Episode 51: Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation

Rev. Starsky D. Wilson
 is a pastor, a foundation president for child wellbeing, and activist. In the wake of Michael Brown's death by police brutality, he was charged with leading the Ferguson Commission, and they helped elect black leadership, advocate a political agenda that was created by the people, and change laws.

His vision is to create a place where people's life expectancy is not determinable or or predictable by race or by zip code. He does this through his work at the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis, that makes grants that support sustainable solutions for children and families in urban areas. He does this through his work with the Ferguson Commission and Black Lives Matter. And now he has come to Dallas to help make that same vision a reality here too.

Listen and read the transcript here, or click here to watch the full video.

George Mason: What can be learned in cities across America that continue to struggle with civil unrest and racial inequities? Well, the Ferguson Commission that was created in the wake of Michael Brown Jr's killing by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014, was co-chaired by the Reverend Starsky Wilson from Saint Louis. He's a Dallas native and he'll be with us on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today, the Reverend Starsky Wilson. Starsky, glad to have you here on Good God.

Starsky Wilson: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Reverend.

George Mason: Starsky, you are a native of Dallas and so welcome home. We're glad to have you here. But you've been at Saint Louis for a while now and a pastor for the last seven years at a United Church of Christ.

Starsky Wilson: Pastoring for 10 years.

George Mason: 10 years.

Starsky Wilson: Yeah.

George Mason: Okay. All right. But for the last seven, you've also been the president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation.

Starsky Wilson: Yes, sir.

George Mason: Tell us a little bit about the Deaconess Foundation.

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. So Deaconess is the a successor to 130 year old mission established by the Evangelical Senator of North America, the Evangelical Deaconess Society. So it, for the last 20 years, after serving in health ministry, developing into a health system in 1998, transitioned to a grant making foundation.

George Mason: Okay.

Starsky Wilson: And so our grant making for the last 20 years has focused on advancing child wellbeing. And we do that today through racial equity in public policy work, supporting sustainable solutions for children and families in the Saint Louis Metropolitan area.

George Mason: Well, you mentioned children and I think it's an important thing for us to bring up at this point since it's been 50 years since 1968. And all of the hope that was building in 1968 that we were entering a new place in our society. There were breakthroughs, there were hopeful moments, and then King's assassination and so many other things took place at that time. There has been a sense of postponement hasn't there, a sense of loss? How does it feel to you and in doing this work for 50 years later?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I continue to talk about it as unfinished business, so I think about and I have frame it across the spanning country King's of finished sermon, his ongoing conversation about unfulfilled dreams, his conversation about Schubert's unfinished symphony. All of these are things that, and themes that I think we are still yet to lean into. But most significantly, because of our work at Deaconess, because it is faith related work for justice, I tend to pick up the mantle and be thoughtful about the work that Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund is doing.

George Mason: Okay.

Starsky Wilson: Right? If you think about King's last campaign as the Poor People's Campaign, she tells the story of her little apartment in DC being the official offices of the Poor People's Campaign because she was the public policy director. And in many ways of the work and the policy agenda that many people have forgotten, that policy agenda for economic justice, that policy agenda to reduce poverty, that people like Senator Kennedy had taken up and given significant attention to has lived for the last 45 years in the ongoing work that Marion is doing, the Children's Defense Fund has been doing to try to shape a future and a community that is fit for our children, that advances their wellbeing and that prioritizes it among public policy conversations. So I think this is where we find a connection to that 50 year mark today, and even the renewing Poor People's Campaign that people like Dr. Barber and others are lifting up in our attention.

George Mason: So you talk about economic justice and the Poor People's Campaign and the Deaconess Foundation working on public policy and asset investments in certain areas. For many people, I think the language of economic justice sounds like a critique of America's free enterprise system, a feeling that somehow it's a way of government getting out of its lane and into the marketplace where the marketplace should handle things on its own, and sort of the invisible hand of the marketplace, all those sorts of things. And yet, we've had about 50 years now of laissez faire economics, you might say, to allow the marketplace to do its work. What we've seen is this incredible growing gap of wealth distribution between white Americans and black Americans. Net worth tremendously skewed.

