How communities overcome deep, bitter divisions, particularly racial and/or ethnic in nature, is rarely given public attention. What’s the story when nothing explodes? No conflict, no riots, no graphic images just some value driven, talented community leaders talking quietly together, developing and then executing a game plan. Evaluating progress, maybe going back to the drawing board, moving on to plan B if necessary.
Rare is the media outlet that casts even a momentary spotlight on these kinds of non- events.
Many communities have negligible resources regarding what to do and how to do it when deep divisions begin to simmer to the boiling point. As a consequence they are overwhelmed by internal fissures and external grandstanding enhanced by the glare of media attention and the funding streams that follow attention when a potential flashpoint occurs. This vacuum of knowledge and skills denies communities in crisis, or on the verge of crisis, a constructive pathway to shape their own response.
Al Sharpton and all the would be Sharptons should have been instructed by Ferguson leadership, “Pipe down. Stay home. Respect our desire to speak for ourselves. We know Ferguson. You don’t.” Of course it didn’t happen that way.
But if accountability is to be exacted - it has to be if future social explosions are to be avoided and the conditions producing them altered - then leaders in charge of community based institutions, from law enforcement and local government, to businesses, to congregations and non profits must look to themselves, their own shortfalls, their own minimal skill sets, their own lack of capacity building, their own inability to define boundaries of respect.
Powder keg communities get that way for a reason. There is a thread of disconnection, broken or non existent relationships, a lack of will and skill to do hard things together. These are the conditions that offer themselves up to outsiders including a voracious media with interests entirely unrelated to the common good.
The NY Times recently covered a story that proved an exception to the rule by offering a counterpoint to Ferguson. It was about Durham, North Carolina, a place where racial tensions run hot and deep. Community leadership there led by Durham CAN, an IAF organization, disabled the conflict triggers that ignite social meltdowns when a young Latino man was shot dead while in police custody. Durham CAN’s tool kit? Smart, strategic thinking, careful relationship building, active inquiry, carefully planned public action. They pulled it off without Al Sharpton or shock troups from outside organizations bussed in or flown in to crisis monger.
Racial tensions, rage, hard edged resentments aren’t going away any time soon. They are structurally built in to public life in the United States. Communities that don’t attend to the relationship building, skill learning and problem solving necessary to overcome explosive divisions are at increased risk to suffer the tragic consequences of their own shortfalls.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org