Every year, The Association of Junior Leagues International publishes an Annual Review that examines the impact our Leagues and League members have had over the past year.
Although the needs of our communities continue to change, our commitment to what we do never wavers: Empowering women to lead. Whether in the public eye or behind the scenes, the women of The Junior League are committed to moving society forward—challenging the status quo, disrupting convention and guiding our communities towards a better future for all.
Often times, the issues we tackle don’t immediately lead to clarity or closure. These are the big issues, issues that live in the dark and pose great threats to civil society. They are the issues that we’re drawn to, because we believe they can, over time, be solved—and that the solution begins with an inclusive dialogue, to which every member of a community is invited. Because we know from experience that change, true change, can’t be framed up in a soundbite—that lasting progress is the long-form of real life, of real people, weaving intention into reality.
Where better can this be seen than the events that played out over this past year, and one issue in particular? An issue that has touched every one of our communities, either on the ground, or in our collective hearts and minds. It has reminded us that we live in a time where the effects of fear, discrimination and injustice don’t just play out over the course of a generation. They can bloom seemingly out of nowhere like wildfires, igniting communities into scenes of crisis, and leaving millions of scared and angry people to wonder: What do we do now? How do we mend these wounds? And who will lead us to peace?
When civil unrest erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, it was almost impossible to imagine the wave of similar events that would spread across the nation—a chain of cause-and-effect, fueled by fear, discrimination and bias, that would draw deep and disparaging lines among and between American communities and the police forces meant to protect them. Around-the-clock news coverage and a torrent of social media posts brought the protests and the national conversation about racial injustice to the forefront of our daily lives, forcing us to ask “How did we get here? And what do we do now?”
Of course, these were the big questions we would have to face as a nation, but at that very moment, on the streets of Ferguson, another more immediate response was needed, and the Junior League of St. Louis sought to find one.
There wasn’t a handbook for helping a community through a situation like this. The answer couldn’t be found on Google. It would require quick thinking and responding to an immediate need, while looking for ways to forge a purposeful path forward—a situation not unlike the ones faced by Leagues for more than a century.
What comes after the first responders?
As peaceful demonstrations evolved into violent protests, the first to respond were the police, fire department and paramedics. But what happens when one of those three is the target of the community’s rage? It has the power to undermine the entire effort of calming and stabilizing the community. Inevitably, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the community itself—its civic and political leaders, places of worship, educators, and its citizens. Among these is The Junior League, a group of non-partisan, highly trained leaders who can work closely with key players in a community to help identify what needs to be done, advocate for the unheard, illuminate the issues and work to address them.
The clock is ticking.
St. Louis League President Allie Chang Ray shared her experience after the events in Ferguson.
The first challenge was the physical reality of the situation. The suburban neighborhood where Michael Brown was killed was almost impossible to access. With very few streets in or out, the community was like an island unto itself. Adding to that, the area was completely shut down by the first responders helping the wounded and overseeing the investigation. This meant that families in Ferguson were essentially trapped inside the trauma. People were running out of food and the most basic supplies like diapers and baby formula.
Unsure of what to do, the Junior League of St. Louis spent the first 48 hours looking for a way to engage. On day three, the United Way began shuttling supplies to the families in need. The St. Louis League offered assistance, but by then other local community organizations and individuals had already stepped in. The League found other ways to supplement the effort, working with churches and community centers, overseeing collection drives and organizing activities for children whose schools had been closed due to the protests.
With the immediate needs of the community being addressed, the next challenge would be uncovering the events that led to the unrest in Ferguson—long before the death of Michael Brown. What was the root of the problem? And how could we help the community on a foundational level, working to ensure its betterment over the long haul?
Things aren’t always what they seem.
The St. Louis League began by sifting through the data collected from different sectors of the community, identifying indicators that would point to civil unrest.
“On the surface, it looks like there was a confrontation between an unarmed teenager and a white police officer,” said Ray, “but if you dig into it and you understand the conditions that we have in St. Louis, and the reasons why these things happen, it becomes really, really clear [that there’s more to it.]”
Among the insights, they learned that nearly a quarter the population of Ferguson lived in poverty and that the community was feeling increasingly alienated by law enforcement, and that there was a dire need for a financial empowerment initiative—not only targeting Ferguson, but all of St. Louis.
