Is America Ferguson?

By Beverly Rehfeld – August 22, 2014

The following article by Women’s Voices member Bev Rehfeld was published on her blog “Beverly’s Notebook” on August 19.

On August 8 I celebrated my 85th birthday in the well-appointed Florida home of my brother and sister-in-law. I was toasted with good food, and music performed by my children, daughter-in-law grandchildren and nieces and nephews and their spouses.

I spent several days catching up on family news and family myths and stories. I marveled at how much children had grown and listened to what they wanted to do next.

That light-hearted atmosphere lasted until my grandchildren used their tweeters to tell us the news of the murder of Michael Brown gunned down on a small street in Ferguson. We left Florida on August 13 and I returned to my apartment in University City, about seven miles from Ferguson.

My apartment is in a retirement community where my neighbors include people who live independently and those who require daily care givers to assist them. I have become friendly with many of these care givers and my building’s staff who live in and around Ferguson and I was anxious to talk with them.

Because I respect their intelligence and the understanding and kindness they show the people they serve I asked them to tell me what they could about Ferguson. I learned that the problems in Ferguson have been festering for a long time.

From our conversations I gathered a lack of accountability by public servant and office holder was a given, a part of daily life. When I asked them if they wanted to give me some examples of what they meant, this is what they told me.

  • “I nail the windows in my house shut for safety.”
  • “I had a grandchild killed by a stray bullet while he was playing.”
  • “Looting is not who we are.”
  • “I’ve raised my son who is now a pastor in our Church and is a bus driver.”
  • “I wish the noise would just stop and everybody would go home.”
  • “My community is more stable because we are home owners not apartment dwellers.”

From these general conversations with people, I found thatthere is a protectiveness about St. Louis, this State and our country. People seem to find it difficult to speak of problems. We attribute threats to our safety to the fault of others, to “outsiders,to “the press” while we do little to decry the dangerous break down of law and order we witness. We accept arrogance by local, state and national elected officials when they flaunt federal laws or make a mockery of this country and of the decency that has been a part of it and ourselves for so long. We accept the fact that militaryvehicles are now used with zeal to patrol our streets.We accept the fact that guns once thought to be used in the “wild west” are now “must have” items in our homes. What has happened to us as a people that we elect and accept the appointment of officials that allow the body of a young man to lay in his own blood on a public street for hours as if he were on a battle field of war? What has happened to us as a people when we are lulled into a false sense of security against “enemies” rather than recognize the greed and power that eats away at our lives? What has happened to my country when we believe that what has happened in is the result of “outsiders”, or the press or tweeters? It is time to stop pointing fingers and recognize that what is happening in Ferguson Missouri is happening to each of us. We are Ferguson!


“Show Me” Collaboration

By Amy Hunter – August 21, 2014

The following article by Women’s Voices member Amy Hunter was published on essence.com on August 20.

Here in St. Louis, because of a series of tragic events, we are getting a chance to reinforce the need for organizations like the YWCA. The mission of the YWCA is to eliminate racism and empower women. In Ferguson and the metropolitan St. Louis area, there are committed people looking for social, systemic and institutional change.

We have been asked, “Where is the leadership in St. Louis”? Our response: “It is everywhere, in places and spaces where some may not be used to seeing it.” The young people in the community are among the leaders! You have seen the news coverage that characterizes the daytime protests as mainly peaceful and the after-dark protests as violent. This issue has touched the lives of people throughout the community, country, and world and within various “pockets” of people.

I know, because I was at ground zero day after day and night after night. My interaction late at night has been pleasant; the protesters have been helpful, respectful and generous. Their mothers should be proud.

In the last transformative movement a select number of leaders were highlighted, and justifiably so; but others were left out of the chronicle, leaders like Dorothy Height, Frankie Freeman and Margaret Bush Wilson. So it should come as no surprise that there are leaders working in Ferguson effectively but unheralded. In addition to the young leaders, there are leaders who have the benefit of experience and history.

