Reflections on Ferguson

Okay, so YouTube is not exactly a forum for the most astute analysis on anything. In fact, I try to make it a habit to avoid the comments posted on various media sites by so-called “regular people.”

This time, however, I accidentally scrolled below the sight line and into the abyss.

As I anticipated, the comments weren’t very insightful or constructive. I was surprised, however, by how clearly they reflected the cultural narratives that surround this story; narratives that have, and continue to, deeply disturb me.

There is one comment from an individual who goes by the name of Tobias Brown that symbolizes everything that is so wrong about this story and our understanding of it.

Tobias writes the following in his post:

“CNN you’re a fu**ing joke of a news station. Stop with all your Michael Brown was an innocent teenager bullsh**. The truth is Michael Brown was a dumb thug who battered a cop and ended up dead because of it. I hope it puts more fear into anyone else that tries to assault a cop on duty.”

It’s the last line that is the most disappointing.

Tobias has a message for those who “relate” to Michael Brown. You’re next.

This is what troubles me. I relate to Michael Brown and I’m no thug. Am I next? Is my 13-year old son next?

From Outcomes to Origins

We are now engaged in a contentious debate about the outcome of the confrontation between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown. Was the killing self-defense or murder? Did he deserve to die?

These are important questions.

But we should also be discussing the environment that enabled the confrontation to so quickly escalate. Did Officer Wilson assume, like Tobias, that Michael Brown was just a common thug? Did he believe that his position as a police officer ought to produce a debilitating sense of fear in Michael Brown? Did Michael Brown assume that Wilson was just another overly aggressive white cop who seems to take pleasure in putting young men of color in their place? Did Michael Brown believe the only way to respond to force was with force?

These questions are also important. The answers will help us find pathways around similar situations.

The part of this story that grips my attention the most is the belief held by so many that young men of color ought to fear the police. As Tobias demonstrates with his comments, there are many who support the creation of environments where fear and violence become tools to keep “certain people” in line. If you step outside the line, you may die. Worse yet, you deserve to die.

The problem with belief systems like those held by Tobias is that there will always be some of us who refuse to be paralyzed by fear or by the promise of violence. As history reminds us, there were always slaves who understood that America’s peculiar institution was built on an environment that enabled extreme forms of fear and violence to be inflicted upon black men, women, and children. The promise of fear and violence weren’t enough to suppress the desire for dignity and freedom.

Enabling Environments

Debating the outcome of the confrontation between Wilson and Brown without an honest discussion about the environments that enable outcomes like the one we saw in Ferguson is not constructive. Fearing the police is not a reasonable pre-condition for peace. And it should not be necessary for you to avoid being shot or killed.

We should be talking about changing environments that enable so many of the self-defeating and dehumanizing behaviors that plague communities like Ferguson. We won’t be able to change the outcome of that confrontation between Wilson and Brown, but it would be nice if we could change the environment that too often leads to similar outcomes.

Let me do my part by offering some constructive suggestions on how communities like Ferguson can move forward. What follows are the elements that I believe enable positive forms of collective action; the kind that choose to build and not to burn.

Essential Elements for Change

At Symphonic Strategies, we believe that there are several essential elements that are the keys to successfully transforming a culture, whether a community or an organization.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”] A vision that is clear, shared, and that offers a compelling destination. [/ut_highlight]

The current vision in Ferguson is fragmented, divisive, and polarized. Leaders from within the community need to step up and work together to co-create a new vision that establishes a new environment for everyone who calls Ferguson home.

Until this happens in Ferguson, there will be no sense of justice and there will be no peace–physical or psychological. As a community, Ferguson needs to co-create a vision of its future that is inclusive and empowering. That vision has to extend to all of its residents, rich and poor, majority and minority.

Start with a town hall meeting, a few focus groups, and some in-depth interviews. Do your research before you start designing your vision and include as many voices in the design process as you can. After all, people are less likely to resist a vision they helped to create.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]A common currency that can be readily and consistently exchanged.[/ut_highlight]

Currency, like money, is something of value that can be exchanged. I think of currency as a collection of agreed-upon rules—formal and informal—that inform how people engage, interact, and work with each other. To  have value, a currency must also have meaning. It must convey something.