Starsky Wilson: A hundred thousand dollar gap.

George Mason: Exactly? A hundred thousand dollar gap, and which is to say almost zero net worth in the average African American family. So how do you talk to people who are used to thinking about the marketplace as being the savior that, a rising tide lifts all boats and that sort of thing? How do you talk to them about how there is a role to play in targeting investment and in public policy?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I mean a lot of that depends on who the person is, right? So these days I increasingly talk to folks in the Saint Louis region about the impact of market leadership, right? So you talk about, Elizabeth Crutchfield has a book on how movements work or how change happens. And one of the things she talks about is the role of corporations in advancing public policy.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: We've seen very recently, while in our state, we just passed an increase by referendum of the minimum wage over the course of the next three to four years. We wanted more, but we were able to get through with the people an increase that will be phased in through 2023. But at the same time we were doing that, the campaign really wanted $15 and a union. And while we were collecting signatures to get that done in our state, Amazon and Walmart moved to make that happen within the context of their companies.

George Mason: So there's leadership from the marketplace.

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. There's leadership in the marketplace, in recognition that this is indeed because of high employment across the nation, this is indeed in many ways a buyer's market when it comes to workers. So if they're going to keep their workers, they have to pay a valuable wage. Now this is important as we talk about the previous question about 1968. So sanitation workers in 1968 in Memphis were making just under $2 an hour. Adjust it for inflation, they'd be making $19 an hour. We were fighting over $15 for and hour, right?

George Mason: Yes, right.

Starsky Wilson: The other thing I say to to elected officials who respond, quite frankly, to market actors, primarily to corporations in their work-

George Mason: Exactly.

Starsky Wilson: Is that they may be missing an opportunity in just tweaking and targeting how they do their work. What we found when we went through the process of leading the Ferguson Commission in St Louis was that Saint Louis ranked 42nd in economic mobility. And Raj Chetty from Harvard University's study of what it takes for a family to make it from one economic rung to the next within a generation.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: What we also found was that we actually have enough jobs to put our people fully to work. What we did not have was a connection in transportation oriented development to get the people who need the jobs to the places where the jobs were.

George Mason: The infrastructure.

Starsky Wilson: Right?

George Mason: Yeah, there you go.

Starsky Wilson: So there's some basic infrastructure needs that can also be reformed.

George Mason: Which is a government responsibility.

Starsky Wilson: A government responsibility.

George Mason: Exactly.

Starsky Wilson: So how can we talk to government and elected officials about how they respond to market needs? The market needs the workers by investing in appropriate infrastructure and doing that with a racial equity lens. What we found was that were black and brown people live or where the people are who need the jobs, but where people who are not black and brown folks are, is where the jobs actually live. And so when we get into talking about extending transportation and development out to some of those places, then the NIMBYs show up, right? Not In my backyard.

George Mason: Not in my backyard. Yeah.

Starsky Wilson: And so one of these, I think there's some targeted ways to talk about tweaking policy that are both asset related and income related.

George Mason: Well, and with the Citizens United decision that happened a few years ago, that's been a boon to some but bemoaned by others as calling corporations individuals or persons, you might say, and giving a virtual unlimited ability for corporations to target their political contributions and the like. So in a sense, what you're saying I think is, if we could turn that to the good, and had moral leadership that was visionary about the whole community to bring greater inclusion and participation, we could use it to our advantage instead of against it.

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. I think that's a significant element. I also think there's a robust engagement and investments in democratic participation are critically required, right? So I use the example of what we've been able to do in the state of Missouri by petition initiative over the course of the last few years, including some things that have been pushed back by a legislative environment that has not been friendly. So I think as we kind of zero in on core values, if democracy is still a value, then we have to be thoughtful about how we get the best will for the most ... the will of most of the people in and through our governmental structures and live those values, articulate them in our public policy articulations, in ordinances or statutes and laws, and then begin to live them out. And I think that's the challenge. If we're still a group of people who say they've one vote and one voice is what defines us, then we've got to be thoughtful about how that plays out in democratic reform and participation as well.

