“I want my kids to grow up and
say that is how we got it right”
Heather Robinett, Ferguson City Council
When Heather Robinett and the other members of her neighborhood association chose a plot of land for a community garden, they chose a spot for nurturing more than just plants.
“There is a large (low-income) rental population where we placed the garden,” she said. "The intent was to include more people that had not been included in the neighborhood or the city before.”
An engineer by trade, Robinett moved with her husband to Ferguson in 2004. They bought a 100-year-old house that she says needed some “tender loving care” in a racially-mixed neighborhood a few blocks from South Florissant Road – Ferguson’s main street. There they're raising five children.
“We were invited to a neighborhood organization as soon as we arrived and we started becoming very involved in the community, "she said. "My husband is currently the president of that neighborhood organization and I have served on the board over the years."
Their only concern about the placement of the garden was that it might be a target for some of the neighborhood's discontented youth. To prevent any mayhem, the group decided to throw a Kids' Day twice a year.
“We invite all the neighborhood kids in and they help us garden. We feed them lunch and then they respect the space because we have invited them in,” she said.
Robinett says the children who attend reflect the neighborhood, 80 percent African American and 20 percent white. She says some of the kids have come to every event since the garden opened in 2010.
“They will garden next to you and some of them are now seniors in high school. To me, that’s community,” Robinett said.
When the national media descended on Ferguson during the riots, she was shocked to hear her home town portrayed as a hotbed of racial intolerance. Robinett says Ferguson is one of the most racially integrated cities in the North County, Saint Louis area.
“I think what shocked us most was how the media played it out as a white issue versus black issue,” she told us. “I think in some regards [over-policing] had been a historic black community issue for a long time. But overall the thought that it was this huge racial divide wasn’t something that I experienced in my community.”
Robinett says when the protests started in front of the police station, three blocks from her home, her kids wanted to join in. She had friends protesting, so they took them down in front of the police station to stand near where her friends were.
“That night, like an element change happened. There were more people coming in that we didn’t know and it started to get – it was uncomfortable,” she said.
At that point she took her children home. The night Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, was cleared of all charges by a grand jury, marchers came through her neighborhood and her children had difficulty sleeping.
“I think we slept two hours that night because there was so much unknown and the kids were in the house and you know it was so scary because [the rioting] did come very close to our house,” she told us.
At that point Robinett says she realized she was not going to be afraid, she was not going to be angry, she was going to get involved to make sure the city did the right thing for the right reasons.
She ran for city council and won.
“I wanted my kids to see that it’s easy to sit back and gripe about something, but if you really want to make a difference, you really want change, you step up and you make that change,” said Robinett.
She was concerned about the city budget which was heading toward a deficit. She wanted to make sure the city was working with the Department of Justice, which had issued a damming report accusing the city of violating the civil rights of its African American citizens. And she wanted to make sure the reforms outlined in a consent decree signed between the DOJ and the city were followed.
She described the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police force and court system as extensive. And she found the consent decree too prescriptive - and punitive - for a small town like Ferguson.
“The first time I read it, it was hard to overcome. But since then, you know, we have worked through it," she said. “And when I see the progress that we have already made and I see, you know, everybody’s willingness to work toward compliance, I think we are on the right track.”
The city has missed several deadlines for key provisions of the consent decree but is moving forward. In a court hearing, the Department of Justice praised the city for its hard work so far.
Ferguson initially refused to sign the consent decree with the DOJ. Some of the mainstream media saw that as another opportunity to portray the white residents and the city government, which was and is racially mixed, as racist. But after the threat of a law suit, the city sat down and negotiated a deal.
Robinett is adamant that race had nothing to do with the initial resistance. She says it was purely financial. The city was already in debt and implementing the consent decree as written would have deepened the burden. Ferguson has since passed two tax increases by ballot to balance the budget.
Robinett says the accusations of racism against long–time white residents of Ferguson were both hurtful and uncalled for.
“The media was portraying any white person who lived here as racist and I think it was very unfair for a lot of people to be categorized by the media who didn’t know who they were, what they were about,” said Robinett.
She says the city government is now in full agreement over the consent decree and the community at large is coming together. She says the protest community, which is also racially mixed, and city officials fed up with the protest community are starting to come together and work through issues. That's something she said could not have happened two years ago.
“Initially, it was kind of like a divorced couple. Whatever one side would say, the other person couldn’t even feel. I think now we are more to the point where, not everybody is ready for a group hug, but there is more respect for listening to each other for what the other has to say at this point," Robinett said.
Substantial progress has been made since the death of Michael Brown two years ago. There is a new city manager, a new police chief, and a new city prosecutor and judge. More important, for Robinett, is the character and legacy of the community she will leave to her children.
“I want my kids to grow up and say that is how we got it right and be proud to be from Ferguson," she said. "There is still a lot of growth and a lot of healing that needs to take place in this community, but I think we are on the right track.”