Former police chiefs, teachers, activists and the mayors of Ferguson and nearby Dellwood are among more than 300 people who applied online for a position on the Missouri governor’s newly developed Ferguson Commission.
The list of applicants, who were asked to write a short statement about why they wanted to be considered, offers a rare, unvarnished and inside look at the issues that matter to many of the people who live and work in Ferguson and its surrounding counties.
In late October, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the creation of the committee in an effort to make the St. Louis region a “stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
The diverse group of about 15 leaders chosen from the application process, which has ended, will have three main responsibilities:
- Conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the underlying social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest after death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown
- Tap into expertise needed to address key concerns – from poverty and education, to governance and law enforcement
- Recommend specific ways to make the St. Louis region a stronger, more fair place for everyone to live
“My fervent hope – and my belief – is that we will find thoughtful people from every walk of life, ordinary citizens as well as empowered leaders in business, education, public safety and our faith communities, who are willing to serve their state when it needs them most,” Nixon said.
A spokesperson said the governor is looking for people who have demonstrated leadership qualities and who represent the diverse demographics and perspectives of area residents. Nixon will name the commission members after they’ve been interviewed by his staff and employees of the new state Office of Community Engagement.
“This is a defining moment that will determine whether this place will be known as a region marred by racial division and unrest, or a region that pulled together to rise above and heal,” Nixon said.
A variety of people have applied for a slot on the commission, including business owners, religious figures, longtime Ferguson residents and citizens who are interested in making a change.
Ali Fields, for example, is a wife and mother who lives 25 miles from where Michael Brown died. In her online application, she said she was looking to be part of the conversation.
“I have thought about Ferguson every day since Michael Brown died, but done nothing,” she said in her online application. “Fear of uncomfortable conversations has left me paralyzed. I am tired of it. It is time to stand up and be a part of the conversation and help work toward a solution.”
Many other residents like Fields mentioned historic tensions in their community.
Thomasia Hassler, from Black Jack, Missouri, wrote: “The Michael Brown tragedy was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. It exposed longstanding issues in the African-American community that now must be addressed.”
A handful of current and former police officers and law enforcement officials also put their names forward, like an applicant named Reginald Williams – who said he was a former St. Louis police officer convicted of a federal crime – said he can relate to a variety of people.
“I believe I can bring a unique voice to this conversation,” he said in his application. “After 15 years of service, I was accused of a crime, placed on trial and convicted. I served five years in federal prison. I maintained then, and voice now, that I am innocent of the charges. I have experienced both sides of the same coin… Today, I live and work in my community. I continue to mentor and coach young people in St. Louis City. I know how easily and quickly your life can change.”
Cipriano Medina, 39, identified himself as a former neighborhood leader in St. Louis who believes in fairness, equality and compassion.
“We need to move forward as a region and including people of all backgrounds,” he wrote. “Too much has been focused on black and white issues. When will we include others? I am Latino and believe my voice will be a positive contribution to efforts to bring St. Louis together.”
The Michael Brown tragedy was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. It exposed longstanding issues in the African-American community that now must be addressed.
Ferguson Commission applicant
People who identified themselves as current and former civic leaders appeared many times within the applicants – including James Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, and Reggie Jones, the mayor of Dellwood, a neighboring community.
“The issues which have been raised by the shooting of Michael Brown are not new and are not isolated to the city of Ferguson. A great number of the issues that have been raised by activists and protests groups exist throughout the North St. Louis County region, and beyond in many places," Knowles said in his application. “I have been a resident of North St. Louis County for 35 years and I have been an active resident here my entire life. In order to have a thorough examination of the issues relating to the unrest, I believe it is necessary to have a strong understanding and historical knowledge of the institutions, governmental entities, laws, and policies in the North County area. As an elected municipal official of 10 years in North County and as a board member of the St. Louis County Municipal League, I believe I can offer such a perspective.”
In Mayor Jones’ application, he said his community has experienced similar issues to Ferguson.
“I am mayor of the neighboring city to Ferguson and very familiar with the issues prior to the Michael Brown incident,” the application said. “We addressed our issues and now I believe our city can tell the story on how you can transform a community. If given the opportunity I will work hard with the commission to make this community a great place to live, work and shop. I think it is important to have an individual on the commission that not only is close to the situation, but who can also speak to what real solutions will look like.”
Other community leaders stressed the importance of education and systemic inequalities.
“Education can be the tool for preventing another Ferguson,” said Ashley Vaughan, an attorney. “However, quality schools cannot be achieved without focusing on the root causes of failing school districts.” She added: “Through a broader discussion of implicit discrimination, we as a region can confront the invisible forces driving poverty and racial discrimination.”
Gwendolyn Reed, a retired teacher from Hazelwood, Missouri, said she was one of the first black teachers to be hired in a school that was mostly white.
“I not only saw white flight, I lived it,” she said in the application. “As a teacher I had the unfortunate experience of speaking at two former students’ funerals… We need to give our young people a reason to stay and continue to move our community forward. It can be done!"
Anthony Alvarez, a father and former teacher, wanted a chance to help bring change.
“Here, the lack of integration is stunning and systematically damaging to people of color. It is so thoroughly entrenched so as to literally be hopeless if you are of a certain color,” he said. “Rather than stand up for fellow human beings, I have seen citizens of the area literally and figuratively distance themselves from people of color such that my region is topped by only five others in the USA in terms of segregation.”
Melanie Gibbons, a wife of a veteran Ferguson police officer, wrote that she would like law enforcement to have a voice on the commission too.
“It breaks my heart what has happened in Ferguson since that dreadful August day. My husband was the community relations officer for four years,” she wrote. “In those four years, he tried get the people in Canfield, Northwinds, Park Ridge, Oakmont and Versailles to be a part of the community.” She added: “I have been around this department for a long time. The way these officers have been described in [the] media is not an accurate description of the men and women who protect and service the Ferguson community. I would like to serve on this commission so people can hear what this has been like for a law enforcement family. The stress and heartache my family has endured not only over the past 80-something days, but over the past 20 years.”
Nixon said that the damage could be “severe and long-lasting” if the state didn’t act and implement the commission.
“Our streets cannot be battlefields,” Nixon said. “Our neighbors must be free to lead their daily lives – to go to work, to church, to run a business – without fear.”