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G-Sync: How a city moves forward after Ferguson

The way Grand Rapids responds to the events of Ferguson will set in motion a course of events that can either move us forward or roll us back in time. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen says it's time to listen and learn -- and follows through with a list of suggested articles and books to read, local organizations and initiatives to support, and smart ways to continue the conversation.
As the kids piled through the door on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, they dashed to the kitchen, heads down low with their handhelds all aglow like the sun -- lighting up their faces with designer headphones, feeding them a mysterious soundtrack on a mission to discover what I could only surmise was a world of endless data waiting to be mined. 
As they passed by, glancing up to make eye contact and lift a hand in the universal sign language for "Hey, what's up," I was reminded of a comment by Fran Lebowitz, who addressed this modern habit of looking into our phone while in the presence of life, saying, "If you’re doing this (then) that’s where you are. These machines allow people to not be wherever they are."
And yet, I was not present either, as the glow of my screen next to my plate would betray. I looked back down to my screen after the kids dashed into the kitchen seeking the promise of a Mighty Fine Pizza – a local treat in this northern town. On my phone was a bombed-out wall with a powerful quote from author Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay, the final book in the The Hunger Games series: "And if we burn, you burn with us!”
But this image of a graffiti-tagged wall was not from the film being presently projected on screens all over the country in the film adaptation of this book. No, this was about Ferguson, MO.
Ever since the St. Louis County prosecutors announced late on Monday night, at an hour when most were thought to be comfortably ensconced on their couches, the grand jury decision rolled across the country on a wave of technology: they would not indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot a black Michael Brown – the 18-year-old at the center of one of the most talked-about cases in recent history.
The repercussions have reverberated through our nation ever since, with people on both sides weighing in, both on social media and in the streets of their communities. The nights that followed saw citizens of all different backgrounds, colors, schools, neighborhoods, places of business, worship, and government light up the nights as they took to the streets to protest in their own way.
Some burned their communities in protest as others, like in Grand Rapids, peacefully assembled in their public squares in what could only be seen as a universal emotion of frustration from wherever you stood on that cold night.
Where do we go from here?
As the rawness of the event recedes, how do we begin to move forward? As a community, with the matter of Ferguson as a flashpoint, we need to take a moment to begin the work before us. And the first steps involve listening and learning.
It would not be the first time that a member of the media or artistic elite of this city asked a community to please not let this moment pass. In the 1990s, then-On The Town editor-in-chief Christopher Scapelliti (Guitar World, Guitar Aficionado: The Collections: The Most Famous, Rare, and Valuable Guitars in the World) called Grand Rapids to conversation after a series of gang-related incidents tore apart the community. That time, former WOOD-TV's Suzanne Geha moderated a community forum with the police and community members being impacted to discuss solutions.
Rather than becoming a one-sided exploration of the matter at hand – gang violence – it gave our local police force a chance to meet in a safe space to begin to address the chasm between what is often seen as a black-white divide.
The fact that nearly 25 years later the entire nation is still trying to come to terms with the matter of race once again illuminates – and, at the same time makes the case for -- why we can no longer kick the can any further down the road. I want all of us to be mindful of what we have before us – a real shot at meaningful community reflection and dialogue. 
Because while I understand that more is needed than walking out in protest or shutting down highways to get a nation's attention, we need to build into our lives a daily reminder, much like we do with prayer before a meal. Today I am suggesting that we begin to build four-and-a-half minutes of quiet into our days.
It should be a time that not only honors the roughly four-and-a-half hours that Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay on a Ferguson street on August 9, but also a time to listen to our soul about what it truly means to have a shared humanity in a place where we often wave flags announcing our common citizenry as Americans while ignoring the way a higher-than-average percentage of black Americans are killed each year by police.
Children will listen
Another way we can learn and listen is by following the lead of the children around us when they're curious, honest, and questioning authority as only the young can.
Last week, as the children returned to the table adorned with their phones and carrying plated pizza, I was not treated to an endless conversation about what they wanted their parents to get them for Christmas.
