News and analysis
June 09, 2015

In Ferguson, a Gift to Heal Divisions

Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation
Come Together Ferguson committee members, left to right, teacher Raghib Muhammad, pastor Steve Lawler, nonprofit fundraiser Felicia Pulliam, pastor F. Willis Johnson, retired teacher Carolyn Randazzo, teacher Carrie Pace, and Missouri State Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson. Not pictured is committee member Michael Petlansky, a police sergeant.
The news was grim. Michael Brown, a black teenager, was dead, shot by a white police officer on an August afternoon in a St. Louis suburb. The details of the shooting were disputed, but one fact was clear: something was wrong in Ferguson, Missouri.

That was enough to compel one couple to act. Having lived in a nearby town for five decades, the white, married pair didn’t know what Ferguson needed, but they figured the town’s inhabitants — black and white — might.

So they called the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation with an offer: a $100,000 donation to create a fund that would be distributed by a group of black and white residents. The fund’s name reflected the donors’ simple hope: Come Together Ferguson.

"We wish there was some way we could get that community communicating across lines and neighborhoods and ages and races; that was the vague idea we had," said one of the donors, who both wish to remain anonymous. "We think there’s going to be a period of healing in that community, and we really wanted to support that."

The foundation recruited pairs of teachers, police officers, religious leaders, and residents — one black, one white, from each category — to form the committee to decide where the $100,000 would go.

They met over the course of months, first in Cathy’s Kitchen, a Ferguson diner, then in St. Stephen’s & the Vine, an Episcopal church, to discuss the needs of their fractured town. They decided to award their first round of grants to programs that will serve Ferguson kids this summer — the season that will culminate in the anniversary of Mr. Brown’s death.

As that date approaches, the philanthropic world continues to search for the best ways to respond to cities divided after police shootings of minorities. Some view the Come Together Ferguson experiment as a promising model for how to empower communities to direct where donations go. Others see it as too conservative, shying away from efforts to create the systemic changes they argue are needed.

An Unorthodox Donation

It took less than a week for Ferguson to come apart. Coming together, community leaders say, will take years.

But efforts to help began almost immediately. The first wave of giving went to emergency responses, such as the United Way of Greater St. Louis’s Ferguson Fund, which aimed to meet basic needs, such as food and counseling for those affected by violence.

With public schools closed because of the protests, the St. Louis branch of Teach for America set up an improvised community school at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library. The organization received two anonymous donations totaling $110,000, plus several smaller donations, related to its Ferguson response activities.

In the midst of the recovery, Mary McMurtrey, director of community engagement at the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation, received a phone call from a couple she’d never worked with before. They wanted to help Ferguson, they said.

The donors were not new to giving; they had contributed to their church and alma mater, national nonprofits such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and Native American organizations. They’d also volunteered as court-appointed advocates for children in foster care.

But what they proposed to Ms. McMurtrey was more unorthodox. They wanted people of different professions and ages, all with ties to Ferguson, to distribute their donation. They wanted teachers and police officers — but not those in administrative jobs. They wanted pastors and business owners and Ferguson residents. They expressly did not want politicians. And they wanted the committee to be "exactly balanced racially."

"I thought it was brilliant," Ms. McMurtrey said.

She set out to find a team. Since the community foundation had little experience working in Ferguson, she started by getting suggestions from clergy members with many connections in the town.

The local business owners she invited proved too busy to participate, but she did recruit two teachers; two pastors; a former teacher who is now a leader in a religious community-organizing group; the chief fundraiser at a local nonprofit; and two police officers — one a sergeant and the other the captain of the State Highway Patrol, Ron Johnson, whom the donors had requested because of his well publicized efforts as liaison between protestors and police.

Many of the committee members jumped at the chance to participate, like Carolyn Randazzo, the former teacher.

"I was immediately interested. I was amazed that someone would anonymously donate this money," she said. "It was just really gratifying to know that those donors made that contribution to our community."

They say they were motivated by a deep desire to act.

"It’s easy for all of us to speak words, but we need to do actions," Ron Johnson said. "This gave me the opportunity to put actions to words I had spoken."

The Right Ratio?

Coming together is not a clear-cut concept. How and which different voices are invited to the conversation matters, national experts say.

Come Together Ferguson Fund
Lori Villarosa, executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, suggests that a grant-making committee that proportionally reflects a community’s demographics would make a stronger statement than one that is equally divided. According to the 2010 census, 67 percent of Ferguson’s population is black and 29 percent is white.

"While I commend the donor for seeking the racial mix, to say ‘racially balanced’ in a community that is already not racially balanced is still unfortunately weighting white voices in the process," she said. "If the numbers in the community are 2:1, it might be useful for white civic leaders to be engaged in the process where they are in a 2:1 ratio."

Gail Christopher, vice president for policy at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, cautioned that simply assembling a diverse group won’t necessarily broaden people’s perspectives.

But members of the Come Together Ferguson committee say they feel it’s been worthwhile to discuss issues and make decisions together.