The success of the protest includes women leaders like Rev. Traci Blackmon, Rabbi Susan Talve, Kira Van Neil, Traci Berryman McGhee, Cassandra Gould, Charli Cooksey, Reena Hajat, Rebecca Wiedeker and others. These leaders are of mixed races and intergenerational. The success of the protest in some way is indicative of the diversity of its leaders: people of all races, genders, ages, and backgrounds.

During the day there is a difference in press coverage but also in the protestors. There are more people age 30 and above. This includes, but not limited to, the social activists from the civil rights movement, clergy, and average citizens seeking justice. The daytime protests have included singing, particularly when Jesse Jackson came to town. The songs of the 60’s were remembered and sung. The police were present but in a “serve and protect” manner. They were lined up on the street, maintaining good traffic flow. There was no gas or dogs or tanks. However, in the evening, the tone changed. The demographics of the people protesting also changed. They were young mostly, but not exclusively African American. Not all of the daytime protesters left and some older leaders in particular stayed at night. I call them the ‘bridge builders”. Old enough to remember the struggles of the 60s, although not old enough to have participated, they still had some activist experiences. They understood that they were not part of the younger generation but they wanted to help the youth with non-violent protesting and support their voice for change and action. They also understood that their role is to support, and lead from behind, to be advisors in non-protesting strategies yet allow the younger people to feel the power and responsibility of leadership.

Also in the evening there is a group called the “Peacekeepers.” They have been talking to the young protestors and providing rational guidance on why this is happening and the next plan of action. They are doing amazing work. Just as the vibe of the protesters changes with the oncoming darkness, so does the tone of the police. I have spoken with the police officers during the day and in the evening, again, two different conversations. The daytime conversations included words of caring and caution: “Are you all right?” The evening conversations included words of consequence: “You will be dealt with.” It was clear that for both the police and protestors, words of violence begat violence and words of peace begat peace. For example, the night of the curfew one of the agitators was encouraging people to stay, to fight against the police. Mr. Shabazz, an attorney, came through and told them to go home, that we could come back the next day. He calmed the crowd that the agitator was working so hard to get hyped up to stay and fight over 200 armed, practiced police officers.

Indeed, there are multiple conversations happening at the same time. There are conversations between young and old; middle class and working poor; white, black, and people of color; the artists and the higher education scholars, and across religious dominations. What is clear is everyone wants the violence of racial profiling to end. We have a history of violence evoked because of race in this area in the not too distant past. In Kirkwood, Missouri, another suburb of St. Louis, a black man who felt he had been racially targeted for years took his frustration out in a fatal mass shooting during a City Council meeting in 2008. Despite the horror, good actions have come from that tragic event as many in Kirkwood began a healing dialogue.

We have seen change occur after tragedy, which validates the hopefulness of positive change happening after this tragedy. Michael Brown’s death has sparked increased conversations about race. We have an opportunity to address racism in our community, our justice department, our healthcare, our employment opportunity and in our schools. My organization, the YWCA, has been doing this work for more than a hundred years.

The YWCA offers programming targeted towards racial healing. In St. Louis, our Witnessing Whiteness group targeted to people who identify as white helps them gain an understanding of institutionalized racism, white privilege and how to become an ally. Several of the people that have participated in this program are participating in the daytime and evening protests, including a group from Kirkwood. Witnessing Whiteness is about creating change agents in the community.

The other group I lead is targeted toward people of color or people from the global majority and it’s called Mosaic. Mosaic’s goal is to assist in the healing process of internalized racism. Both Witnessing Whiteness and Mosaic are needed and necessary now more than ever. We have an opportunity to learn and grow from this tragedy.

Not only will those of us working to end racial disparity in St. Louis need to remain active, we will need everyone throughout the country to work for racial justice and equity. We already have seen collaboration between seemingly disparate groups. Some are expressing their views through art, conversation, and philanthropy. The “Feed Ferguson” movement began in Raleigh, North Carolina and resulted in children kept out of school by the violence still being able to receive school lunches. All of the groups here are working toward a common goal, ending violence and racism. Like Ida B. Wells created the anti lynching laws…here’s our moment to end racial profiling. As a national organization, the YWCA is urging Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act of 2013. I urge you to lobby your elected representatives to do the same.

