Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon chose Rose Windmiller of Washington University in St. Louis to serve on the Ferguson Commission because of her experience in higher education, public policy and politics. But Windmiller delivers more than expertise; she brings resolve.
“The painful stories I have heard, especially from the young people in our community, have motivated me to help find a path forward,” said Windmiller, who serves as associate vice chancellor for government and community relations. “Our area youth have a sense of hope that what we see today is not our future. And I believe they are right. That’s why the work we are doing is critical.”
Composed of 16 community members, the Ferguson Commission convened three months after the shooting death of Michael Brown. Commissioners have traveled across the region to learn more about the issues that divide St. Louis and to set priorities. Next, the commission will find ways to put its ideas into action.
“This is where the rubber hits the road,” said Windmiller, who grew up in the north St. Louis County municipality of St. Ann. “Either we as a community decide we are going to tackle these issues and jointly solve them, or we will never fully heal and rise to our full and true potential.”
Here, Windmiller discusses the ongoing work of the commission and reflects on how the experience has had an impact in her life.
The commission has approved some 200 “calls to action” in five categories — racial equity, citizen-law enforcement relations, municipal courts and governance, child well-being and economic inequity and opportunity. Which call to action resonates most strongly with you?
From a personal perspective, the ones that I think are the most impactful are the ones that deal with economic inequity and child well-being. One, in particular, is the development of child-development accounts, which is, of course, a proposal Michael Sherraden (PhD, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at the Brown School) has researched in depth. These accounts have been proven to give low-income kids access to money for their education and the knowledge that there is a community that cares about them and their education now and in the future.
Another important call to action is the establishment of a long-term fund that will support regional racial equity infrastructure for all sectors. Funds might be used to build racial equity capacity, needs and training assessment, implementation and evaluation.
What are the greatest challenges of being a commissioner?
The experience is challenging in many ways. It requires constant intellectual application and deep thinking. But, on a much more personal level, I have been exposed to community members’ very real and private struggles. I have been constantly reminded of the strength of human nature and inspired by people who live with poor access to things I take for granted. They are rightfully angry, but they are also hopeful and determined to take an active part in the commission’s current work and in the implementation process.
What do you say to critics who say the commission is powerless?
We heard this criticism more often when we first began meeting than we do now. I think the commission has worked very hard to reach out to community members whose voices aren’t heard and who haven’t often been invited to the process. We have no desire to issue recommendations which die on someone’s shelf. It’s incumbent on all of us — community members, our young people, elected officials, the business sector, certainly the higher education community — to come together and decide which recommendations should be adopted and get to the work of establishing some sort of infrastructure to implement the most impactful priorities. I don’t think any of us as commissioners will be satisfied until we see that structure put in place. I certainly won’t be.
How can Washington University contribute?
The research and work of our faculty members, including Jason Purnell (PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School), Karen Tokarz (JD, LLM, Charles Nagel Professor of Public Interest Law & Public Service and director of the Negotiation and Dispute Resolution Program in the School of Law), Mae Quinn (JD, LLM, professor of law and director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic), Molly Metzger (PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School), Katie Plax (MD, professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine) and others have been an important source of information for the commission, and I expect the university’s extraordinary faculty will continue to provide research and best practices.
Our students have been involved in outreach and volunteer activities with the St. Louis community for many years. Currently, two Washington University undergraduates and one 2015 alum are interning directly with the commission and provide administrative and research support to the commission members and staff. Student support and volunteerism will be key as we move forward with both calls to action and recommendations.
In addition, the commission is interested in the development of some sort of “report card” or evaluative tool that will allow us to benchmark progress. Many researchers and faculty within the St. Louis higher education community are experts in the design and implementation of assessments which will prove beneficial as we begin measuring outcomes and progress toward our goals.
The university will continue to grow its support of K-12 educational opportunity. During this past year, we have doubled the size of the College Prep Program; we provide academic and compliance support to our university-sponsored public charter schools, KIPP and the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, and we have helped teachers and schoolchildren across St. Louis through the Institute for School Partnership. These efforts have really strengthened the university’s role in advancing educational support within the K-12 community.
We continue to refine, reshape and evaluate our institutional commitment to K-12 education. I anticipate that many organizations, including Washington University, will begin conversations about the recommendations and the resources we as a community need which will support sustainable, long-term, positive change.
How did serving on the commission impact you?
I think of myself as reasonably knowledgeable about inequity and disparity issues, and I try to view these issues through the lens of empathy, which I believe is one of most essential human characteristics. Since my work with the commission, I’ve been confronted with some ugly facts that should make all of us uncomfortable. It is not acceptable to ignore that significant portions of our neighbors lack access to quality schools, safe neighborhoods, affordable health care, and strong support services. I am compelled by what I have experienced to actively work toward solutions which empower and transform us a community. I know that many others share this commitment, and together we must find a way forward.