"We have to see each other and value each other, invest in each other," pastor Willis Johnson said. "Maybe, just maybe, we are understanding and modeling for a new kind of venture capitalizing of our most greatest resource, and that’s each other."

Sometimes glimmers of empathy emerge. When the committee was considering the application for Camp Penuel, a Missouri sleepaway camp for needy children, most members seemed ready to pass it over as a luxury, Ms. McMurtrey said. But Raghib Muhammad, a teacher and a Ferguson native, raised his hand.

"I grew up in this community, and when no one else gave me an experience, Camp Penuel drove that bus, picked me up at my door, and drove me to camp, and that was the only time I’d ever gotten out of this community," Ms. McMurtrey recalled him saying.

The committee accepted Camp Penuel’s proposal.

Advocacy vs. Services

Around the same time the Come Together Ferguson committee began its work, the Ferguson Commission was starting to investigate the reasons behind the community’s rupture. Made up of 16 St. Louis-area residents appointed by the Missouri governor, the commission was charged with assessing a range of racial-equity problems exposed by Mr. Brown’s death.

At the first meeting, in December, the commission polled members of the large public audience about their concerns. Interactions between citizens and law-enforcement officers were the top priority, followed by municipal government and local court reform. Education and economic opportunity also ranked high. The commission set its agenda based on these priorities.

Grant makers and donors should follow that lead, said Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission. Communities suffering from "systemic and structural" problems like those in Ferguson need more financial support for community organizing and advocacy for legal reform, not human services, he said.

For example, the Deaconess Foundation donated $100,000 to community-organizing efforts a month after Mr. Brown’s death and has since added a youth-organizing stream to its annual grant cycle.

"People investing deeply in summer youth programs, summer jobs for youth — those things are appropriate, and quite frankly we should have been doing that years ago. That still doesn’t impact how police act, and it gives no more oversight or accountability to the community to have trust in police actions," he said.

But summer youth programs are exactly what the Come Together Ferguson committee decided to focus on for its first round of grant making. Committee members put out a call for grant applications, met on a Saturday morning to discuss the more than 40 they received, and unanimously selected 11 organizations to get a total of nearly $40,000.

Since several members of the committee work directly with children, they said youth programs seemed like a clear choice.

"If we look at the events surrounding the death of Mike Brown, the segment of the population hit the hardest was youth," Mr. Muhammad said. "Young people who were out of school when they should have been in school ... were traumatized by images they saw on television and walking their own neighborhood. I know we weren’t limited to just youth, but I know we felt that would have a great impact." 

EarthDance Farms
Ferguson high school student Cameron Hill shows three campers how to harvest kale on a field trip to the nonprofit EarthDance Farms last summer. Come Together Ferguson gave $5,000 to the Youth Exploring Agriculture & Health program at the group for this season.

The approach of summer, and the anniversary of Mr. Brown’s death, also influenced their decision.

"We were concerned if we didn’t build a network of support for families over the course of the summer, then were would be a rebruising," said Felicia Pulliam, a nonprofit development director who is a member of both the committee and the Ferguson Commission.

She points out that many members of Come Together Ferguson are engaged in community organizing and advocacy outside of the group.

"As individuals and as a collective, we are doing that work," she said. "Because we continue to stay focused on that and our efforts are having good results, this was a time to focus on the most vulnerable in our community."

Letting local people determine how to use donated dollars is commendable regardless of what they decide, said William Schambra, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who sees most donors seeking more control over how their money is spent. He disagreed that services are less worthy of dollars.

"That’s another way we have of discrediting what community members will do in their own backyards," he said. "When you move decision making close to the community, typically you’re going to find concerns like institutional racism and entrenched police brutality — the big causes — you’re going to find the communities themselves aren’t so interested in the grand political crusades. What they care about is what’s happening right there: What can we do to make things better for our kids right now?"

Brittany Packnett, executive director of the St. Louis branch of Teach for America, thinks there’s plenty of opportunity for both services and advocacy in communities dealing with inequity.

"Do you want your financial support to go toward helping to solve a very immediate crisis? Or a long-term betterment of a community? Both are equally necessary," she said.

For the donors, the Come Together Ferguson committee’s very existence is as important as the work it decides to support. It has achieved their original goal.

"When I look at our committee that came together around the grant, I don’t know that I would have been in conversation with all of those folks if this process hadn’t happened," Ms. Randazzo, the former teacher, said.

The committee has aspirations beyond this summer and beyond summer camps. The Light a Single Candle Foundation donated an additional $10,000 to the fund, and committee member Steve Lawler, pastor of St. Stephen’s & the Vine Episcopal Church, hopes more people take a chance on "risky" ideas like Come Together Ferguson.

"Some of them are going to crash and burn, but there’s probably in the midst of those a genius response that hasn’t been discovered yet," he said.

And as that attitude suggests, the committee is open to supporting projects that address structural problems, too, Ms. McMurtrey said.

"They’re looking at it more systemically, but that takes longer than they’ve had to understand their community," she said. "They’re accidental funders."

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the number of members in the Ferguson Commission. It has been updated to correct the error.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.