In times of struggle many seasoned leaders remind the parties involved of the Chinese symbol for the word "crisis." This symbol combines two words: danger and opportunity. The aftermath of the Ferguson situation presents both a dangerous reescalation of racial tension in America and an opportunity.
This opportunity consists of changing the conversation about community in America, an issue larger in scope than black youth, police tactics, and race relations. It's an opportunity to define how we choose to live our lives in community.
The author Peter Block, in his masterful book Community: The Structure Of Belonging, writes about two different types communities. The first one is the stuck community.
The overriding characteristic of the stuck community is the decision to broadcast all the reasons we have to be afraid. This is a kind of advertising that exploits the fear we have of violence, of the urban core, of terrorism, of African-Americans and other ethnic groups, of immigrants, of those who are poor or undereducated, of other religions, and of other countries.
Block goes on to say, "When there is a human tragedy, most of the energy goes into finding who was to blame. There is a retributive search for responsibility and a corresponding defense from the players claiming their innocence."
It sounds as though this piece was written about Ferguson, though the book came out in 2009. We live in a stuck community, and I'm concerned that flash points, such as Ferguson, have the potential impact of deepening our stuckness.
Most of the news stories I've see about Ferguson market and sell fear, and many of the community reactions to the events focus on blame and retribution. This deeply concerns me because blame doesn't heal and revenge doesn't satisfy.
This isn't at all to discount accountability. When death occurs all parties involved must open themselves to review and scrutiny. And then we must move forward, and how we move forward makes all the difference.
The other kind of community that Block describes is the restorative community. This is the community that focuses on what it can accomplish.
Restoration is created by the kinds of conversations we initiate with each other. These conversations are the leverage point for an alternative future. The core question that underlies each conversation is "What can we create together?" Shifting the context from retribution to restoration will occur through language that moves in the following directions: from problems to possibility; from fear and fault to gifts, generosity, and abundance; from law and oversight to social fabric and chosen accountability; from corporation and systems to associational life; and from leaders to citizens.
The Ferguson situation contains an abundance of mystery and ambiguity as to what literally happened. People can assign blame in a dozen different directions, to individuals, groups, organizations, systems, and entire nations. And what do we have after all that blame and finger-pointing? Festering wounds that, if we're lucky, scab over until the next problem arises.
We citizens have the power to change the conversation. We have the choice to focus on possibility. We have the ability to unstick ourselves.
It won't be easy. We've been conditioned by the government, media, and even our own base instincts to point fingers when we're upset. "If it bleeds, it leads," is a media axiom that stands squarely in the way of what's possible.
Yet nothing that's worth having is easy to get.
In order to do this we must step into a more comprehensive view of our society. We must accept that we all have faults and we all have gifts. We must believe that everyone can strive to be better and everyone is a human being deserving respect. We must see that the systems we live in are broken and flawed and these same systems work in most cases. We must acknowledge that being a police office is an incredibly difficult job that combines danger, sensitivity, and split-second decision making and being a police officer is about engaging a community as much as it is enforcing its laws. And finally, we must embrace the reality that different racial groups in this country have unique challenges and responsibilities; we're not all the exact same.
We get better by facing the totality of our community, not just the parts that fit neatly into our own individual narrative. We improve when we decide to heal our individual wounds, which may come from our individual circumstances or from broad social forces. We make a positive difference when we choose to open ourselves to disconfirming data and challenge ourselves to question our deeply held assumptions.
We can choose to win an argument or make a better world.
What could Ferguson, Missouri look like in two years? What's its possibility? We often flock to cities devastated by natural disasters in order to clean up, rebuild, and restore. Sometimes we even make these cities better than they were before the disaster. Why don't we do the same in Ferguson? We can.
If not in Ferguson, then do it in your community.
I challenge you to do one of four things in the next seven days:
- Go to Ferguson, Missouri, not to protest but to restore. Engage with the citizenry, meet the politicians, or just be a positive presence.
- Talk to your local politicians about what a restorative community would look like where you live. Call your city council members or other civic leaders. Challenge them to consider what's possible.
- Talk to someone whom you believe has an opposing opinion to yours about what happened in Ferguson. Suspend your assumptions. Ask questions. Show curiosity.
- Use social media to share your hopes about what good can from from these difficult events. Use the hashtag #FergusonForward.
As flawed as America may be, it has a better track record of engaging its population than most other spots on Earth. America was initially conceived as a nation defined by civic engagement on a scale never before seen, and since it has slowly (sometimes painfully) expanded the groups that get to participate.
We must keep the movement going. We are a good country that can be better. It will be hard.
We've all seen in the last week how events in Ferguson can create danger in our society. I challenge you to identify, and assert, how events in Ferguson also create opportunity.
This post was originally featured on the Good Men Project.