George Mason: So we seem to be in a time though where the poles are widening in terms of differences from one another, the ideologies and the like. And participation in the common good requires that people know one another and draw closer to one another and begin to ask what do we have in common and what do we want to focus on here? Not just where can we privilege one another at the expense of one another. So what are some of the ways that that you think you can call people together to increase participation and to help them listen to one another and find the common good?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I think common good requires, and this is connected to some of your work, requires a commons, right?

George Mason: Yeah, right.

Starsky Wilson: And I think part of the challenge that we're wrestling with is the loss of place or the end of place, container by which we can actually rub into one another, connect with one another. And by knowing one another's humanity, begin to see an interest that is indeed common as well.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Starsky Wilson: So I say that to say, while I appreciate and I've seen the advancement that come from social media engagement and the like, I also am concerned that people don't have contact with one another anymore. And so where we've seen the most significant transformation is the actual kind of door to door meeting people, not just in the context of a political season but deep canvassing, if you use want to use the political language. Door to door outreach, if you want to use church language and evangelism in that context, such that we actually have a sense of seeing one another engaging one another.

Starsky Wilson: So a lot of the stuff is really basic in my point of view, that we've got to get to blocking and tackling. The other is the creation of space. A few years ago when we were going through strategic planning with Deaconess Foundation, it was just before we began to react and respond to the Ferguson uprising. And we knew that we wanted a better space for our offices. We had been a hospital system, so for years we had massive space and of course a health conversion foundation that's doing grant making regionally doesn't need a lot of space. So for 20 years we're in a nice office suite in downtown Saint Louis. And we decided that we want to be connected to people, we wanted to convene our grantees. We wanted to hear from people who were affected by our work, and so we needed to actually create a space for that.

Starsky Wilson: Now that was affirmed in the context of the uprising when I as a pastor kept being called upon to give space away to activists and organizers, people who needed and wanted to meet. And so what that became for us was an affirmation that community members who want to get together to civically engage, actually do not have a sense of commons anymore.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: So we developed the space. The Deaconess Center for Child Wellbeing. It's a 22,000 square foot space that yes, it houses our offices, it houses a couple of our partners, but most of it is high level, high quality conferencing space that we give away to people who are doing work aligned with our public policy agenda, and create opportunities for them to rub into one another. But it also upgrades the conversations, right? When we talk about business and corporations, this was my one guiding a light to the developers.

Starsky Wilson: I said, I want this building to be better than the regional chambers offices. I want the conference center here to be of a higher quality because I think our children are more valuable than what gets talked about in those conversations, the eco-devo conversation, the economic development conversations that happen there. So we created a wonderful space and there people are talking about early childhood education, and there people are building power to close a medium security jail, and there just across the street from the juvenile detention center and the family courts, right? Physical Critique folks are building power to advance racial justice for our children and I think that's part of what's necessary. We've got to create the space for people.

George Mason: Well, you know, it sounds like the church has contributed to the imagination of what space means is in almost all of our church traditions there is a fellowship hall or a community hall where we gather to do this sort of work together.

Starsky Wilson: Yes.

George Mason: And we also know that you can't have a real church just by watching the live stream. You've got to rub up against somebody in the pew and who's at your elbow, who's pouring you a cup of coffee, who's sharing their take on scripture, who's singing the other part in the harmony, right?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. So I'm just this completing this tenured pastorate at St John's Church, the beloved community. And about a year ago after following the uprising, young people wanted to be engaged with our church all over. They'd say, Pastor, you've got to live streaming it. We started live streaming and I would get these reports on the live stream every day. I could see where people were connecting. And it was great because we had members who had gone over to Indianapolis and to Dallas and to DC. But I would see all of these addresses in Saint Louis, people sitting at home and I thought, no, I don't think so.

