Forum on Ferguson Brings University Community Together

Published: December 5, 2014

by Mark Batten, School of Divinity, Communications
Stacy Jones, School of Law, Communications and Public Relations 

(Winston-Salem, N.C., December 5, 2014) Wake Forest University School of Divinity hosted a forum and panel discussion on Wednesday, Dec. 3 about recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The forum was inspired by a need to bring, conversation, connection, and understanding across the Wake Forest student body and wider campus community.

“Ferguson: A Discussion on Race, Justice, and Hope for the Future” included Gail R. O’Day, dean of the School of Divinity and professor of New Testament and Preaching; Derek S. Hicks, assistant professor of religion and society at the School of Divinity; Kami Chavis Simmons, professor of law and director of School of Law’s criminal justice program; and Darryl Aaron, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem. With standing room only, students, faculty, and staff from across the university were in attendance.

“Ferguson exposes the enduring pain of the racial division that has troubled this country since its inception,” O’Day said in her opening remarks. She also cited that the immediate catalyst for this conversation was the Nov. 25 letter that Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch sent to the entire campus community about the alleged rolling of the quad after the grand jury verdict. That there was even social media chatter about celebrating the verdict as a victory showed “such a lack of empathetic engagement with pain, suffering, and brokenness that silence was not an option,” she said.

Clergy in St. Louis, Missouri have been in the forefront of public demonstrations and acts of witness to justice truths. Not just since the verdict, but every day since the Michael Brown shooting in August. O’Day said that these are enactments of their vocations. “We can at the least be leaders at WFU today in providing a venue for sustained and engaged conversation on the most crucial domestic issue of our day.”

Law professor Kami Chavis Simmons recalled the impact the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the exoneration of these officers had on her decision to become a lawyer. “Unfortunately, even though it 23 years later, I am wondering why we are still grappling with these same issues?,” she said. “The focus needs to be on changing legal standards regarding uses of force, but legislators need the will of the people to change it.” Simmons is a former federal prosecutor and spoke regarding the potential for change. While there will be no state criminal charges against Officer Wilson, she said, there could potentially be federal charges and a civil suit, but success could still be difficult. She added that the protests and people standing in solidarity encourage her.

Local clergy leader Darryl Aaron said that there is solidarity in suffering, which takes many forms. “In the pulpit, as soon as I say something around Ferguson, black people, or America and justice, I always get a loud ‘Amen,’” he said. “That means something deep is stirring within people that is challenging and pleading with God to speak up, or it could be that the people of God are speaking up. Those who know what is right should begin to do what is right. America’s soul is at hand right now and we are at a grand opportunity to produce some wonderful things.”

Attention was then given to create future hope in America. Derek Hicks said citizens have to allow themselves the time and space to engage one another, to find the real issues people are grappling with, which can be uncomfortable. “An effective place for this to occur is at the curricular level,” he said. “Studies have shown that educational institutions are better when they have diverse faculty. Not just racially and in gender, but putting resources in having faculty who can speak to a variety of experiences so that others can draw and learn from them.”

During the time of Q&A, questions and remarks resonated with several of the matters addressed by the panelists. A freshman at Wake Forest said, “After hearing the verdict, I have become very angry and terrified. I’m 19 and feel in danger for my life. Is there anything that can be said to comfort me?” A second-year law student asked, “To have these conversations, we need people at the table. How do we engage people who need to be at the table?”

Darryl Aaron responded with a charge to the community. “Too often we put too much pressure on our leaders to direct us where we need to go. We need a strong grassroots movement.”

Derek Hicks echoed by saying, “We have to create space where more individuals are funneled through, where these types of conversations are forced. Not in an e-mail, but meeting face-to-face.”

After the panel ended, Lance Henry, a joint MDiv and Juris Doctor student, said, “What I have realized is that we are all social engineers. The ethical and moral formation that happens in our society has to lead on this issue. It goes back to what Dean O’Day said is the root of the problem. A lack of imagination across our society in not being able to see and empathize with any reality but their own.”

Sherine Tomas, a first-year divinity student, felt a true sense of hope after experiencing the openness of the dialogue. “Hearing the dialogue about the issue and listening as it transformed into creating strategies for change made me feel hopeful. I believe we all are now more focused on creating change ourselves.”

Beth Hopkins, the School of Law’s director of outreach and professor of practice, shares in the hope for future action. “We cannot become paralyzed by the emotion of fear, “ she said. “The utilization of fear is a mechanism for control, and as a people we have to be stronger and braver than submitting to the confines of fear. Therefore, it is incumbent upon our people to teach our children about our rich history so that we can move forward rather than spin within an endless cycle of pointless mobility.”

Links of Interest
Story from the School of Law
Story from the Old Gold & Black

Photo by Rachel Wallen, WFU student and News Editor for the Old Gold & Black