While the rest of the country spent much of August focused on raising funds and awareness for ALS with some icy fun, things got heated in Ferguson, MO where racial tensions and a stubborn refusal to provide answers put citizens and law enforcement at odds, resulting in a two-week stand-off that raised more questions than it resolved. Sadly, this is a topic we as a community didn't amplify and discuss as much.
In most human disagreements there is your side, and their side -- and somewhere in the middle lies the truth. There are many still seeking truth with regards to the Ferguson situation, but I think if and when it's found, it will be complicated at best.
Whether you're in the business of helping people -- as we in our sector are -- or not, it's hard to sit back and watch a situation like Ferguson unfold. With information coming at us via social channels, muddied like a game of telephone, it can be difficult to discern which side is right or wrong (as if it's ever that simple anyway), much less take any sort of action.
When we are on the outside looking in, it can also feel like it's none of our business. But that's just as dangerous a position to take.
Some things are bigger than the organizations we serve. When eruptions like Ferguson happen, aren't we as nonprofit leaders obligated to serve humanity as a whole? To try to guide those who feel helpless and be sure their voices are heard?
How do we do that?
Participate in the Conversation
Especially when it's already happening, jump in. Use your voice to be a part of the solution - to offer light and positive change instead of staying rooted in confrontation. When something like #Ferguson is trending, you don't want to waste the opportunity by letting your personal views cloud your judgment, or taking a stance based on incomplete information.
While it may be easy to jump on a sensationalized aspect of a story like Ferguson, it's more productive to ask why and seek deeper answers from all sides before lending your voice to either side's outcries. When controversial news hits the viral level, that's when you most want whatever content you lend to the fray to be meaningful.
If you're outside the community, use social media to ask why. Seek information. Seek answers. Shine the light on the lack thereof.
If you're a social change organization, for example, these are three conceptual campaigns you could mount:
• Blog a one minute story that humanizes both sides
• Organize a virtual peace rally using social media -- if we've learned nothing else this summer, we've learned the power of social and clicktivism, thanks to the #IceBucketChallenge
• Offer options for those caught in the crossfire, while being careful not to be too critical when you're a bystander and not directly involved in the situation
If you are local, take an action to make a positive difference.
But what kind of action can you take in the midst of an explosive situation like this? Even when all is said and done, no one is naïve enough to think the slate is simply wiped clean. So what can you do? Take the community energy still churning in the wake of all that happened, and use it as a catalyst for change.
Here's an example of just the kind of positive action I'm talking about:
This is brilliant! #Ferguson
You want to effect lasting change, dear citizens of Ferguson? Register to vote, and then cast your ballot on Election Day. We've made it simple for you. Brilliant indeed.
Find the Place Where You Agree
Notice I didn't say, "Pick a side." You may have one, you may not. But either way, the best approach to inspiring change is to find the place where both sides agree.
It might be as simple as "Something needs to change." In this case, isn't it likely that citizens of Ferguson agree that this is so? Isn't it likely that law enforcement does as well? Isn't that the feeling across the country, whatever side of the argument you fall on?
That's where to start. With community leaders and law enforcement working together to find places where everyone's interests align.
When you take a step back and whittle down the various barriers built of preconceived notions, projections, anger, history, etc., etc., etc... that's when you create the space to find common ground. It can only be found in the quiet. You will never find it in the midst of screaming or violence.
When these kinds of emotionally charged situations happen, we gain an opportunity to create social impact beyond the causes we champion in the day to day; to be thought leaders and mediators helping to sift through all the rhetoric to find a place of social justice; to effect change by asking the hard questions, offering solutions, and using our audience to show solidarity and community beyond geographic proximity.
To care greatly and do our part. And isn't that why we got into this work in the first place?