George Mason: It's the shadow side. I know.

Starsky Wilson: So we pulled down the live stream.

George Mason: You did?

Starsky Wilson: And we offer it to connect to people who are out of space with us, right?

George Mason: Okay.

Starsky Wilson: So we do have folks who watch every week from Dallas and from Saint Louis and from DC and from Atlanta and those who are traveling of the church can get the link. But we don't just send it out because we actually do want people to come and rub up against one another.

George Mason: Well, let's pick up some more of this after the break. We want to promote the Deaconess Foundation for you during this commercial break, but PSA. But thanks for being with us and we'll come right back.

Starsky Wilson: Glad to be here.

Jim White: The Deaconess Foundation is called to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable population among us, our children. Improving their wellbeing benefits us all. Help improve the health of our community. Visit deconess.org for more information.

George Mason: We're back with the Reverend Starsky Wilson and he is from St Louis and yet really from Dallas, so he's back in Dallas. But Starsky we've had here in Dallas, several significant difficult circumstances where there have been police shootings. Obviously, in one case it was an African American former army person who shot Dallas police officers. And then of course, that march that night was inspired by the fact that we had had so many examples of police brutality throughout the country prior to that, that it was a kind of March to defend the integrity of the black community over against mistreatment.

George Mason: But now we've had recently a police officer that's been convicted of murder, Roy Oliver, Jordan Edwards, and we've had an indictment against Amber Guyger, the police officer for the killing of Botham Jean. You have been very much involved in Saint Louis, especially because of the Ferguson uprising that happened as a result of Michael Brown Jr's killing by Darren Wilson, the police officer there in Ferguson. That was back in August of 2014, and then in that case officer Wilson was not charged. So how did you get involved in this and what is your takeaway from your experience in all of that that you can help lend to us here in Dallas and in another places?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I think a couple of things. I think first and foremost, this unfortunate circumstance speaks to all of our humanity. And so I tell people often for me, I could not not engage.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: When I saw the images of Michael Brown lying and the pool of his own blood, it was not the first time I had seen that. The first time I saw that it was my brother. My brother who died in community violence, who was murdered along with three other people in a household in Oak Cliff. And so the image, the visceral image connected to me and drew me out to be thoughtful about ways that I could be present. And and much of that kind of encompassed all that I had, right? At the time I was pastoring a church. This happened on a Saturday. I immediately began to think about what that meant for a message the next day.

Starsky Wilson: And I had young people who are members of the church who were quite active and already at the site of Michael Brown's killing by the time I found out on that Saturday. I was compelled to be thoughtful about how the foundation could engage. And overtime what we recognized was that the church as a body desired to be in the streets, and so we put our bodies in the streets together, that the church as a space was required for the movement. And so we opened the doors to host the Ferguson Freedom Ride, the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson there.

Starsky Wilson: By the end of August, we were the welcome center for Ferguson in October. And in October of that year when 10,000 people from across the country came in to St Louis to show solidarity, and then through the foundation I asked for space for us to invest up, to invest a pool of resources into mobilization education for young people around youth organizing, to shift activists into organizers, to put people into public policy positions, to build power to transform the situations that they were suggesting were concerning them. And ultimately, the governor asked me to coach the Ferguson Commission to develop a set of public policy recommendations to advance the community forward. So all of these kinds of hats, the philanthropic hat, the faith hat, and the public policy hat came as a result of responding to my own pain, quite frankly, that connected with the pain at the moment.

George Mason: So I think people in the white community generally do not understand what role going to the streets plays in beginning a process that that leads to a Ferguson Commission, to other things. I think what I hear often is, what good do they think they're doing out in the streets protesting. But on the other hand, this is a long history of people gathering for civil protests, of not just black Americans, but everyone has used the civil disobedience and protest in the street for larger purposes than simply letting off steam. Right? I mean, it becomes something more. But without which there is not a galvanizing presence that leads to change. Right?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. I think there are a couple of things that I misunderstood. First and foremost, the people who gathered around Michael Brown's body, those in our community, let's be clear, we went through in the course of the uprising, several police involved shootings. So yes, Michael Brown and Antonio Martin and others. And so it's helpful for us to recognize that people first go to the streets mourning.