In communities all across this nation, positive currencies simply don’t exist in the quantities necessary to transform the culture. There often aren’t currencies that establish trust, connection, and unity. Instead, fear, apathy, and violence become the currencies that are most easily exchanged.

Officer Wilson and Michael Brown turned to the currencies they knew well. Unfortunately, they either did not have the time or the skills to be able to diffuse the situation by drawing upon different and more effective currencies.

Even if we don’t actually call it a currency, there are examples of this everywhere. The Miami Dolphins are currently trying to change their culture by enacting a new currency that governs how players treat each other. The NFL and the NBA are attempting to introduce alternative currencies, such as the one that abolishes the use of the “N-word” by players during a game. Beyond fear and violence, what else do you want people in Ferguson to exchange?

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”] A common language that begins to establish a common identity. [/ut_highlight]

What is evident from the coverage and the reaction to the case in Ferguson is that we don’t have a common language that we can use to reinforce a common identity. Watching the coverage of the case leaves one with the impression that Officer Wilson and Michael Brown have nothing at all in common. Tobias certainly believes this to be true.

Leaders in Ferguson need to find ways to begin using language to establish a common identity that reinforces a common and compelling future. Michael Brown was not just a “suspect” and Officer Wilson was more than simply a “white cop” in a Black neighborhood. Unfortunately, we will never know whether it would have been possible for one of the two men to call upon a common language that could diffuse the situation and prevent it from escalating along the predictable path.

I’ve always been amazed by the common sense of identity that people from Texas seem to share. When they leave the state, there seems to be a common affinity for what it means to be from Texas. That transcends race and class.

There is no pride in being from Ferguson and there doesn’t appear to be a common experience that could unify residents and elevate them beyond race or class. Ferguson needs to create experiences that produce a shared history that supports a common identity. Without that, people will naturally revert back to the small things that define us, including race or the particular neighborhood we happen to call home.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”] An operating process that reinforces new cultural values, beliefs, and behaviors. [/ut_highlight]

All of this is nice, but if it doesn’t stick people will get stuck. When people get stuck in the midst of change they often revert back to the old ways of doing things. Communities like Ferguson won’t be able to sustain change until they have established a process that reinforces the values, beliefs, and behaviors that are necessary for change.

Change requires a transition from the old to the new. Transition is a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like all processes, transitions can be mishandled. They can be botched.

Often, transitions stall along predictable touch points where those involved in the change have an opportunity to either demonstrate something new or to revert back to the old. Ferguson needs to identify some of the most visible and valuable touch points that exist between various segments of the community, and they need to work hard to ensure those touch points reinforce change. If they continue to fail to do this, the only touch points available will be those that privilege fear and violence.

Ferguson needs leaders who are willing to focus on the details of constructing a sustainable process for change that reinforces and rewards a shared value system, as well as new beliefs and behaviors. This is tedious work, but it’s also a critical pre-requisite for change.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”] A performance management process that commands and rewards collective commitment to the vision, strategy, or purpose. [/ut_highlight]

In addition to a well-designed transition process, Ferguson needs to hold people accountable for enacting it. Change won’t stick unless there are rewards for remaining committed to the new vision. Ferguson must establish a mechanism to recognize and to reward those who are committed to justice, to equity, and to an inclusive vision that empowers all residents.

To paraphrase President Obama’s comments on November 24th, “there are problems and injustices in communities of color and people aren’t simply making them up. They are real.” Ferguson needs a framework to manage the performance of those in positions of power to ensure they are committed to a collective vision. The failure of the grand jury to indict Officer Wilson provides an opportunity for law enforcement to enact their own framework to make sure their officers demonstrate commitment to change. It shouldn’t take a grand jury to police the police.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”] A human development program that trains, coaches, and equips individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement the vision in ways that elevate and enhance the new culture. [/ut_highlight]

Finally, change requires that people think and behave differently. Change, actually, is the outcome. Unfortunately, in times of stress people often return to their habits.

Bad habits will lead to poor outcomes. Communities like Ferguson should think deeply about investing in programs that teach and that coach people how to develop better and more effective habits.

It’s clear to me that change won’t be easy for Ferguson. That said, there is a pathway ahead. I hope someone will step up and lead.


By | 2017-02-09T09:09:32+00:00 November 25th, 2014|Culture Change, Headlines|0 Comments