Last November, months of angry protests following the police shooting of Michael Brown prompted Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to establish a commission to study the structural problems plaguing communities like Ferguson and come up with recommendations for making the St. Louis metropolitan area more inclusive.
This kind of exercise usually does little more than allow politicians to kick a politically difficult can down the road. But last week, the commission came back with an in-depth analysis of the structural problems that keep communities like Ferguson mired in poverty and despair—and a comprehensive approach to address them. The commissioners didn’t look at policing in a vacuum; they studied the interconnected problems of poor housing, healthcare, transportation, and childcare. They looked at police training, the school-to-prison pipeline, and how some municipalities are financed in part by issuing their residents endless citations for petty infractions.
But will the commission’s 189 recommendations lead to real change, or will the report end up gathering dust in a filing cabinet somewhere?
To get a sense of its prospects, I spoke last week with Reverend Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation, pastor at Saint John’s Church in St. Louis and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Holland: Can you briefly summarize the commission’s key findings?
Starsky Wilson: What we found through a process of community engagement that included more than 2,000 people, as well as the insights of 100 experts, was that racial inequity in our region costs something. For some people, it costs 18 years of their life. We see that when we compare the life expectancies in the 63106 and 63105 zip codes, which are just 10 miles from one another.
It also costs something in gross domestic product. The University of Missouri–St. Louis, tells us, through their public policy research center, that some $14 billion is left on the table because of the racial inequities that we find throughout our region.
What we have found throughout the process is that if we focus on a broad racial equity framework for our region, if we ask the questions of who does this particular piece of legislation, this ordinance, this regulation disproportionately impact, then we can actually start reducing some of these disparities.
Our work settled on four broad areas: racial equity, justice for all, youth at the center and opportunities to thrive. We were able to get at the need for police and municipal-court reform. We looked at how to care for the whole child, not just in terms of educational systems but also by being thoughtful about things like school suspensions and discipline. We were very intentional about making sure we have adequate transit capacity because we have a very diffuse workforce. And in our economic conversations we focused on economic mobility, not just economic development. That is to say, what does it take for families to do better for their children.