BIG Ideas 2015 Report Excerpt: Polarization

ARTICLE | Mar 10, 2016

Hosted by the Alliance for Innovation, BIG Ideas is an event that gathers leaders to explore critical issues for the future of communities. Approximately 100 participants from think tanks, foundations, businesses, education, public interest groups and government attended the 2015 event in Milwaukee, WI. Participants contribute to the provocative conversation in a unique and interactive format. In large and small group discussions led by nationally recognized speakers, participants are called upon to provide thought-provoking ideas around our changing society and identify the innovations needed to better address these issues.

The following is just one piece of the conversation and resulting report from BIG 2015, which focuses on Polarization. This section begins with a summary of a White Paper that was provided to attendees before the conference and includes highlights from the panel discussions during the event.

On August 9th, 2014, an event transpired in Ferguson, MO that resulted in a police officer shooting and killing a young Black man. As a consequence of the different and polarizing view points of this tragedy there was a protracted period of civil unrest in this St. Louis suburb.

To help frame and precipitate the conversation at BIG, Ferguson Commissioner, T.R. Carr, PhD, provided a white paper exploring the context and sources of polarization in Ferguson and the influence it had on civil unrest. In part, Dr. Carr describes the highly polarized view of municipal government in St. Louis County because local government itself is highly decentralized. Segmented by 70 local governments with a population under 10,000 (out of a total of 90 municipalities in the County), 81 municipal courts (only 3 of which are municipal), 1 county and 60 independent municipal police departments, and 23 independent school districts, elected and administrative officials understandably act with an emphasis of self-interest towards their municipality. And the geographic polarization localizes even more in how many citizens identify through the simple question: “Where did you go to high school?” This seemingly innocent question, Dr. Carr says, can reveal much about a person, namely their heritage and socio-economic status, characteristics that have long acted as polarizing.

The city of Ferguson itself has a majority Black population (68%, compared to 28% White). However, contrary to the media narrative that the City is segregated and dominated by a white power structure, Dr. Carr shows that the housing patterns are actually very integrated, with the exception being rental complexes which are marked by a “highly transient population” with a Black majority. This was the type of complex where Michael Brown died. Unfortunately, the media used this exception and promoted it as the rule, promulgating a framework of racism existing in Ferguson. Even the area where Mr. Brown was killed, West Florissant Ave., had received a $480,000 grant for a Great Streets Project including streetscape, lighting improvements and a master plan for future development. Unfortunately, none of this was of value once the community was substantially polarized around the race issue. While City Management perceived the community as well integrated filled with civic minded people, the community was unable to cope with the August 9, 2014 event as violence and chaos spread.

While there isn’t a playbook for dealing with polarized situations, there are some models that your community can use to try to cope with polarized situations. For them to truly succeed though, there must be a clear differentiation between fact and opinion.

The traditional sources for restoring calm, from local leaders to the White House, reacted to the incident with bias, rendering them unviable outlets for mitigation. Further clouding the situation, according to Pam Hylton, former Assistant City Manager in Ferguson, was that “[t]he City was overwhelmed by the media onslaught. Anyone could say anything inflammatory and it was believed as fact. Rumors became fact. It was difficult to tell the difference between traditional media and people with cell phones livestreaming.” Ignoring the actual community history, the media was able to spin and stoke further polarization in the aftermath, likely having an impact on the volume of protesters and rioters. As the “Black Lives Matter” movement materialized as the core opposition, they did so with no centralized leadership. Who could the City talk to? The polarization expanded as media coverage kept its grip on the racial element.

The firestorm of Ferguson brought to the forefront many issues, as well as questions that local governments must examine and ask themselves. Two prevailing themes were that of truth and trust. Both getting out in front of the issue and making sure the facts are clear, accessible.

You can ask yourself these key questions to help determine how prepared you are:

1. Do you have a crisis plan for the dissemination of truth?

2. And even if you do, are you sure that it will be heard?

3. Are your organization’s community relationships with stakeholder and leaders strong and authentic enough to prevail during a crisis?

4. Can you trust the “public trust”?

5. Is your organization’s crisis communications plan truly strong enough to prevail during a traumatic, chaotic event?

Read the entire report from BIG Ideas 2015!

You may also be interested in