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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rev. Starsky Wilson and the Fight to Make the Ferguson Commission Matter

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Page 2 of 2

  • Steve Truesdell

On a Sunday in February, Wilson stands at the pulpit before a mostly black congregation, 86 in all, who've braved the day's bitter wind to make it to Saint John's United Church of Christ in north St. Louis. Draped in green robes, he's reaching the crux of a thunderous sermon on the Old Testament story of Joseph, a godly man sold into slavery in Egypt, who became second-in-command to pharaoh himself. Yet, Wilson says, Joseph never let himself forget his roots.

"He knew what we need to know," says Wilson, "that elevation, even to the right hand of pharaoh, does not constitute liberation."

The crowd murmurs back approvingly as Wilson's voice rises.

"You can't underwrite the uprising, and you can't sponsor the struggle, and you ain't never going to find freedom while you're on pharaoh's payroll!"

A few parishioners leap to their feet, clapping and shouting, "Yes!"

This kind of energy defined Wilson from birth -- it even earned him his unique first name. His mother, feeling her child kicking and moving in her belly, named him after the rough-and-tumble fictional cop from the 1970s television series Starksy & Hutch. As a grade-schooler, the name mortified him.

"Once I knew you could change your name, I decided I would," says Wilson, who started introducing himself by his middle name, Darrell. "By the tenth or eleventh grade, I realized no one ever forgot my name. It's worked out over the years."

He grew up in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, a predominately black neighborhood that, during his adolescence, still clung to a legacy of segregated school systems and street crime. He was the third of five siblings raised by a single mother, and though he attended programs for gifted students from an early age, he wasn't able to fully escape the violence in his own community: His uncle was gunned down when Wilson was in middle school. A few years later, a drug dealer shot up a house where Wilson's older brother happened to be visiting at the time, killing him.

"[Violence] caused shifts in my life," he says.

Wilson's wife, LaToya, is a dentist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, and she credits her husband's humble (and sometimes traumatic) upbringing for building the foundation for his future role as a community leader.

"He has seen what it takes to keep a family together, to thrive despite the economic circumstances and challenges. I think that's something that has motivated him to try to change the community around him, so that everybody has an opportunity to thrive," she says.

Indeed, it was around the time of those tragedies that Wilson decided he wanted to find a way to help people.

"I always figured I was heading to law school, to work in government and help people," he says. "I thought government was how you do it."

But after Wilson's first year as a political science student at Xavier University in New Orleans, he began to feel inexorably drawn toward ministry. He took up studying nonprofit management and entered the ministry. He became officially ordained in 2002.

When Wilson moved to St. Louis in 2000 along with his young wife, he met Don Calloway, a law student who quickly became Wilson's confidant and frequent debate partner.

"He's able to take very specific situations and break them down systemically," says Calloway. "He's a master of thought process."

Those skills landed Wilson the top job at Deaconess Foundation in 2011, an organization that lists more than $50 million in assets and distributed $2.6 million in grants during 2014, mostly to youth health services and education. In 2012, Wilson led the organization's pivot toward what he calls "community capacity building," a sweeping series of programs and alliances that he hopes will build up leadership and new local institutions in St. Louis' most resource-strapped areas.

It's this kind of organizational know-how that Calloway sees in Wilson's handling of the Ferguson Commission. It's not just his connections, Calloway says, but his seemingly unshakable calm in the face of a dishearteningly complex set of social, economic and racial inequities.

"He realizes that he's in a unique position. It's a tremendous weight," says Calloway. "I think he wouldn't have taken it to put out a report to serve as an advisory document to be thrown on a pile of advisory documents."

The audience at a Ferguson Commission meeting. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • The audience at a Ferguson Commission meeting.

As Wilson feared, the Ferguson Commission got off to rough start.

Its first public meeting convened eight days after the grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's killing. Audience members aired their frustrations (after sitting through three hours of interminable proceedings and introductions) by shouting down the commissioners and demanding their turn to speak. The second one went even worse.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson took the stand, in the aftermath of massive protests in the Shaw neighborhood.

"Fuck the police!" activists screamed in his face. "What about the tear gas?"

"We're...bringing opportunities to diversify and bring you people," Dotson said at one point, sweeping his left hand in an inclusive gesture, "African Americans, new Americans, LGBT, we bring new groups..."

"You people? You people?" one man jeered as the crowd erupted. "You hear yourself, you racist fuck?"

Wilson managed to regain some manner of control, directing questions to commissioner Brittany Packnett -- who then proceeded to grill Dotson on his officers' use of tear gas against protesters.

But Wilson says he sees tangible progress after eight full commission meetings and thirteen working groups. Public input at the Ferguson Commission meetings frequently touched on the predatory system of municipal courts that seemed designed to bleed residents dry in order to fill city coffers. Wilson and McClure petitioned Missouri attorney general Chris Koster to do something about cities that flout the state's Macks Creek Law, which caps the percentage of revenue a city can raise through traffic tickets at 30 percent. The two stood on either side of Koster during the press conference announcing a lawsuit against thirteen scofflaw cities including Normandy, Vinita Terrace and Pagedale. All but one city, Hillsdale, has since filed corrected reports showing they complied with the 30 percent limit, though the Missouri legislature is now considering a bill that would lower the cap to 10 percent.

  • Steve Truesdell
  • Rich McClure

The commission has also produced a document titled "100 Days of Learning," which outlined the commission's progress and the steps yet to be tackled. Drawing from existing research and community input, the report paints a chilling picture of inequality, such as how some impoverished, largely black ZIP codes are separated from their affluent white neighbors by a mere handful of miles, yet show an eighteen-year difference in life expectancy.

"People needed to be listened to," Wilson says. "This seems aspirational, but I think the Ferguson Commission is part riot commission, part truth commission, part community think tank. That's the work."

But the work is only getting harder and more complicated, and some of Wilson's worries are coming true. The commission is slated to receive nearly $1 million in state funds, which means it's technically a state agency and subject to the state's bidding laws. That got the commission in trouble in late January when news broke that a consultant agency received a $38,000 contract without first going through the competitive-bidding process. "I didn't sign up to be a state bureaucrat," says Wilson. "We've had great help from the office of the administration to make sure we get to those compliances, but no one signed up for that. We signed up so the community could reconcile some of its challenges."

Despite the brief flash of negative coverage, the commission meetings have managed to attract a fairly consistent audience, usually between 100 and 200 people, including police officers, city mayors, lawyers, teachers, nonprofit leaders and youth activists. The bitterness of the first meetings has given way to the commission's collective push for comprehensive study. But there's also a growing sense of urgency that the commission cannot end its work with a nicely organized report left on Nixon's desk.

"There has to be some monitoring body or vehicle left behind in order to measure, on some scorecard, the community versus the recommendations. We're committed that there must be something," says Wilson from his twelfth-floor office overlooking downtown. "We just haven't figured out what that looks like yet."

He insists that the Ferguson Commission's September 15 report won't be the true endgame of the commission's work. But he hopes it can provide something of a road map toward closing the economic, educational and healthcare gaps in St. Louis and be a guidebook that can be used in future incidents in other cities and states.

"The great hope is that all this work is going to benefit the children of our community more than it will benefit anyone else," he says. "We need to be clear that the success or failure of the region in this moment will be written over the course of the next twenty years."

Editor's note: We made a number of small changes to this story after publication to correct errors. Rasheed Aldridge is an organizer with Young Activists United, not Millennial Activists United. Traci Blackmon co-chairs the working group on Municipal Courts and Governance, not policing.

Several errors concerned Starsky Wilson, whose brother was killed in a house he was visiting, not staying at. Wilson was attending a conference during the week Michael Brown was shot, but it was not a preacher's conference, as we reported. Wilson was a political science student when he felt himself drawn toward the ministry, and ultimately was ordained in 2002, not 2006. Finally, there were 86 people in attendance on the day we watched Wilson address St. John's United Church of Christ, not 30. We regret the errors. Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at

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