Instead these children engaged me (and the entire table of adults, who were willing to listen,) to a round of talk, sharing a digital bibliography of various images, texts and even video feeds of the protests as they built a case for their opinions on the matter. They were all concerned as to why the grand jury would not want a trial to go forth as they read reports about bullet wounds and statements from a host of sources aloud to the table of adults. 
Spirited talk with young, curious minds makes it clear that those of us in the middle of our lives have a lot to learn from the younger generation about questioning the status quo – and we also have a bit to learn from the older generation.
For many of us in our middle years, we approach events like Ferguson with little to no context: too old to have grown up witnessing current events on our smartphones, with the facts and images always at hand; too young to remember events like the Selma march.
This past summer, The Atlantic Monthly ran a powerful, in-depth look at race in America that can provide some context. In "The Case for Reparations," author Ta-Nehisi Coates presented a gut-punching reality check that resonated even before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson.  In light of current events, it's worth reading in its entirety.
Right at the start, Coates asserts, we must acknowledge, "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole."
In a few weeks, Stephen Sondheim's stage musical Into the Woods will be transferred to the big screen for Christmas, and while it is sure to be a visual treat filled with much color and light, it is also a chance to notice the language of this important work of American art that's just as relevant and rich with meaning today as when it debuted in 1986. It offers a chance to consider the lessons buried within the fairy tales that we share with our children.
At the closing, the singers turn to the audience and share their knowledge amassed from their journey: "How do you say to your child in the night? / Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white / How do you say it will all be all right when you know that it might not be true? / What do you do?"
What do we do? We talk. We listen. We read. We give to our community. We build bridges to people who are hurting, and we try to understand the way out of the woods.
In the weeks ahead, we need to check in with each other, as President Obama suggested we do when he spoke last weekend. Reach out to someone you want to understand better. Talk to your kids, and see what they have to teach you. Talk to your parents and grandparents, and see what they have to tell you. Send me a note; I may not answer each one but I guarantee I will read them  -- and possibly share some common themes here in Rapid Growth in the weeks and months to come.
The musical ends with the all-too-famililiar refrain of "happily ever after." I still believe our greatest hope lies in what we do immediately after a national matter like the one we are experiencing in Ferguson.
Creative reinvention is desperately needed
Fran Lebowtiz gave an interview in 2008 on the topic of race to Vanity Fair. In it the interviewer asked, "How do you think we should approach the topic of race in this country?" and she replied, "Clearly in some other way -- in as other a way as possible -- because if ever there was an example of something not working, this is surely it."
As to Sondheim, he does give us a path out of our dark forest: "Careful the things you say / Children will listen /Careful the things you do / Children will see and learn / Children may not obey, but children will listen / Children will look to you for which way to turn / To learn what to be / Careful before you say 'Listen to me' / Children will listen."
Maybe what has been missing is the willingness to truly listen for the hard lessons we have yet to learn. Let's not just burn, or we run the risk of burning together. Let's clasp the hand of our neighbor and walk out of the woods together.
The Future Needs All of Us (to listen.)
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Please visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! – It's your city, so let's play in it together.

Editor's note: The editorial team at Rapid Growth strongly encourages you to continue to dig deeper and has compiled a list of suggested articles, books, and even local organizations attempting to continue the conversation. Please consider the items below. - Thank you. - Tommy
Vulture Interview: Chris Rock on Ferguson, Cosby and Obama
NY Times Nicholas Kristof's series of op-ed columns "When Whites Don't Get It" (this is the link to part five, the most recent)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (novel; at Schuler Books)

Donate to the Ferguson Public Library (books save lives!): http://www.ferguson.lib.mo.us

Attend the Dec. 16 Grand Rapids City Commission hearing to make your voice known on body cameras for our local police force, or just to listen to the stories and experiences of those who attend.

Learn about the Cure Violence model and lobby to bring it to Grand Rapids: http://cureviolence.org
Locavores seeking a place to deposit an additional end of the year donation, please consider LINC, Partners for a Racism-Free Community, Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, or any of the many neighborhood associations who dot our city's landscape (see the Community Research Institute for a map to help you find your association).

Photo of protest provided by Elvert Barnes of  Elvert Barnes Protest Photography under the Creative Commons Fair Use Policy. Other images are courtesy of local photographers contributions who wish to remain uncredited.

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