This being an era of great mobility, there must be tens of thousands of people like me who spent years living and working in St. Louis, but now reside somewhere else. And, like me, many probably left a piece of their hearts in St. Louis. That's why we scan the national news frequently for the latest on our old home town. This was especially true during the recent terrible time known as "Ferguson."
It's been a strange and frustrating feeling: to be there, but not. Perhaps the distance was helpful, however. The combined reporting and commentary of local and national journalists contextualized multiple bits of reality for us regional emigrants. These bits were evident but often disconnected for me when I lived in St. Louis. Now, individual pieces of a puzzle come together into a whole, from which the explosive situation in Ferguson makes -- unfortunately, but logically -- sense.
In nearly every news source I read over the past five weeks, the pieces were there. Here are a few.
• The St. Louis Post-Dispatch documented huge differences in the rate of traffic stops of African-Americans and whites in Ferguson.
• Fortune magazine alerted us to the lack of shared economic progress among racial groups in Ferguson.
• The Brookings Institution used Ferguson as an example of growing concentrations of poverty in older inner ring suburbs of U.S. metro areas.
• The Washington Post editorialized about the problem of too many local governments dependent on fees and fines to support their budgets, putting low-income residents in a compounding cycle of debt.
• St. Louis Magazine highlighted problems caused by overlapping municipal, school and police districts -- many of which are slow to adapt to changing demographics.
• The St. Louis American highlighted the erosion of trust that's been underway in communities like Ferguson for decades.
• Education Week reported on differences in school attendance, discipline, and achievement among African-Americans and whites in Ferguson.
• Reuters covered a United Nations' statement challenging the U.S. to confront racial disparity and calling for a halt in excessive use of police force, such as that displayed in Ferguson.
• NPR gave attention to growing alarm about the use of heavy military equipment by local police departments.
• Nicholas Kristof used Ferguson as a backdrop for a piece in the New York Times to jolt readers into awareness about racial disparities.
• The Huffington Post created a team of local and national talent to stay on top of the long-term story: persistent "structural inequalities and racial disparities that sparked the crisis."
Like many other former St. Louisans who wanted to respond in the weeks immediately following the killing of Michael Brown, I liked and linked and joined online initiatives dedicated to ensuring that the many lessons of this tragedy don't get lost. Some of these initiatives are led and supported by people I remember as being among the smartest and most committed folks in town. But previous experience leaves us anxious about whether their impact will be sustainable. Will the powers-that-be -- those who make the laws and move the money -- accept the challenge to change? Will the community as a whole persist in vigilance for as long as it takes?
Will we remember the basic truths we've known our whole lives, which could have made a difference all along? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. See the forest, not only the trees. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not.
And connect the dots -- another truism that's easy to say, but difficult to follow. But here's where St. Louis may have an advantage. It's large enough to be among the nation's 20 major metros, but small enough to set a table where everyone can come together to get things done. The challenge is to encourage many good projects to spring up, but to not be satisfied with them. Rather, the imperative is to bring a myriad of discrete data points together to create a big picture that illustrates where the region now is, and to put 2.8 million individual brush strokes together to draw a better one for our future. I say "our" because many of us who left St. Louis love St. Louis, and we know it isn't just about you.