Letter from America: Events in Ferguson reveal problems in US non-profits

The disturbances in Missouri show that suburban neighbourhoods face similar social and economic problems as inner cities, but lack the civic infrastructure, writes our US columnist, Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

The disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri this summer after the police shot an unarmed black teenager have revealed fissures in the state of American non-profits. The usual civil rights leaders showed up in Ferguson, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson (founder and president of the Rainbow Push Coalition) and the Reverend Al Sharpton (founder and president of the National Action Network), but there was a palpable sense that the police actions showed the need for the emergence of a new, younger non-profit civil rights leadership and highlighted a generational divide in the movement. Among the names (and organisations) being discussed are Geoffrey Canada, the social entrepreneur who founded the Harlem Children's Zone and now chairs the board of the Children's Defense Fund; Van Jones, a former adviser to President Obama and founder and president of Rebuild the Dream; Kamala Harris, the current California Attorney General, serving under Governor Jerry Brown; and, among much younger leaders, Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders.

The protests also showed the thinness of non-profits in inner-ring suburbs such as Ferguson, a city of 21,000, three-quarters of whom are black, which is governed by a white mayor, a white school board, a white police chief and an 80 per cent white city council. Voter turnout has been paltry – 12 per cent of registered voters for municipal elections, and only 5 per cent of black voters.

Ferguson has relatively few non-profits other than faith-based ones or churches. Like many inner-ring suburbs in the US, Ferguson has many of the social and economic problems faced by neighbourhoods in large cities, but without a developed non-profit or civic infrastructure.

The situation also revealed philanthropic foundations struggling to determine their roles in Ferguson and future Fergusons. The Ford Foundation's Darren Walker suggested exploring the work of organisations such as the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity to create "new tools to address implicit bias and systemic racism, and build a truly inclusive democracy". Ford recently hosted a meeting of two dozen foundations that helped the Obama administration develop its My Brother's Keeper initiative, which tackled the challenges of young black men in American society; but the actions that these foundation executives will take in response to Ferguson are yet to be seen.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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