Grassroots Organizing in Suburbs to Prevent Another Ferguson

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  • October 21, 2014

st. louis voting - body
Sarah Jackson

Lorna Francis, a single mom and hairdresser profiled recently in the New York Times, doesn’t vote often. She’s busy raising her daughter and working to afford the rent on her “well groomed suburban cul-de-sac.” And, according to the Times, she’s part of a wave of new working-class black residents in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia, who don’t have the means or time to run for local municipal office, or to get involved in politics.

So although the city is now majority African American, it’s represented by mostly white city council members. Conyers is in Rockdale County, which has undergone a demographic shift since 2000. The county’s share of black residents jumped from 18 to 46 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The police force is still mostly white as well. And although life has been relatively peaceful in Conyers, experts say these representation imbalances can lead to long-term tensions like those we saw erupt in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer after a white police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager.

Sharon Pratt, who was mayor of DC in the 1990s, knows all too well how “Fergusons” happen. In the early 1990s, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that an underlying causes of riots in a Latino neighborhood in Washington, DC, was a police department that did not reflect or understand the city’s growing Latino population. Pratt said recently that the police force had not done enough to respond to the neighborhood’s changing population.

“We did not have enough officers who could speak Spanish,” she said, “not enough officers who were attuned to the cultural differences.”

As the Washington Post reported, federal civil rights lawsuits and public outcry have helped change this in some (but not all) major US cities. But this has not been the case in smaller cities and suburban communities like Ferguson or Conyers, where rapid demographic and economic change has occurred without the benefit of public or civic infrastructure or cross-racial organizing coalitions that can lead a push for change.

This grassroots mobilization is important, experts say, in a community’s ability to find structured, constructive ways to help residents cope with economic hardship and racial tensions—and to find real ways to fight for community change.

In their 2011 report, “All Together Now? African Americans, Immigrants, and the Future of California,” Manuel Pastor and his coauthors Juan De Lara and Justin Scoggins highlight examples of grassroots organizing in California communities working to manage tensions among racial and ethnic groups and build a common agenda for change. They document examples of immigrant and African American communities coming together based on common needs and disadvantages and what they term “everyday social justice.”

The authors call for “patient relationship building” and stress that movements are built not by leaders but by everyday interactions among people in neighborhoods.

It’s exactly this kind of work that Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom argued is needed in poor suburban communities like Ferguson. Swanstrom is professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College They are co-authors of “Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century.”

Low-income suburbs, they explained in a Washington Post op-ed, face particular challenges in building grassroots interracial organizing coalitions for several reasons. Size is one, but so too is the fact that low-income minority suburban communities are often underrepresented in local government, on the school board or the police force. Like Lorna Francis in Conyers, residents in these suburbs are also less likely to vote or have a history of community organizing.

Only ongoing regional organizing, the authors said, can give residents in places like Ferguson political power and a seat at the table. The authors call for an interracial coalition of religious, community, civic, labor, and enlightened business leaders to join forces, notably across jurisdictional lines, to build agency and power.

“A strong community organizing movement, based in local churches and neighborhood groups, helped by experienced organizers, could mobilize a voter registration and turnout effort, and increase civic engagement, to shift the balance of political power in Ferguson,” they write.

Dreier and Swanstrom argued for merging of some of these fragmented small governments and school districts. In the past, Swanstrom has also argued that cross-jurisdiction political coalitions—for example, older suburbs joining with central cities on regional development projects—could help suburbs gain resources and political power. Diverse funding structures are needed that promote collaboration across sectors and governments instead of competition for dollars.

Beyond Housing, a suburban nonprofit organization in St. Louis County, offers one such example to address growing poverty and demographic change. In an innovative partnership that encourages collaboration among 24 small suburban municipalities that fall within the same school district, Beyond Housing is coordinating services such as housing, jobs, economic development, and health care across jurisdictional boundaries.

Ferguson matters not only for the residents of northern St. Louis County. As many journalists and pundits have pointed out, this story matters because it’s the story of many other communities throughout the country. Ferguson’s racial divisions, economic challenges, and St. Louis County’s fragmented municipalities are similar to those faced by many suburban communities.

Like many metro areas, St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than people living in the city of St. Louis itself. And the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates more than 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000. As Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes found in their recent analysis of new census data, poverty in major metro areas continues to grow, and more than two-thirds of the increase in poverty from 2000 to 2013 occurred in suburbs.

To avoid creating future “Fergusons” in struggling suburbs across the country, community partnerships have to be built before a crisis comes, so that community members have systems and structures in place for coping—and a voice at the table.

Photo credit: Flickr user @pasa47

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