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As Stockley protests become less frequent, community leaders launch new wave of civic engagement

Protesters stand together on Kingshighway Friday night as police officers in riot gear move toward them.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

A common refrain among protesters who took to the streets of St. Louis in recent weeks has been “I know that we will win!”

Many are confident that the demonstrations that took place following a judge’s decision to find former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley not guilty in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith will help win the fight to stop police from killing black people.

When asked how that change might occur, some protesters have said they aren’t responsible for identifying how the region’s criminal justice system needs to change. But some civic leaders are working to take the struggle for justice beyond protests

They hope to create pathways for citizens to get involved in the institutions that affect many lives.

The civic effort would seem to contradict the message of some protesters. They point out that the Ferguson Commission Report already made clear that path to change — and local elected leaders ignored its recommendations.

“It’s not our job to craft policy,” protest leader Tory Russell said. “Three years ago, we crafted policy. Nothing happened. So we want the politicians to create the policy. We’ll say if it’s good or bad.”

Beyond hiring Judge Jimmie Edwards, a noted reformer, as public safety director, the city has offered few concessions to protesters. That could explain the wariness of Russell and other demonstrators.

Those who straddle the lines of activism and civic participation have a more nuanced view. When the Jason Stockley trial verdict was announced, the Deaconess Foundation announced a $100,000 grant to tackle just one recommendation made by the Ferguson Commission. After Michael Brown’s death in 2014 the commission recommended sweeping changes in the justice system. The Rev. Starsky Wilson, who leads the foundation, said providing resources for grassroots organizers works in two ways.

“Some of this is to put support some support directly in that work,” Wilson said. “And some of its to also shine a light on the fact that it’s underfunded and other people need to put money into that work.”

For Wilson, providing localized, grass-roots funding could drive major social change.

“The more you invest in the people and their voice, the more you invest in democratic reforms, the more you invest in civic engagement, the more equitable society you’ll get,” he said.

The Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program was founded on similar beliefs.  The program aims to help people run for local office or join boards and commissions on a regional or statewide level. Empowering community leadership is the way to change political, regulatory, and legal institutions from within,  Community Development specialist Claire Wolf said.

“Our theory of change is that by putting people who live in these communities, who care about these communities, in positions of power, the decisions made on behalf of these communities will ultimately benefit these communities in a significant way and will change the long-term outcomes of north St. Louis region,” Wolf said.

Former Ferguson City Councilman Dwayne James oversees the leadership program and wants to lay the groundwork to combat regional inequality well into the future.  James said putting community leaders in positions of power will help correct bad policy going forward.

“There’s basically decisions that were made 15, 20, 25 years ago that are just now hitting us that are just now basically affecting my lifespan, the lifespan of my family,” James said. “Until we get ahead of that, the work that we’re doing today is not going to affect my generation, it’s going to affect the generations in the future.”

The Deaconess Foundation will soon review grant proposals.  The Neighborhood Leadership program will get underway in January.

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold