#Ferguson Fridays: “Why I Went to Ferguson” by Neva Walker of Coleman Advocates
I recently received an open letter via email from Neva Walker, the Executive Director of Coleman Advocates, an organization devoted to building “the leadership and power of low-income and working class youth and parents of color in San Francisco to advance racial and economic justice in our schools and our city.”
As you may know from reading my blog, I am a mother, educator and strong supporter of public school as a tool for social change. I have been encouraged by leaders of organization such as Coleman Advocates and Chinese for Affirmative Action in their statements of public outrage on the events in Ferguson (See Chinese for Affirmative Action’s statement here.) I have family from St. Louis, MO, and have cousins that live 15 minutes from the Mike Brown shooting. (My grandmother grew up under the educational apartheid there and was denied a high school education because of it.)
Even though we live in the Bay Area, which for many seems far away, I know that the events we have seen in Ferguson are not isolated to Missouri. The Mike Brown shooting and subsequent police response to protests there have highlighted issues many young black San Franciscans face each and every day. I have seen and experienced many of the disparities that exist in our city and public education system first hand. I am a strong supporter of our district and am happy about many of the advancements I have seen our district make over the years in support of social and educational justice. Even so, it has bothered me that even as SFUSD highlights “equity” as one of its primary district goals, the district has to my knowledge made no mention of the events in Ferguson and what it is specifically doing to address structures and systems within SFUSD that undermine African-American students’ and families’ access to high quality education and safe and welcoming schools.
Below, with Ms. Walker’s permission, I have re-posted the letter in it’s entirety. Please share it with your friends in an effort to keep this important conversation going.
- Read Neva Walker’s letter (below) and talk with friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members about “anti-black” racism and privilege in our communities. Stay plugged in to events in Ferguson. Educate your self!
- Connect with others in your community to gain support, share knowledge and organize for positive change!
- Support organizations working to end racial injustice. Check out Black Lives Matter and Freedom Defenders.
Visit Coleman Advocate’s website to learn how you can donate, volunteer and support their amazing work!
Why I Went to Ferguson
A Letter from Neva Walker, Executive Director of Coleman Advocates
This week, Black Lives Matter is sponsoring a coordinated week of actions, events, workshops, and community healing spaces as part of a National Week of Action against state sanctioned violence. The week has been planned around the October 22nd National Day of Solidarity against police brutality that has been taking place since 1996 and includes over 100 mobilizations around the country.
As the Executive Director of Coleman Advocates, I have a strong and clear stake in these issues. We organize students and families primarily around education equity issues in San Francisco. In a city where Black students as young as five years old are arrested and taken out of classrooms in handcuffs and where Black students make up more than 50% of suspensions but are less than 10% of the student population, public education system reform and criminal justice system reform are inextricably linked.
Multiple studies show that suspended or expelled students are exponentially more likely to drop out, repeat a grade, and have contact with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. Once that contact is made, there is a racial bias against Black people at every level of the criminal justice system. Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. We receive longer sentences and are subjected to disproportionate supervision and harassment by the legal system. And Black people are disproportionately injured and killed by law enforcement – one Black man is killed every 28 hours by the police or vigilantes,according to a recent study.
But my pain and outrage about the many ways law enforcement and the criminal justice system are robbing Black communities of our young men (and increasingly our young women) – and my dedication to making change – do not stem exclusively from my role as the Director of an organization working to build better schools and a better future for our Black youth. I am the mother of a 27 year-old Black man. I know how it feels to fear for the safety of my child every time he leaves the sanctuary of home. When he was growing up, I didn’t worry that my son would get involved with gangs (even though he had cousins on both sides of the family who did) and I didn’t worry that he would be harmed in a crossfire that wasn’t meant for him. My deepest fear for my son has always been about what might happen when he encounters the police. We should not have to live in fear of the people who are paid to protect and serve our communities. Yet, at an age when no parent should have to lecture their child about anything more serious than the importance of doing homework and eating his vegetables, I had to teach my son – as a matter of survival – about racial profiling and the potential dangers of interacting with the police. It’s a talk every Black mother knows and dreads.
And I know, first hand, the very specific trauma of losing a loved one to police violence. While in Ferguson, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by my feelings of empathy for Michael Brown’s mother. This was not simply the compassion of a fellow mother; rather, my sense of connection to this young man’s family was sourced in a very personal pain. Three of my male cousins – in two different cities – were killed by police officers. There are no words to describe the grief that consumed my family in the wake of these killings and the ongoing trauma that continues to impact our daily lives.
When a loved one is stolen from you by a police killing, the right to mourn in peace is stolen from you as well. There is the shock and then the anguish and you think to yourself, “no pain could be any greater than this”. And then, almost immediately, the police launch their “demonize-the-victim” offensive, throwing salt on your wound, intensifying the pain. With no regard for the truth or for relevancy or for the broken hearts of grieving mothers, law enforcement agencies – bolstered by a sensationalist and racially biased media – pull out every possible punch to create obstacles to accountability and to keep us all on the defense, rather than fighting for justice.
I made the decision to go to Ferguson despite a dozen competing priorities because I was exhausted and frustrated and my heart hurt. I had to do something, anything with these feelings. But even more so, I went to Ferguson – and I remain connected to the ongoing organizing – because I have a boundless love for my people, a deep desire for connection with others who share my vision for change, and a powerful yearning for a better world for our Black sons and daughters.
Ferguson has become a metaphor for race relations in the United States; an embodiment of the daily oppressive forces that so many Black communities face in our country: poverty, segregation, police brutality, gentrification, under-resourced public schools, unemployment, lack of representation in local government, and federal and civic neglect, among other injustices.
Michael Brown was not the first of our Black children to die at the hands of law enforcement. Nor, unfortunately, will he be the last. This killing though is unique in that it became the catalyst for an organized uprising among people from all walks of life – but especially young Black men and women around the country – demanding concrete change in the form of accountability, transparency, new policies and practices, government spending reforms, and redress to affected communities. I am forever grateful to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Ayo for founding the critical movement that is Black Lives Matter and for their invaluable leadership organizing solidarity efforts and support for the Ferguson community and for building bridges between the movement in Ferguson and our fights around these issues in our home cities.
On my last trip to Ferguson, I had the opportunity to meet some of the inspiring young people leading the organizing work there and in St. Louis. Leaders from organizations like Millenial Activists United, Organization for Black Struggle, and Hands Up United. Now, in my darkest moments – when I find myself feeling powerless in the face of so much injustice – I look to the fierce courage, strategic vision, and the unwavering determination and hope of these young organizers and activists to rekindle my faith in the possibility of transformation. My belief in our young leaders – at Coleman, in Ferguson, and beyond – fuels my belief in change.
I am a Black mother and a Black organizer in the United States of America. I have so much to fear. But so much more to fight for.
“You took my son away from me. Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway.” – Lesley McSpadden, mother of 18-year-old Michael Brown, 2014
“We will no longer be ignored. We will bond, continue our fights for justice, and make them remember our children in an appropriate light”. –Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton in a letter to Michael Brown’s mother, 2014
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” – Ella Baker, 1964