Ferguson and Resilience

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This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute


Two weeks ago, I started to write a post about Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving is the holiday we celebrate our resilience – challenges met, adversities overcome – together with family and friends…” I went on to write about the origins of the Holiday as a civic celebration. However, as I was writing, I was continually distracted by the ongoing drama surrounding the death of Michael Brown. I realized that beyond the florid rhetoric and overheated coverage of the events I knew next to nothing about Ferguson – what kind of a town it is; can it recover from this shredding of the town’s fabric; in short, I found myself wanting to know just how resilient Ferguson might be, could it meet the challenge and overcome the adversity.

I came to recognize in Ferguson a town like the one in western Pennsylvania where my grandfather owned a furniture store (Aliquippa). The blue-collar community was highly segregated. “Hunkies” lived in one area, blacks in another, other ethnicities in others, and heaven help the Croat who dated a Serb (marrying one was a mortal sin!); interracial dating was not even thought of. In spite of the fact he was a Hunkie, Grandpa was a leader in the community, and owned the car – a classic Caddy – that visiting dignitaries rode when they toured the town.ferguson

Like Ferguson is today, Aliquippa was a lower middle class town with educational levels somewhat below national norms (e.g., my Dad was the first in the family to graduate from college). People either worked in the J&L steel mill or at service jobs. The furniture store was in a fairly bustling downtown. In the ‘50’s when I started visiting, there were still remnants of residential segregation, but there was also a palpable respect for one another on a person-to-person basis. At their peaks, both Ferguson and Aliquippa had about 28,000 residents, but both have significantly declined from there.

What I’ve learned about today’s Ferguson reminds me of what had happened to Aliquippa by the ‘80’s. The steel mill had closed down. The downtown’s businesses had been decimated by nearby malls leaving behind boarded up buildings and convenience stores. Not only was the downtown an eyesore, but many citizens no longer felt safe on its streets. My family’s furniture store had long since closed. The town’s population was shrinking and a feeling of desperate isolation seemed to replace the proud respect townspeople had once felt for one another.

Let there be no question that Ferguson is a town teetering on the brink of disaster – it could easily go the way of Aliquippa. Median household incomes are about $10,000 a year less than state and national averages. Unemployment hovers around 15% among the two-thirds of the population actually in the workforce (There are estimates that about half of the African-American men don’t have a job.). While women make somewhat less than their peers elsewhere (the difference is < $3,000), men make almost $10,000 less. Four out of five babies are born out of wedlock.  Over half of the children live in houses with only one parent (usually only a mother). And the town’s population is shrinking even as it changes from a typical American melting pot to a primarily African-American community.

Can Ferguson recover? If community leadership is a pre-requisite for recovery, the signs aren’t very good. The Mayor has been conspicuous by his absence throughout the crisis. The Chief of Police has been seen but not believed.  No one from the business community has stepped forward. And, with one notable exception, we have seen no one in Ferguson’s African-American community stepping up to speak for the town’s future.

The parents of Michael Brown are, of course, the exception. Their calm dignity in the midst of incredible personal trauma is inspirational. We will probably never know how much their calls for calm, their attempts to still the tempests of destruction, impacted their own community. For we do not know how much of the destruction was caused by those from outside.

Will Ferguson recover, or will it continue down Aliquippa’s path of disintegration? We don’t know the answer, but we do know some of the questions that each part of the community must ask itself.

Do you care enough about your community to join hands with others to repair what is broken?

Are you willing to listen?  And to speak, not shout?

Do you have the courage to recognize that in a town traumatized by turmoil all must share the blame, and that only by working together can any get credit for its recovery?

In the midst of chaos, can you come together to ensure that your community endures and is transformed to something more durable?

We can only wait, and hope.


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