Fighting for Change: Q & A with Felicia Pulliam | Not in Our Town

Fighting for Change: Q & A with Felicia Pulliam

Felicia Pulliam, member of the Ferguson Commission and co-founder of ONE Ferguson
Felicia is one of two Ferguson residents who were appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to the Ferguson Commission, a body charged with making recommendations on how to create a "more unified, more equitable" Ferguson. These recommendations are expounded upon in "Forward through Ferguson," a 198-page report which can be read and downloaded here.
Felicia is also one of the founders of ONE Ferguson, a group of residents working for sustainable change in their community in the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing in August 2014. 
Look for more from Felicia and other remarkable leaders of ONE Ferguson in an upcoming film series from NIOT about community members who are working to heal their town. 
This must have been an awesome responsibility. The country’s racial problems have been laid bare in your community, and you’ve been asked by the Governor to suggest ways to fix it. How did you avoid being overwhelmed, both as a body, and personally?
When I accepted the appointment to the Commission, I had no idea who I would be working with, how we would precede, or if the community would accept that we are working on their behalf. Almost immediately, the press pursuit of information and interviews was a challenge. I stayed away from most of this part of the work and am grateful for my colleagues who were willing.  This was no easy task. We had to figure it out on our own. Our managing director, Bethany would often say we were “building it while riding on it and the tires are on fire.”  Some days felt exactly that way. Knowing that community was depending on us to uncover root causes and provide an unflinching report with strategies to transform life in our region was a huge. 


  Photo credit: Skyler Kessler/Student Life 

I tried to keep things in perspective by focusing on the work.  As Co-chair of the Economic Inequity & Opportunity working group, I had a lot of learning, research, and responsibility. All of a sudden, there were 2-3 additional meetings per week with content experts, and strategy sessions with staff and community leaders.  I knew that economic inclusion and mobility were key to moving people out of poverty so they had an opportunity to pursue their life path and reach their potential. I had to think consistently about the people I was called to serve.  Every day I wanted to get it right. Talk to the folks that had information I needed, share the learning in circles that needed to hear and manage to keep my life from coming apart at the seams. Some things changed. I didn’t have time to cook and pack lunches. My chores got postponed, I missed fun times with family and friends, some things just didn’t get done. And I prayed.

We also had each other for support. Several of the Commissioners were kind to me and we found some time to share a meal and chat about our work, expectations, and hopes for our community. It helped to talk with someone that was going through the same experience because they understood without a big set up of circumstances and that level of
communication was important.
"We have not moved beyond race," said Rev. Starsky Wilson, co chair of the Ferguson Commission.  Do you think that was an important statement to acknowledge, and have you tried to communicate that through the commission’s report?
Absolutely important. It’s the truth. Racism is real and has a devastating impact on communities of color. It is important to understand that conditions in black communities are not all of our making. The systemic oppression, exclusion and harsh treatment from police, courts and government take a toll on individuals, families and communities. Indeed, the cost of racism is one we are share.  Although people believe they haven’t been impacted and it is not a relevant factor in their lives, they just haven’t paid attention to how it affect them. We now know from the University of Missouri St. Louis Public Policy Research Center’s new economic assessment of the St. Louis region that our economy would have been $12 billion dollars stronger in 2012 if the disparities didn’t exist. We have an opportunity to generate an additional $13 in the regional economy by addressing the economic disparities in community. If Black people were employed at the same rate as Whites and earning the same, there would be an amazing $13 billion more dollars coursing through our community.  Think about the impact of that economic boom. It’s a game changer. It would have far reaching, sustainable impact on everyone, for the better. It is all of our problem. 

The Commission lays out key changes that need to be made, which are below. The recommendations take a holistic approach, looking at justice, economic disparity and health. Is there a way to start? (Source: St. Louis Public Radio)

  • Bringing in Missouri’s attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-involved killings. The report also recommends using the Missouri Highway Patrol as an investigative agency.

  • Setting up a public database to keep track of police-involved killings around the state.

  • Expanding the amount of police officer training. The report suggests bolstering training regarding social interactions with residents, handling demonstrations and dealing with minority groups.

  • Creating municipal and county review boards of police departments.

  • Consolidating municipal police departments and municipal courts.

  • Treating nonviolent offenses as civil violations — and collecting municipal court debts similarly to collecting civil debts.

  • Creating “Community Justice Centers” that would provide “case management and social work services.” This in turn would give judges and prosecutors “a broad range of alternative sentencing options.”

Yes, we start at the beginning. We start by recognizing that harm has been done.  We start by committing to heal the wounds of injustice and we start doing just that. St. Louis leadership must accept that in order for this region to be strong, competitive, and prosperous, everyone must be included. To do that, we must invest in early childhood education, support our schools to enhance academic attainment, and assure that young people are properly trained for the jobs of the future. We start by understanding that pockets of poverty were created intentionally through policy and practice. People of color have been steered toward and confined in certain areas. These neighborhoods were then ignored and no public investments made in infrastructure, economic development or education. The results we see now are the consequences of the decisions leadership made not to address the needs of all of the citizens. We start by making the investment.
People you spoke with said that “change is possible”   The commission addresses vital systemic change that is needed. Are there also ways that residents of Ferguson, St. Louis and the country seize this moment and help create the change that is needed on a day to day basis?
The people are the solution. People have to continue to say that they don’t support a government or institutions that treat their neighbors in a discriminatory manner. People must demand that all citizens are treated equally and that the same level of investment is made in all communities. People must in their neighborhoods, businesses, places of employment, faith houses, and schools watch, pay attention and make sure racism and discrimination don’t have a place there. You can make a long term commitment to mentor a child into adulthood.  You can make a deliberate effort to employ Black men. You can create an internal professional development program with a career ladder that sponsors that professional growth and promotion of qualified black people. Your well resourced church can partner with a church that has a diverse congregation and provide support for high quality daycare center, job training and internships for their youth in your businesses, financial literacy, and a scholarship fund for their bright young adults to gain education and skills to support a good life.


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