Civic leaders commit to address issues of racial disparity

At about 3:45 p.m. Nov. 1, standing on a stage in front of 1,000 people, Tom Irwin faced a direct question from Derek Laney of Missourians Organized for Reform & Empowerment:

"Will you agree to broadly apply a racial-equity framework and take the lead to create a 25-year managed fund to solely support regional racial-equity infrastructure for all citizens?"

Irwin's answer was just as direct, quick and unequivocal.

"The answer is, 'Yes,'" the executive director of Civic Progress said, as the crowd applauded his affirmative answer at the Public Accountability Meeting in the Busch Student Center at St. Louis University.

Also titled Beloved Community Conference 2015, with the sub-title Radical Reconciliation, the meeting was an extension of the Sacred Conversations on Race + Action last spring at parishes and churches of multiple denominations — the action part, plus some.

Civic leaders such as Irwin, who also serves on the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission, committed in a public forum to address issues of racial disparity identified in the recent Ferguson Commission report. The commission arose after the strife following the death of Michael Brown in August 2014.

Improvements in education, job opportunities and health care were among 185 recommendations of the commission, appointed in November by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

"To a certain degree, this is a seminal moment," Irwin said after leaving the stage. "Sometimes, the only good that can come from tragedy is that it can be a lesson for living. We need to change."

Although Civic Progress can't tackle all of the commission's 185 recommendations, it can do the heavy lifting with major funding for some.

"Our folks are committed," Irwin said. "When it's all said and done ... we'll see some significant funding."

As head of Civic Progress, the organization of St. Louis' 33 largest companies, Irwin has the clout to help make that happen. He also has the heart to back it up — a heart formed by the Catholic faith. Hearing the Beatitudes in a reading at Saturday Vigil Mass served as an appropriate lead-in to Sunday.

"That was my lesson being here today," he said. "The one thing that is crystal clear to me is that you can read the New Testament and make a list of how many times Jesus mentions the poor."

Numerous times.

"I apply my faith as much as I can to issues, but to me, most of this is simple fairness," he said. "How can you get a parking ticket and end up in jail? How is that even possible?"

With the backing of Civic Progress, Irwin helped get Senate Bill 5 passed in the Missouri legislature. The bill took square aim at the predatory practices of municipal courts, curtailing the practice of using traffic ticket fines and court costs to bankroll city governments.

"In 35 years going to legislature, that may have been the most significant legislation I've seen passed," said Irwin, who was once told that "'it's expensive to be poor.' You can't get a car, so you have to take a bus; stores in the neighborhood cost a fortune. It's awful."

Impoverished St. Louisans, mostly African-Americans, live that reality, which Irwin and St. Louis business leaders want to change with the racial equity fund. Irwin, Ferguson commission co-chairs Rev. Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure, and others must finalize fund, but it's a big step forward.

"Those three words — Forward in Ferguson — are very powerful," Irwin said. "I feel very strongly that we can't succeed as a community — it's impossible — unless everyone is moving forward. It can't work if one segment is holding back. ... Communities either move forward or fall behind. There's no resting. That's just a fact."

The public meeting closed a three-day session to address the Ferguson Commission report. The Catholic Church was represented by parishioners and/or priests from: St. Elizabeth, Mother of John the Baptist; St. Margaret of Scotland; Mary, Mother of the Church; Blessed Teresa of Calcutta; Our Lady of the Holy Cross; St. Rose Philippine Duchesne; and St. Cronan. Representatives from the Knights of Peter Claver and from the Peace and Justice Commission also attended "to look at the Ferguson report through the lens of social justice teaching," said Marie Kenyon, director of the Peace and Justice Commission. 

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