Leah Gunning Francis understood the power of mothers’ stories long before police shot Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, was consumed by protests, flames and anger.
The associate dean at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis has two children of her own, but even before they were born she saw the way the world looked at young black men -- and it concerned her deeply.
“The image of young black males is constantly one of negativity, criminality, of failing in school,” she said. “They’re always being framed as a problem.”
Two years ago, she set out to change that narrative, with the help of other mothers. She received the prestigious Engaged Scholars Fellowship, and used it to talk to mothers of young black men, to record their experiences and bring their voices to the table.
Her passion took her to Ferguson, a suburb of her St. Louis home, and on Sunday and Monday it will bring her to Lincoln High and Crete for “Courageous Conversations on Race.”
Gunning Francis will bring with her a determination to take on -- and change -- the narrative reinforced by images of black men in music, videos and TV.
“That has to stop,” she said.
The language and images in music, videos and on television promulgate messages of violence and misogyny that have undermined the well-being of young black males, Gunning Francis said. And the steady stream of such images sends a strong, negative message to children -- especially those who live in impoverished areas -- about who they are, she said.
“I’m seeking to change the narrative. And an integral part of that I believe is hearing from the lived experience of black mothers.”
That doesn’t mean fathers’ voices don’t matter, she said, but the voices of mothers have not been a part of the conversation, are not included in the roundtable discussions, the interviews and stories in the news.
She selected a small, diverse group of women with varied experiences and incomes, and she found common themes in their stories, she said, no matter what their experiences or places on the socio-economic ladder.
They worried that others set low standards for their boys. They found themselves telling teachers it wasn’t enough that their sons were nice and didn’t make trouble, that those teachers should expect good grades and hard work.
They worried about their boys encountering the peer-on-peer violence that is a reality for many young men. They worried about racial profiling that marked their children simply because they were young and black and male.
They all worry when their boys go out at night, none sleep until they are home.
“Their mothers are all scared to death,” Gunning Francis said. “And to me that is the message that has to get out, regardless of where they live, how much money they have.”
One woman who lived in a $400,000 home with her husband and children told about a man following her son home, confronting him in their driveway, wanting to know what he was doing in the neighborhood.
“Is this not what happened with Trayvon Martin?" asked Gunning Francis. "So these things are real. These things are not just isolated incidents.”
The negative narrative fuels aggressiveness toward them, she said, “because of the underlying assumption that they’re up to something.”
She learned what happened in Ferguson on the evening news, and a few days later saw an interview with Brown’s mother, who talked about how hard it is to raise a young black male.
“I thought, it’s the same thing I hear from other moms,” Gunning Francis said.
She and her husband, a Princeton-educated pastor, went to Ferguson, and have remained active in the nonviolent calls for justice, participating in daytime protests and reaching out to help the residents in the neighborhood where Brown was shot.
She was shocked to see the street where police said they stopped Brown because he was walking in the street, stopping traffic. Gunning Francis imagined a main thoroughfare with lots of traffic, not a narrow residential street that led to a dead end.
“This street is no wider than my street. I was like, ‘How does this even happen?’ It’s astounding. I’m still astounded by that.”
She already advocates with the teachers of her own boys -- 6 and 8 -- and she knows that soon they will be teenagers who do things teenagers do, like walk in the middle of streets.
So she’s taking her focus on mothers to Ferguson, planning a “Mother’s March” for Saturday.
“I do the work I do so we don’t have to keep coming back to this place with other families and other mothers,” Gunning Francis said. “It just doesn’t have to be this way.”