gardens and creating the Ferguson Youth Initiative during his eight years on the city council. Those efforts required identifying a need, figuring out a solution and working with others to put it together. The same thing must continue to address issues raised after Brown’s death, James said.

“We basically have to take all of the communication, all the ideas, all the suggestions, all the input and basically make sure that we move forward. And if we don’t do that, then we have done a disservice to the community; we have done a disservice to everyone that basically has used that (Ferguson) hashtag or has given that suggestion or has come to a city council meeting or town hall meeting,” James said. “If we do not learn from that as a community, as a council, as leaders, then that will be a sad point. That will be a sad moment.”

The city council has already changed city ordinances to address those issues, James said. Additional recommendations are wending through county and state government. James credited grassroots efforts with helping to move the city ahead.

“The biggest thing is people aren’t working in silos anymore,” he said. “Before, everyone had a great organization, but it was so small or so focused on a particular region or particular area that we were duplicating efforts. This has basically made people talk to each other, sit across the table from each other and learn from each other.”

That means some difficult conversations are taking place, James said, especially those dealing with race and age.

“People have started to realize and figure out that the difficult conversations, those hard conversations, are needed,” he said. “That it’s a short timeframe of being uneasy, but the payoff is basically people understanding, learning and, hopefully, loving each other down the road. But it’s going to take some uneasy times.”

James said his race often comes up in conversations, before and after Brown’s death, often in terms of how to serve an underrepresented portion of the city’s population, he said.

“Just because I’m the only African-American doesn’t mean that I represent every African-American that’s actually out there and striving and working toward a better community,” he said. “We all need to basically have our voices heard. We all need to be listened to, no matter who we are.”

James’ city council term ends in April 2016. He’s not eligible to run again, although he has said he will remain active in Ferguson. And despite problems in the community, James was optimistic.

“I’m not going to give up. I don’t think my community is going to give up. I don’t think us, as a nation, can give up. We can’t,” he said. “We’ve come too far and we’ve heard so much and we’ve learned so much that we cannot give up. We basically have to do better.

“If we give up, then what’s the point? What’s the point of people demonstrating, protesting; coming to council meetings, coming to Ferguson Youth Initiative; coming, volunteering, donating, doing this and doing that if all we’re going to do is say ‘All right, this is too big for me.’ And it is. It’s too big for one person. It takes all of us to figure out how we can work together to make it better. And that’s the hard part.”  

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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