A few months ago I was given the amazing opportunity to teach art in an after school program for a few weeks with students in Ferguson, MO. I grew up in the St. Louis area, but I had never been through Ferguson. Like many, many others, the only idea I had of the area was from the news, but I didn't want to trust those. I have learned over time that things are often much different than what we see in the media. And wow was it different. I had the most wonderful time in my life there, and it was definitely the best place I have ever worked. I doubt I will ever love a job as much as I did that one. I learned so much, first hand from the people of Ferguson, and I wanted to relay that here. 

Since there is a lot of racial discussion here, simply for the sake of context, I want to say that I am white. I can't speak for both sides of the racial divide that still exists, and of course I have no idea what it is like to live on the other side of it; however, this is what I learned from the people that I spoke with, fellow teachers, and the students themselves. 

Driving to Ferguson for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. So, I simply left my mind blank to be surprised when I got there. I had done my interview and on boarding in Old North St. Louis. Anyone who had grown up in that area like I had, knew that Old North was an area that most people never visited, even accidentally. Filled with condemned buildings, broken glass, and generally the more dangerous part of the city, people would avoid it, even if it added 20 plus minutes to their drive. I, however, went in and out of it for work purposes, and believe it or not, it became pretty normal after the first two or so trips. I was never harassed, never "attacked". It was just like going to work anywhere else. 

My first drive down the area known as "Historical Downtown Ferguson" was amazing. The streets were very small, barely able to fit the 4 lanes, but the old buildings and parks were beautiful. Ferguson was nothing like Old North. Just like any town, they had small shops, gas stations, schools, and even a brewery. Over on the left before the CVS was a caboose, a symbol that the town used to be a stop for the railways. People were walking around, smiling and having a good time. The only remnants of the scars you could see on the town were paintings on the electrical boxes with white doves, rainbows, and hearts asking for peace in their town. 

When I arrived at the school, I was awe struck. It was like something out of a painting. The school was built about 100 years ago in all brick, surrounded by large trees and geese who would waddle over from the small park just next door to the school. 

My first full day there, I was a bit overwhelmed, as the students were very hyper and hard to keep in their seats. It was my first time teaching that age range. For the first part of the day, the other teachers and I watched the students in the cafeteria as they worked on their homework. One of the teachers meandered over to me and asked, "So, you know what's going on in St. Louis right?" It is important to note here that there were a total of about 150 students and teachers in that room and only 3 of us were white. I smiled politely and informed her that I grew up in the area, to which she added, "Ok good. So you know." 

For those of you who aren't from the city, can you guess what she was referring to? It's not as simple as "racism" or "police brutality". If those things were truly and honestly the reasons for this question, it would be easier to fix than it is. What she is referring to, the thing that is going on in St. Louis (and many places around our country) is a feeling. This feeling is something I thought I understood before, but now, is something that has changed my heart and my thoughts when I look at the situation of our society. The only way I know how to explain this feeling is in events from my trip: 

During my orientation, I was led to the computer room of one of the program buildings to fill out some information. As I walked out, on the wall of the student's eating area, I saw 2 murals that you could tell the students painted themselves. They were of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Now, these were not images painted by extreme activists to make a point to the world. These were indoors, just for them, painted by kids who were around the same age as the kids on the wall. How many of you went to a school where students you knew, or who your friends knew, were shot to death?  My heart sank a little. And let me note, that my husband is an ex-cop. Again this isn't about what you might think it is, so stay with me, reader. 

The next time I was touched, I was talking to the students when a teacher chimed in and really helped me understand the students better. I was teaching the class about the importance of literature as an outlet for expressing your situation to larger groups of people who might not understand where the writer is coming from. The other teacher got excited, and announced that she was currently reading The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Most people think the book is about a literal invisible man where all you can see is his clothes, and his body is completely see-through. She told the class that it is really about a man who feels invisible and is treated like he is by other people because he is black. While the book was written in the 1950's, the kids immediately started commenting on how they didn't feel heard either. They claimed that people outside of Ferguson didn't really understand them, and that Black Americans like themselves, didn't feel like they had a voice. It made me even more proud to be there teaching them art, and watching them find their voice in the paintings, writing, and dancing we did. But on the other hand, it also made me sad, because I knew they were right.

So many people think racism isn't here anymore, but I got to see it in the form of this "feeling" firsthand while I was working there. I saw why their voices really weren't being heard. Now, most people know that there is still blatant racism. One of my friends was called a "coon" at a gas station in a predominantly white area just 2 years ago. But once again, reader, I am not speaking as literally here. I am speaking of the "feeling".

I was talking to a group of Army guys while I was visiting because I had a few career questions. I had grown up in a military family and now I am married to a military man, so most people I talk to on a daily basis are military in some form or another. I happily told them I was working over in Ferguson, which to me was amazing. I rally loved my job there. The two Army guys, who yes, were both white, were taken back. "Ferguson? You mean, like on the news?" He couldn't believe I would go over there. How could my students possibly felt like they were being heard when, because of an event from 2 years ago, they were crossed off the list as bad. No one would even glance in that direction, let alone listen to what they had to say. 

My final days were really sad. The teachers wanted me to stay, claiming the students really needed the art, and they could tell they were enjoying my class. They understood why I had to go, though. I had other obligations to my family. Even a few of the students tried to convince me to stay. As much as I wanted to, I had to go. But, before I left, I had one more thing I wanted to do. I took my mother, who had previously been very uncomfortable with Ferguson like so many others, and I showed her the building where I worked, the town, and then took her out to eat at the brewery I had been eyeing for the past few weeks. The food and beer was delicious. We had a great time, and she left with a changed mind. 

Ferguson is a part of me now. I love the town and the people there. I can see our country's issues more clearly now. It isn't as cut and dry as it looks. The problem is abstract. The problem is this horrible feeling that we all have, that the other side isn't like us and that in order to be heard by them we have to shout.

Here is my suggestion: go to the places no one wants to go. Take  job there or simply have lunch there. Talk to the people, go shop in that district. I can promise you, it isn't what you think it is. The problem isn't just in the system. The problem is within each of us. It is that little feeling in your heart that you shouldn't go there, you shouldn't talk to the people on the other side, because they don't understand or because what you have been told by others must be how it is so you better not try it.

Go there. Speak. Listen. Unite.

Published by K. J. Cordova