Lessons Learned From Ferguson: Corporate Involvement Builds Community Trust

November 25, 2014 1:13 am

By Chris Hoenig

Warner Baxter, Ameren, Hugh Grant, MonsantoThe shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown is one of the biggest racial incidents in the United States in years. The escalation in protests that followed are an example of racial tensions and mistrust between the population of a community and those in charge, and, more importantly, the result of a complete breakdown in diversity management.

A police force not representative of the city’s population regularly practiced racial profiling. In Ferguson:

  • 67 percent of the population is Black, 93 percent of the police force is white;
  • 86 percent of traffic stops, 92 percent of searches and 92 percent of arrests were of Black people;
  • 34 percent of white drivers stopped had contraband on them, but only 22 percent of Black drivers;
  • 93 percent of the city council is white and there are no Black members on the seven-person school board.

So what if the next Ferguson is brewing in your community? What can you do to help?

For lessons, you need look no further than companies based right around Ferguson and how they are getting involved now.

1.Open a dialogue with community leaders

Your business is a community leader, so engage other community leaders.

“Probably the most important thing we do as a community is we have dialogue,” Warner Baxter, CEO of Ameren, the electric provider for Ferguson and No. 3 in the DiversityInc Top 7 Utilities, told DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti in a discussion at DiversityInc’s Special Awards Event in October. “This issue that’s happened in Ferguson probably could’ve happened in any number of communities across this country, it just so happened to happen in Ferguson.

“Perhaps some of the tough conversations weren’t had. Perhaps the conversations just aren’t had at all and there’s some trust that’s going to have to be built. There’s going to have to be, from my perspective, a public-private partnership in some many different ways.”

This doesn’t just include companies and town councils or school boards, but civic leaders and residents as well.

“That conversation’s going to have to include business—we want to take a leadership role there,” Baxter said. “It’s going to have to include universities, it’s going to have to include not just political leaders, but it’s going to have to include people on the ground: the clergy and so many others.

“Have the conversation. Say, ‘OK, how are we going to build up this trust?’ We take a responsibility. It isn’t, ‘Oh, this has happened to them, we’ll let them figure it out.’ No, we take a responsibility. Because we’re a part of the fabric of the community and it’s in our vested interest for that community to survive.

“What happened in Ferguson didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to get solved overnight. It’s going to take a commitment from not just St. Louis—it’s the entire region, the entire state, and frankly, even more—to work on that problem. But we’re committed to doing it.”

2. Hire locally

Your company employs people. People in your local community need jobs. Take a look at them.

“One of the things that’s so important for folks in Ferguson, and really just in communities across America, is that there’s hope, that there’s something they can focus forward on,” Baxter said. “And certainly one of the things that we must continue to do is provide jobs for those in need.

“So we have linemen that work for us, and one of the things we’re going to do with the local community college is start another apprentice lineman program that’ll focus on those people in Ferguson and give them some of the opportunities.

3. Focus on your customers and clients

Whether you’re a consumer-facing company, like Ameren, or your clients are other businesses, they can use your help in a time of need.

“One of the most basic things we focused on was keeping the power on,” Baxter said. “That seems so basic, but we monitor social media, which is the great thing about technology these days, and even during the heights of some of these incidents we saw tweets that, you know, a street lamp was out for whatever reason.

“That may seem insignificant, but when you have people that are trying to voice their opinion and the police officers, you want to make sure they have the lights on. And so we were able to take care of that.”

4. Invest in your community

These are the towns, the neighborhoods that your employees live in, that they raise their families in. The next Michael Brown could be the son of one of your own coworkers.

St. Louis–based Monsanto (No. 46 in the DiversityInc Top 50) is donating an additional $1 million over the next two years to four nonprofit agencies that support community-development initiatives in North St. Louis County.

“The St. Louis region is home to more than 4,000 Monsanto employees,” said Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant, “and we take seriously our role in helping make our community the very best it can be.”

Half of that $1 million will go to the United Way of St. Louis’ Ferguson Fund, which was established to help community building, basic needs and long-term strategies, and is in addition to Monsanto’s regular support of the United Way, which totaled $4.1 million last year.

The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and Reinvest North County Fund will each receive $200,000, which will help area business recover from loss of business and damage to stores, as well as launch Save Our Sons, a workforce-development initiative aimed at helping 21- to 34-year-olds pass the GED test, receive workforce training and secure job placement.

The remaining $100,000 will help provide local residents who are experiencing personal hardships due to recent events with free legal assistance through the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

5. Encourage your employees to volunteer in the community

Making yourself visible establishes your position as a community leader. It’s not all just about the money that’s donated, it’s about the time and interaction with the people who live where you work.

“The needs of our area are very real and are not unlike the challenges facing other communities,” said Monsanto’s Grant. “Addressing those needs will require continued support for a strong network of local organizations and agencies. We are committed to being part of those efforts.”

Not only has the Monsanto Fund, the company’s philanthropic arm, donated millions of dollars—$9.2 million in local donations in 2013 alone—but its employees also have gotten involved. Since 2010, regional employees have logged more than 100,000 volunteer hours.

Ameren’s Baxter knows first hand the value of that community.

“Our company, it’s been around for 100 years,” Baxter said. “And so we, as a company, we’ve grown up with Ferguson, a town that’s been in place for 100 years. Secondly, we serve all the customers in Ferguson, we’re the only one that has a relationship with every person in the city of Ferguson.

“We have a lot of coworkers that still live there. As you pointed out, I grew up not too far, I actually went to college literally five minutes from all the incidents.

“There’s no other way to describe what happened in Ferguson than ‘tragic’; it truly is tragic. So you can dwell on what happened, but I like to tell our coworkers and those in the community that we won’t be defined in the community by what happened, but by what we do going forward.”