George Mason: Yes, right.

Starsky Wilson: Let us be thoughtful about the fact that people are grieving good and the scenes take on, the images in the pictures becomes something else to us when you add other elements to it, right? When you add police in tanks and when you add tear gas and when you add weaponized vehicles, that doesn't look like mourning to you anymore. But immediately people are gathering to mourn. They're gathering to demonstrate support and solidarity for one another and the extended gathering becomes a witness of resistance, right?

Starsky Wilson: That this is indeed an evil or an injustice that we do not believe should stand. And so as we speak in the faith language of bearing witness, right? It is indeed doing that. It is giving proximity in order to be able to articulate a testimony, but it also is giving the ministry a presence and bearing witness that this is an injustice that will not stand. We should also be thoughtful about ways in which protest shows up, right? So some folks show up to redeem space. So the thoughtfulness about the concept of redemption, we engaged on the anniversary of Michael Brown's death at the US courthouse with faith leaders gathered to deliver it to the US attorney of the will of the faith community. And there anointed the courthouse, which is a space and place of the people such that it's built with the people's money and resources and taxes to do the people's justice, and suggesting that it wasn't, and engaged in liturgical acts in order to reclaim and redeem the space. So all of these are part of what goes into the process of public protests as well.

George Mason: Excellent. So when you look at the outcome of the Ferguson Commission that you co-chaired, what are some of the things that you were able to accomplish in making systemic changes? Because in every community there's always the feeling that, okay, this has happened. We're going to let the legal system take care of it and then we're going to move on. Because if we just have good people in place, the things will change. But sometimes there's deep systemic things going on that that have to be addressed.

Starsky Wilson: Yeah. I think this connects with your previous question about people being proximate.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: I think part of what we've been able to do, and what does it mean for people to protest? I think first and foremost, we should understand that all systems operate within the context of cultures and narratives. And so part of what we were able to do with the commission process, first and foremost in tandem with the leadership that was being provided in the streets through the uprising, was to sustain a narrative that we had to do something different.

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: So there were already, within hours, within a week of the uprising, there were already groups from the chamber and from the convention and visitors bureau who were worried about the economic impact. There were all of these PR groups together who were are already spinning, that were moving forward together, and all this kind of stuff before anything had been done. To be clear, there wasn't a commission until three months into the uprising. Part of what we had to do was to shift and sustain the narrative to hold people in the disequilibrium long enough such that behaviors began to change and that people could do the learning required in order to allow that behavior to happen. And I think ultimately, the Forward Through Ferguson Report A Path Toward Racial Equity helped to frame where we needed to go, the eschatological hope of the community, right?

George Mason: Yes.

Starsky Wilson: And where we want to go is to a place where people's life expectancy is not determinable or or predictable by race or by zip code. We laid out a path to do that. And that, first and foremost, became the guiding narrative for the community, it's political environment, and the cultural context and the social spaces ever since then. So that has been the agenda that has informed a mayoral election, a county executives election, the election of the first black prosecutor, the first black sheriff, the first black prosecutor in the city and in the county.

Starsky Wilson: So it became the agenda that the people asked about because they were the ones who created it. Three thousand citizens engaged in the process, mobilize more than 30,000 volunteer hours to say to elected officials, to corporate officials, to civic leaders, this is what we want. And then began to mobilize by the thousands, convenings for these elections to say, I am glad to hear what you got to say, but this is our agenda. What are you going to get done on it?

George Mason: Nice.

