Ferguson, Social Justice, and the Role of Community Colleges

09/30/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

As institutions created "by" and "for" local communities, community colleges are often acutely affected by social, economic, and political changes taking place in homes and neighborhoods across America. Economic disparity, abuse of power, and social injustice, often will reverberate quickly on the campuses of 2-year institutions. Because community colleges are accessible to all regardless of class, academic ability, or background, student populations represent a mosaic of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, and social and economic backgrounds all looking to better themselves.

On August 9, 2014, a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, who is white. By now, most are familiar with the details of the event. Some aspects of the occurrence are still unknown, and a grand jury is currently considering whether to bring charges against Wilson. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation. Theories abound as to not only why the death of Brown took place, but the reasons for the intensity of the reaction in the streets. Clearly, the situation is complex and can only be remedied through legal, structural, and institutional change, as well as broad-based citizen participation and committed leadership.

Ferguson, Missouri, located in St. Louis County, is a city of about 21,000. The racial make-up of the city is 70% black and 30% white. When the unrest in Ferguson was at its peak, the local school district delayed opening as a safety precaution. Though well-meaning, this was criticized by some. Going unnoticed though was that the only institution of higher education in Ferguson, St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, sometimes referred to as Florissant Valley Community College or "Flo Valley" for short, kept its doors open. The college leadership believed it a better approach to stay open and provide students with the normalcy that was needed at the time.

In late August, I was invited to visit the college to meet with students, faculty, and leadership to listen to their concerns, and facilitate a conversation about how the college might respond to the current situation. All recognized that Brown's death, though significant, exposed deep-seated problems. To many I met, using education as a means of advancing racial equality, peaceful responses to conflict, and overall social justice had now become critical priorities.

Most of my time was spent with students. As with many community colleges, the range of student backgrounds was vast, even on campuses that are predominately African-American, as were the Forest Park and Florissant Valley campuses I visited. I had an opportunity to chat with members of the college's African American Male Initiative, a program designed to provide support and create pathways to success for black men. Some of the students I chatted with were focused on professional objectives including transferring to 4-year institutions after graduation. Others were back in school to obtain the education they had been denied earlier in life. One older student shared with me that he had been incarcerated and how the college had provided him with a new beginning. He also talked about how he had become a mentor to a number of young black men. Several had come to him during the unrest asking for advice. He had urged them to respond in nonviolent and constructive ways.

I met with members of the student newspaper who hailed from Taiwan, Nepal, and several African countries. They shared about the "home" that the college had provided them, and their desire to contribute to ways of advancing peaceful and positive outcomes. They felt they might have lessons to offer from their own native lands and experiences.

Overall, students had strong opinions about what had happened. Racism, they argued, was endemic in the St. Louis area, and now finally the rest of the world could see what they had long lived with. Students shared with me stories of their own altercations with police where they were treated poorly and at times abused because they were black. One black student shared with me that once when he was pulled over by a white police officer, the officer tried to "hit" on his white girlfriend. These are not urban myths. Notwithstanding their anger, students believed that things could change for the better. Without exception, students urged action using peaceful approaches. I felt, though, that many of these students were unfamiliar with nonviolent means and civil action. But they were willing to learn.

A number of students believed that the key to improving conditions was working with people they did not know. When I gave students a list of individuals and groups they might rely on as allies, many indicated "strangers." As one student put it: "They don't know our situation, we need to talk to folks we don't know and tell them our story." Building these new relationships is often the first step to creating opportunities for dialogue on topics such as racism, economic hardship, and abusive police action. I was struck after the end of one meeting when I saw a young black woman and young white woman who had not previously known each other engage in a deep conversation about their perceptions and desire to bridge differences.

Students shared with me their feelings of exhaustion and frustration. A number of students were just "tired of talking about it." They felt that their community was being mis-characterized in the media and that the arrival of national leaders was not necessarily a positive thing. Frustration must be dealt with constructively for it can lead to irresponsible actions including violence. Exhaustion can lead to apathy which will thwart citizen activism and the cultivation of grassroots leadership, both of which are needed right now. I stressed the need to be responsive not only to educational needs, but emotional ones as well.

Among the faculty and administrative leadership, there was a desire to provide a safe haven for students: a place free of violence and fear, but also a place where there could be a free exchange of ideas, especially uncomfortable ones. Many felt that there was a culture of avoidance present that encouraged blacks and whites to stay away from difficult issues of race, inequality, lack of opportunities, and social injustice. Through course offerings, student activities and events, and forming partnerships with the greater community, they felt that steps forward could be taken.

St. Louis Community College can continue to play its central role as a place of opportunity for students through liberal arts and career education. It can be a safe haven where students can dialogue on difficult issues. It can also tap the goodwill, expertise, and meaningful experiences of its students, faculty, and staff. In these ways, the college can be an important catalyst in advancing social justice in the region and the nation. This is a role that all community colleges can aspire to.