The League has since made it their mission to increase the minimum wage, ensure an interest cap on predatory loans, and help its largely “un-banked” community identify the right financial solutions and institutions with which to work. It’s desperately-needed, highly visible programs like these that are proving the League’s commitment to the daily needs of their communities and earning them a seat at the table.
It can happen anywhere.
Only a year after the unrest in Ferguson, we saw a frighteningly similar chain of events unfold in Baltimore. Following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of six Baltimore police officers, protesters swarmed the city. Although many of these protests were peaceful demonstrations pleading for justice, others became violent—fires, looting, attacks on police officers—culminating in a citywide state of emergency.
Members of the Junior League of Baltimore began deploying themselves around the city, helping anywhere they could, from clean up, to delivering prescriptions to the elderly, to dropping off toys and school supplies to the city’s “safe zones.” Members were sharing their experiences with each other as they moved across Baltimore, collaborating on the fly, and finding the best and most effective ways to effect meaningful and sustainable change in the community.
The Junior League’s response would be tested again, a couple months later, when a lone gunman would enter a church in Charleston and shoot and kill nine people in his own Bible study group, attempting to incite a race war. Here, the events hit even closer to home as many of the Junior League of Charleston’s members went to that church and knew the victims personally. Over the following weeks, the League served as a central point of communication, contacting fellow parishioners and community leaders, confirming that people were okay, and helping the community understand what was happening.
From first word of the shootings, to the fundraising efforts for the funerals, to the re-fortifying of the community-at-large, the Charleston League has served as an anchor in the storm, helping the city learn from the tragic events, and begin to chart a new path forward.
As an ongoing response, the Junior League of Charleston has become a central force in training community leaders around social and cultural inclusion. Workshops and seminars, supported by educational blog posts and active social media outreach, are helping to build a crucial conversation between every corner of the community, bridging various constituents, and helping them align around a common goal.
A safe place to talk.
When it comes to leading in our communities in times of unrest, knowing how to respond in the moment is only half of the equation. The other, perhaps more important half, involves creating an environment of civil discourse and developing lines of communication that will guard against future breakdowns and help steer the response when they occur.
It goes without saying that every community is different—each with its own cultural dynamics. But one thing that works for every community is open communication. It’s not always easy. In fact, many times it’s very hard, especially when you’re dealing with multi-faceted issues that don’t have simple answers. It requires a commitment to the long haul, to finding comfort in the fact that nobody necessarily has “the answer,” but that together, through respect, grace and perseverance we can put ourselves on a path towards progress, starting with conversation.
And there are solid actions The Junior League can take—many of which we’ve already started implementing. In the summer of 2016, we held an open dialogue facilitated by AJLI President Carol Scott and attended by over a hundred League leaders from cities across the US, UK, Mexico and Canada. The online event served as an open forum for Leagues to discuss the challenges each of their cities are facing around civil unrest, and coming up with ways to build lasting and effective civil discourse in their communities.
The programs that were shared provided a glimpse of the powerful, immersive engagements we can expect to see in the coming year—a safe city plan tackling bullying in Long Beach; a homelessness simulation in Tacoma; a diversity summit spearheaded by Baton Rouge—all designed by highly-trained female leaders who aren’t averse to tackling the issues that others won’t.
Because in the end, for us, this is about leadership—and the unique role women can play in effecting positive, lasting change in communities near and far.
Clearly, there’s a long road ahead. And as we forge a path forward, no challenge, nor trigger, will be the same as another. Orlando, Baton Rouge and Dallas are but a few vivid reminders that we’re living in a fearful, reactionary time. But in these moments of crises we see who we truly are—indefatigable forces for good, standing tall and leading, no matter what comes our way. It’s a commitment The Junior League has made for more than a century, and will continue to do for a century to come.
And there’s hope to be found in these moments as well—that in this highly connected, highly visible world that we now live in, people are tuning into each other from every corner over the globe, searching for answers, for others who lead by example, so that they can carry that torch of knowledge back to their own communities. And that may be the greatest opportunity of all—that these wildfires of unrest could be replaced by a flame of courage, lighting the way to the world we wish to see.