Starsky Wilson: So yes, we passed some laws. We were able to pass Senate Bill 5 which decreased the amount of revenue that cities, municipalities can take from small dollar tickets. Because we found that this was dehumanizing police and turning them into armed collection agents, where they were targeting black and brown and young people and using those young people. Right? Creating injustices for them. But that was the systemic motivation to make the budget.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Starsky Wilson: So you had to reduce that amount. We were also able to do things like examine the school to prison pipeline and see that out of school suspensions were number one in Saint Louis among the state of Missouri, which leads the nation in the disparity between the out of school suspensions for black boys and white boys, black girls and white girls. And so the St Louis public schools, actually banned out of school suspensions for kindergarten, first and second grade. A lot of people are shocked that they were actually-

George Mason: Ever there to begin with.

Starsky Wilson: Exactly. But it reduced out of school suspensions from 13,000 to 2000 in two years.

George Mason: Wow.

Starsky Wilson: Right? And so those are the kinds of things we're able to get done. But more than anything else, I think we changed the context and the conversation of accountability such that people feel that they have to, leaders do, institutions do, feel that they have to articulate. They have to stand and deliver on how they're advancing racial equity in light of that Ferguson Commission Report. And I think that's a powerful reality.

George Mason: So there's a tremendous in an important aspect of what you said that had to do with the fact that the agenda itself was determined by the people, and that it was for the first time inclusive of people of color who were able to determine what they really want to see happen and create that agenda. But let me ask you in all of these movements, the question of what's the right and proper role of allies in the white community in, these circumstances? Because we have so much of a historical tendency to want to come in and commandeer and colonize every movement to our own way of understanding of how things work. And yet, we also probably don't need to just be on the sidelines. We have to figure out, what's the right calibration of our engagement involvement? What advice or counsel would you give?

Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I used to say a lot. I say it less so now, but what I'll say this about the movement for black lives, specifically. I say what began or what was catalyzed in the Ferguson Uprising was a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic mobilization of people for black lives, right? That was black led, youth led and in many cases, queer led. Right? But it was never all black.

George Mason: Right.

Starsky Wilson: So the clarity here is that the movement itself has space for everybody. If one is willing to follow young, black, openly queer or LGBTQ leadership, right?

George Mason: Right. Right.

Starsky Wilson: So I say that to say in that context, ally-ship is not actually required because you can be in, you don't have to be aside, right?

George Mason: Okay, good.

Starsky Wilson: You can be in if one is willing. And I think this gets to the advice to follow young black leadership.

George Mason: Good. Good.

Starsky Wilson: And I think we have remarkable examples of the power of that, of the power of that for all of us in these respective narratives. And so I think that's really the key piece is how can we orient ourselves to follow young, black, brown, queer leadership, and we're willing to do that. And then I think we can transform this country into that which we articulated with desire to be.

George Mason: Well as, as people of faith, as Christians in particular, we know something about the call to humility.

Starsky Wilson: Yes.

George Mason: And of looking out for the interests of others before yourself. And so if we just dig into our own tradition and move past our color or our social location and let people lead who are most deeply affected by it, then I think the sense of collegiality and being part of something transformational will change us as well. And that's a beautiful thing.

Starsky Wilson: Absolutely. Absolutely, and that's the story of the church, right?

George Mason: It really is.

Starsky Wilson: It is folks who renounce privilege in the context of empire to take a community together. And they're following by and large, young, marginalized folks and these folks who are calling themselves disciples and apostles and clearly in the person of Jesus.

George Mason: Well Starsky, it's a pleasure to meet you and to hear your story and what you're involved in. Thank you for coming back to Dallas to help us. And I know we have a lot more to learn from you, but we're glad to have you on Good God and to share in this good work together.

Starsky Wilson: Glad to be here. Thank you very much.

George Mason: Thanks so much.

Starsky Wilson: You got it.

George Mason: Okay, good.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, Conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

Jim White: The Deaconess Foundation is called to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable population among us, our children, improving their wellbeing benefits us all. Help improve the health of our community. Visit deaconess.org for more information.

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