It was June, and Lola Akingbade was in Ferguson, Missouri, looking to capture the zeitgeist in the wake of civil unrest. Unarmed black teenager Michael Brown had been killed by white police officer Darren Wilson on the streets of this quaint St. Louis suburb just nine months ago, sparking riots and calls for police reform.
“I was angry,” said Akingbade, a third-year student of rhetoric and behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern University, “but I also wanted to harness my education to make a positive impact in the community.”
Akingbade attended talks and rallies, seeking out African-Americans with keen perspectives on policing, protesting, and political representation. And then she interviewed them in a rented office space in the heart of downtown St. Louis, asking insightful questions of some two dozen concerned citizens, military veterans, community activists, youth organizers, faith leaders, and nonprofit CEOs.
The interviews formed the core of the Black Voices Project, which Akingbade plans to showcase at upcoming conferences on race and communication. A member of the University Scholars Program, she received a Scholars Independent Research Fellowship to tackle the project, which was supervised by Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communications studies.
“Lola’s work contributes to a larger move in contemporary politics and citizen media to highlight the voices of those who have historically been voiceless, even as their communities become central to national news stories,” said Jackson, whose research focuses on how social and political identities are constructed in the public sphere. “Traditional media generally rely so heavily on the voices of elites that they perpetuate the biases of these elites; projects like Lola’s highlight alternative ways of telling stories about race and citizenship that are crucial to truly understanding how to solve issues of racial inequality.”
‘What does it mean to be black in St. Louis?’
Akingbade, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in New Jersey, asked the interview participants a range of questions and then designed an infographic to display the data.
Topics ran the gamut, covering black identity, police brutality, and political change. When Akingbade asked participants to describe what it means to be black in St. Louis, one respondent said, “Having to prove oneself.” Another replied, “Being proud and consciously aware of who I am in the community.”
The vast majority agreed on solutions to solving the community’s policing problems, which were catalogued in the Department of Justice’s March 2015 report on Brown’s shooting death. “The black community was putting forward very specific prescriptions,” Akingbade explained. “People of all different backgrounds who were only connected by their blackness were offering very concise solutions to policing and protesting.”
Protesting has given us a voice. It’s allowed young people to get out and get involved in a movement that they see is worthwhile and can connect with.
— Community activist
Many respondents favored community policing, emphasizing the importance of requiring officers to live and work in the same neighborhood. They wanted officers to build strong ties with community members and a say in the hiring and firing of them. “When you live in the community and work in that community it becomes a part of who you are,” said Tony Neal, the CEO of the Summit Leadership Initiative, a nationally-recognized youth leadership program based in St. Louis. “If you don’t live there, it simply becomes a workplace.”
The power of protesting
More than half of the interview participants flocked to Ferguson following Brown’s death, protesting his murder and a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson. Akingbade found that protesting empowered them, allowing them to decry racial injustice in the black community, forge new relationships with each other, and develop a stronger sense of self.
As one respondent put it, “Protesting has given us a voice. It’s allowed young people to get out and get involved in a movement that they see is worthwhile and can connect with.”
Some believed that the media’s coverage of the protests was one-sided, that destruction and looting rose to the fore while the police’s use of teargas and rubber bullets was glossed over. “The media,” said Herdosia Bentum, a Ferguson activist, “made it look as if the militarization was justifiable.” Noted a local entrepreneur: “Projecting an image of black people as not being civilized—that was the image on the media rather than the idea that this cop brutality beat down and made up lies about Mike Brown.”
I want to make it my mission to positively impact the lives of people of color.
— Lola Akingbade
Ferguson’s political future
Ferguson, the respondents said, is “a catalyst,” “a beautiful place,” and “the center of revolution.” They have high hopes for its political future, one where more black leaders will be elected and held accountable by the communities in which they serve.
But some, like Lakesha Boren, expressed skepticism. “I know a lot of people feel like voting is the way,” she said, “but I’m the type of person who believes that even if we do get black people in office who think the way that we do, they will still be treated horribly and it will be hard for them to get their job done.”
Akingbade noted that a few people believed that real change could only be achieved by creating independent black communities, by using the principles of entrepreneurship to build exclusive schools, gas stations, and grocery stores. “They want to be cut off from mainstream culture and systems of oppression,” she explained. “For some, it’s a survival mechanism, it’s the answer.” King Asuar, a fitness instructor, explained the rationale. “Not to say we hate, we dislike, we detest others,” he said, “but what we are saying is we love us.”
The future doctor
Jackson was impressed by Akingbade’s ability to elicit candid answers from the participants, noting that people are often hesitant to open up their lives to an outside researcher. “It’s clear from the responses Lola received,” Jackson said, “that she put her subjects at ease and that they shared a sense of the value of the project.”
Akingbade explained that her work in St. Louis has shaped her career path, that it opened up the possibility of harnessing her passion for science to conduct research on health disparities in underserved populations. “I want to make it my mission to positively impact the lives of people of color,” she said, adding that her professional goal is to become a physician. “I want to explore how health and race intersect.”