Missouri is the “Show Me” state. We have started the conversation and sowed the seeds of change in Ferguson and we want this tragedy to never happen again. Rest assured, that will take all of us, working together. I am confident just as we have shown you from Missouri, the rest of the nation can show us how they are accomplishing this goal. We as a country are better than systematically treating some citizens differently than others. Equity and humanity is what we all want as citizens. Let’s “show” the world how we changed for the better. This will not occur with silence or colorblindness; let us continue to move forward with determination and wisdom. If you are unsure of your path, merely ask yourself “How can I help this movement and what more can I do toward justice and peace?” It is that simple. Peace.


Government needs to act now to help migrant children at the border

By Mary Ann McGivern – August 3, 2014

Women’s Voices member Mary Ann McGivern’s article on refugee children was published in the “National Catholic Reporter” on July 21.

I’m home from a week of lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the refugee children on our southern border. There were 13 of us, 11 from Loretto and two from our Guatemalan sister community, Sagrada Familia. We had appointments with 25 senators and representatives, plus other drop-in visits. We crossed the Capitol between the House and Senate office buildings three or four times each day. NETWORK, LCWR and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission lent staff to help us refine our message. Maruca and Yolanda from Guatemala told and retold tough accounts of children leaving home to escape gangs, to buy medicine, to escape abuse.

One of the staffers asked what it was like in a village when children decided to go north. Did several of them jump onto the train together? Maruca said when the decision was made, the family went to a village coyote, paid him and made arrangements for the child’s travel. Families know the risks of entrusting their children to thecoyotes, but it’s a better choice to them than keeping the child at home.

It was right for us to be there in D.C., carrying our message. But will our visit have any effect? Not as much as we hope for, I suspect. Probably the law that requires an investigation of each child’s account of why they came will be restricted. But we hope it will not be repealed or gutted. Children who come because of poverty are not eligible to stay, but those who are at risk of violence from gangs or drug traffickers or abusers are eligible.

The problem is that children don’t easily report the dangers they faced. They are ashamed of sex abuse. Their cousins might be the traffickers. The gangs have threatened them. It takes time and skill — and language facility — to draw out a child. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that at least half the children are eligible for admission to the United States because of the risks they face at home. And that’s what the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, passed in 2008, is meant to ensure. Let’s not retreat from the moral high ground when we are tested.

Our recommendations for how the special appropriations should be spent probably will not be fully followed. I imagine some money will go to border security because politics demands it, even though the border is secure. These children are turning themselves in to the first patrol officer they see. They are not sneaking in.

But I do hope none of the money marked for the State Department will go to further militarize Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Again, one of the staffers asked us if it isn’t important to beef up the military so they can control the gangs and traffickers. We explained that the military never does good policing. Soldiers are trained to obey orders and to shoot first. Police are trained to investigate, sort out conflicting accounts and listen to the community. There is plenty of police corruption in Central America, but in Guatemala, for example, the current president has been replacing the police with soldiers, and unsolved murders are again on the rise. Most of all, Health and Human Services needs money. Their coffers are expected to run dry in mid-August. If Congress does not act now, there will be no money to detain and care for children. Perhaps they will all be put in local jails, or perhaps for a couple of weeks the borders will simply be open to children and their lives will depend on the kindness of strangers. I don’t know if there are that many kind strangers. So I hope Congress understands it needs to act now.


“For the Sake of All” We Must Address Racial Disparities

July 18, 2014

A letter published in the July 4 edition of the St. Louis Business Journal from Women’s Voices immediate past president Mary Clemons emphasizes the need for St. Louis to address racial disparities.

The June 13 issue of BizTalk explored the Top 25 Wealthiest ZIP Codes in St. Louis. I have no doubt the information on demographics and disposable income is helpful to business leaders who read your journal, but would like to point out that not one of those neighborhoods was in St. Louis – all were in communities surrounding the city.

A landmark, data driven, study conducted by Jason Purnell, assistant professor in the Brown School at Washington University (For the Sake of All: A report on the health and well-being of African Americans in St. Louis and why it matters for everyone) provides alarming facts: life expectancy in the predominantly black 63106 zip code north of downtown St. Louis, is 67 years while in the 63017 mostly white suburban zip code, life expectancy averages 82 years; 25% of African Americans in the city are unemployed; 1 in 10 drop out of school; 15 African American infants die per 1000 in the city compared with 5 white infants.

