Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Case for Hope in Ferguson and St. Louis

At 2:00 AM, I was still watching the smoldering buildings on one side of my computer screen. On the other side, I was drafting more volunteer recruitment emails to beg the people of St. Louis to come out and support kids just hours later.

At 4:00 AM, I woke up, printed out sign-in sheets for "Emergency School" at the Ferguson Library, looked over emails, and headed to Walmart.

At 5:30 AM, I found the 24-hour Walmart in Maplewood, about 20 minutes south of Ferguson, closed, with private security patrolling the lot in cars. As I started to drive off in my old, rusty, dented Honda, I was hawked by one patrol car, the driver staring at me ominously as I attempted to leave. I just wanted to pick up some name tags for the kids and volunteers.

At 5:50 AM, I arrived at my day job, which was also locked down at the time. Thankfully, it opened within 10 minutes.

At 8:25 AM, I parked in the Ferguson Library parking lot. There were already a few men waiting outside, without kids, just wanting to use the library, which opened at 9 for the general public. When I entered, I was greeted by Carrie Pace, the Ferguson-Florissant School District teacher who has always been the driving force behind the emergency school program at the library, and Scott Bonner, the kind-hearted head librarian who embraces the library's role as a true community place. Teach For America teachers and alumni were back again. I've taken to calling them "the cavalry."

At 8:55 AM, we had no kids. The program was scheduled to start at 9. I walked from the library to the Ferguson Police Department, the site of protests just hours before, in the hopes of finding protesting parents looking for a safe place for their kids to learn. It was a cold morning, and an even chillier view as I walked on South Florissant. Store windows were smashed in. Glass was everywhere. A beautiful street was strewn with the remnants of violence and the plywood board reminders that the violence may not be over.

But well before 8:55 AM, the sun rose over Ferguson. Amongst the chaos, groups of people, some with their children, were diligently at work, sweeping sidewalks, cleaning stores, removing glass shards. I met some volunteers from the last library program out on the street that morning too who had traded in worksheets for push brooms.

I arrived at the police department, and no one was there. Over the course of the day, I called kids and put out blasts on social media. I even convinced a band of rowdy high school boys (as they naturally are) to stay and work for a while.

I saw a parent break down in tears as she talked about her community coming apart at the seams. I saw many more parents who were tired and frustrated, wondering out loud about what will happen in the coming days.

I also saw over 50 volunteers show up at the Ferguson Library. I saw donors drop off school supplies and food. I saw a couple dozen kids absolutely absorb the attention they received.

We all saw what a community can do when it cares about its future. But that can only happen when the community has hope.

Today, we had some reporters visit the library, the majority from foreign news outlets. A Canadian reporter asked me about the situation, about why there seemed to be so much anger. As I responded, I felt myself become enraged.

I felt angry that for the last seven years I've been doing this, little has changed. I felt angry that more and more kids are sinking into poverty, and we as a society are doing almost nothing about it. I felt angry that even those parents who work hard and try to do well by their kids too often see their children swallowed by the hopelessness of a broken system. I felt angry that St. Louis, in 2014, is still set up in a way that segregates by race and socioeconomic class. I felt angry that we have to wait for an 18-year-old to get shot dead outside his home and for the National Guard to be deployed before our region starts to care about the underlying problems that led to this reality.

I felt angry that even after all that we have witnessed in these past few months, it may not be enough to get us out of our chairs and into classrooms and boardrooms and courtrooms and city halls demanding a fairer St. Louis.

But I do not stay enraged because I refuse to live in that world. I refuse to allow the cycle of poverty to continue to cut down our future. I refuse to believe that we as a whole will turn our backs on children.

I refuse to be consumed by hopelessness. And I'm not the only one.

There are others running organizations that refuse to stop working in the face of overwhelming and deeply rooted obstacles. There are parents and school teachers who refuse to give up on their kids. There are kids who refuse to give up on themselves.

But you have to understand that years and years of seeing the same results, of experiencing the same negativity, of being ignored or even admonished by a society that ought to care can leave anyone hopeless. The fact that anyone can thrive in such an environment is a testament to that person's supernatural substance, not to some imagined myth that anyone can make it.

Everyone should have the opportunity to make it. But not everyone does. That simple fact is what spawns the widespread hopelessness.

And so it is up to all of us to banish the hopelessness. It is up to all of us to care about each other, to show it, to make those trips into the unfamiliar and touch our shared humanity. We are the hope.

No matter what happens during our darkest hour, the sun will rise again over Ferguson. It will rise again over St. Louis. And every time it does, we once again have the opportunity to not go gentle into the night.

One day, we won't.

Elad Gross
President and CEO
Education Exchange Corps

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