A current of activism and community building still runs strong in the St. Louis suburb.
Today is the third anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, three years since his mother, Lesley McSpadden, had to identify his bullet-ridden body, grief-stricken and bereft, unaware of the extraordinary events to come.
The incident tore at deep wounds that were both specific to Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown lived with his mother, but also spoke to the experience of being black, young, and vulnerable in America.
“He was no angel,” the New York Times unfortunately declared. “He could have been our son,” said a shocked world in response.
Brown’s death stirred something deep inside everyone who watched the story unfold on television and social media.
“It was the image of an African American kid, shot down, and left in the street. You personalize that,” Bernard J. Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, a health care company with nearly $60 billion in annual revenue, told Fortune. He left the ‘it could have been me,’ unsaid.
But it has also stirred something in the Ferguson community, which has spent the last three years laboring under the weight of the world’s gaze.
“There are definitely two towns here,” a volunteer from the “I Love Ferguson” campaign told me recently. “But this is a great community, it’s not what people think.” The campaign started in the weeks after Brown died, with an “I Love Ferguson” window placard. They now sell buttons, t-shirts, caps and other items. “We’ve got merchandise in every state and thirty countries,” he says. There’s even an annual golf tournament. “The money helps local businesses,” he said, then leans in to whisper. “You know a lot of them didn’t have fire insurance.”
The work continues. Since Brown died, there have been elections, a new police chief, and often contentious debates about resources and justice. But, there are signs of hope.
A QuikTrip gas station that burned down is now the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, a $5.8 million partnership between the Urban League and the Salvation Army. Among other things, it will administer the Save Our Sons initiative, which provides job training and other support to young men-at-risk in the Ferguson area.
There is also a relatively new Starbucks. It has become a community hub, part of a corporate commitment the company has embraced to help create jobs and opportunity for towns and cities that might otherwise be overlooked in corporate road maps.
It was there, one rainy April afternoon, that I met Amber, who was about to graduate with a degree in health care management from a local college. She was with the Urban League’s Monique Williams-Moore, who has been running job-readiness programs in the area, including a unique one created with Starbucks to give kids with complicated lives a chance to learn customer service and team work. She’s even held coding classes in Starbucks’s dedicated community room. Her goal is get local youth ready to enter a world which may not be ready for them.
“We need local employers to be comfortable hiring our kids,” Williams-Moore says. “And our kids need feel ready to put down whatever is going on in their lives, and become productive members of the workforce.” She looked at Amber and beamed.
Amber, 20, dreams of opening a clinic to help people with sickle cell anemia. She has it, too. “I’ve been really sick, but I made it,” she says of her upcoming graduation. Her mother died a few years ago, the father of her two-year-old died of the disease shortly after their daughter was born. She went to Normandy High School and walked the same halls with Michael Brown, who she says was sweet. “Like warm, a comforting presence,” she says, clearly used to answering questions about him. Williams-Moore helped her get into a special college program that lets her go to school at night, sometimes bringing her child along.
Amber has a message to all the activists, corporate donors, program designers and educators who are helping to provide the additional support that the community desperately needed in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. It’s working — at least in her case.
“Tell people that we can flourish in our own community,” says Amber. “I don’t want anyone to think that they have to leave Ferguson to get what they want out of life.” What she wants is the power to make things better for her neighbors. “What [Williams-Moore] says is that she’s just planting seeds. Well, I’m the seed, and I’m not the only one.”