Why should the readers of the Business Journal be concerned? Lack of education and poor health result in reduced purchasing power and lower tax receipts. The study concludes that “using earnings alone, St. Louis loses $694 million to $1.5 billion”.

Morally and economically (For the Sake of All, and for the sake of our businesses) it is imperative that we address the racial disparities in our community.

WV Member Explores The Issue of Hunger

January 22, 2014

Women’s Voices member Geri Redden understands the way that poverty results in hunger, and how hunger impacts every facet of a person’s life. Following is a commentary that she wrote about the subject, printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 21:

Ravages of hunger extend throughout society

by Geri Redden

This year is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty instituted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That war is not yet won. According to the latest study, 32 percent of St. Louisans live in poverty. For African-Americans, the rate is 40 percent. For a couple of years when I was married to a very sick man and had three young children to support on “women’s wages,” I lived in poverty. I later started an agency and located it in the poorest part of the city. So I know about poverty, personally and professionally. There is one aspect of poverty that is never adequately explained, perhaps because it is impossible to understand unless one has experienced it, and that is hunger. If an average of 36 percent of our population is living in poverty, you can bet there are a lot of hungry people in our community. Hunger is compelling. The dynamics of hunger are such that when it is present, nothing else exists. No other aspect of the hungry person’s life gets any attention. Hunger is all there is. It is all-consuming. To not eat is to starve and so when one is hungry, the survival part of the brain kicks in. I remember back in Catholic elementary school having a classroom debate about whether stealing bread to feed one’s family was a sin. At the time, it was a theoretical conversation. Now that I’ve experienced hunger, I believe the answer is no because as human beings we have the right to survive. A hungry child cannot study, cannot focus, cannot learn, cannot build friendships. All he can experience is hunger. A hungry child thinks no one else has this problem because no one else talks about it. He cannot know that their shame, like his, keeps them silent. No one can know the truth. Therefore, to grow up hungry is to grow up shamed and alone.Poverty impacts a person’s life at every level: physically, mentally, legally and socially. But hunger ramps up that impact another notch. Like physical pain, it is present in the body, experienced as part one’s very being. It is personal. Hunger is experienced as an intimate curse.

The damage hunger does to a person, particularly during the formative years, is usually invisible and often permanent. It results in medical, but more often mental, conditions, which leave the person at risk for addiction, unable to work, unable to take responsibility for themselves and their family. It often results in crime, which costs our country billions of dollars a year. The ravages of chronic hunger are dysfunction on many levels.

One in five children in our country is hungry, and yet 40 percent of restaurant meals go uneaten. This speaks to the fact that hunger is not necessary. This problem is not caused by a lack of resources, but rather by a lack of concern, a lack of education, a lack of motivation to solve the problem. Or, perhaps, just a lack of awareness on the part of caring people.

Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt and Rep. William Lacy Clay need to be urged to keep food stamps at a level that will feed hungry Americans. Congress is indebted to the rich for their financial contributions but since the poor can’t make contributions, nor even do they very often vote, there is no such obligation to their poor constituents. And why do the poor not vote? If I am burdened with two or three part-time jobs, taking public transportation, worrying about food and the heating bill, worrying about my children’s safety in a dangerous neighborhood and their lack of education in a dangerous school, voting is not really high on my agenda.

Visit a website such as stlfoodbank.org, and while you’re there, sign up to make a small donation each month. Every dollar you contribute will translate into $22 in food and services for a hungry person. That’s because the staff people in poverty agencies know how to get food at a discount, how to buy not-perfect but very edible food, how to access dented cans that contain perfectly good food and how to use your donation to approach an individual or corporation for a matching grant.

It is said that grateful people live happier lives. Therefore, let’s be grateful for what we have and show it by giving our share. There is a prayer that goes, in part, “Thank you for food in a world where there is hunger.” Instead, let’s pray “Thank you for ending hunger in our community.” Then, let’s do it.