For most of my life, the mayor of my hometown—Fairburn, Georgia—was Betty Hannah, a white woman. But since Fairburn is about 20 miles outside of Atlanta, that seemed bound to change eventually: Black residents like my mother and I could always look down the road to a major American capital that has, for more than a generation, been run by a black mayor, district attorney, police chief, and city council. In 2009, the year I turned 31, Mario Avery was elected Fairburn’s first black mayor.
Ferguson, Mo., too, is a town with a history of white-only governance, and in close proximity to a place where black residents do have political power: Country Club Hills, a city with a black mayor, black police chief and predominantly black city council. And so, while I reported on the Michael Brown shooting and unrest in Ferguson this summer, I wondered how a place that looked so similar to my hometown could be so different – how the black people who make up a majority of the city of Ferguson could wield so little power.
The story of how Fairburn managed to take similar historical ingredients and cook up an entirely different future could hold lessons for Ferguson – and all of the other towns like it across the country.
Like Ferguson, my hometown started as a train stop in the 1800s. Both towns are about 70 percent black and 30 percent white, according to the most recent Census data. The majority of residents (more than 80 percent) are high school graduates, and nearly one-quarter are college educated. At least 60 percent are homeowners.
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the numbers that seem key to the modern power asymmetries that exist among black residents in Ferguson, and yet not in Fairburn.
Fairburn is faring better economically. The median income in my hometown is about $13,000 higher, and the home values are about $47,000 higher. Unemployment in Ferguson is about seven points higher than in Fairburn (14.3 percent to 7.4 percent).
Population changes may also be key to the divergence of these stories: Fairburn has had a population explosion in the past decade – swelling from about 5,400 residents in 2000 to nearly 13,700 today, bringing new voices to the conversation. Ferguson’s population, which has hovered at around 21,000, has actually dipped slightly in recent years.
Another statistic that sticks out: Seventy-four percent of businesses in Fairburn are black-owned, according to the most recent Census; Ferguson had no such data available. (I did notice that a lot of the looting that occurred during the protests in Ferguson happened to stores that were not black-owned, and that black-owned businesses in that area proclaimed their status in spray paint on plywood boards covering their windows.)
That three of four businesses in Fairburn are black-owned was not always the case. But as the population grew and demographics shifted, those who came into my hometown took ownership of their community – including as entrepreneurs.
Having a financial stake in a town beyond homeownership creates a sense of investment in a community—and a can catalyze civic engagement.
It seems logical, then, that Fairburn’s voters are also more engaged in city elections. Last November, 34 percent of the city’s registered voters showed up, despite having an uncontested mayoral race. That’s more than three times the turnout in Ferguson’s last city elections in April 2013 (11 percent).
But perhaps this summer’s shooting served as a wakeup call for black residents in Ferguson. For many of them, oppression has become a way of life. As I interviewed the residents of Ferguson, I noticed that many had stories of regular police harassment, or being jailed for days or weeks for what seemed to be minor infractions. I was struck by how routine their stories were, and how casually they recounted them.
I simply could not imagine such a thing being accepted as commonplace in Fairburn.
So, what happened here? What made the people in my hometown seize their civic responsibility and forge a dramatically different future?
For those questions, I turned to Mayor Avery. He suggested that Fairburn’s population explosion and geography played a big role: The influx of new Fairburn residents were determined to replicate the changes they saw in neighboring cities. And Fairburn's proximity to Atlanta, the seat of the civil rights movement, is a powerful motivator. Because Fairburn sits in the shadow of that legacy, it is entwined and influenced by that history in a way that Ferguson may not be.
And yet, Avery said he would be surprised if the situation in Ferguson doesn’t spark change in that community. A wake-up call can work just as well as a population explosion.
“I’d be totally amazed if, when the dust settles, the people don’t start demanding services and representation from people who are serious about making things happen,” Avery said. “People are going to start asking, ‘What is the city doing to show that we’re trying to make progress?’ You’re a city that nobody knew a year ago. You become a target when you become visible.”
Before I left, I saw signs that Ferguson could be ready to change. The sustained peaceful protests by many who lived in the community showed a commitment to addressing some of the issues raised by Brown’s death: the low voter turnout and absence of black candidates on the municipal ballot; the lack of black police officers patrolling their community; the need for more local jobs and job training programs for the city’s young people.
Some Ferguson residents have said they are encouraged by the Department of Justice’s involvement in the Brown investigation and the announcement of an additional federal probe into policing practices in Ferguson, a move affirmed by the city’s leaders. National support can go a long way towards sustaining momentum.
As I left Ferguson in late August, I learned that city leaders had to postpone their council meeting, citing “increased interest from residents wishing to attend,” to give the city time to find a bigger venue. The meeting, held a month after Michael Brown’s death, was standing-room only and a parade of angry and frustrated residents took their leaders to task for three hours.
Sometimes, the first step towards change is taking a look at a person – or place – where that change has become possible. In Fairburn, many of the important people in my childhood world had black faces. Like my favorite librarian—a black man who, along with my mother, encouraged my love for books. I was in fourth grade when I had my first black teacher.
These things matter because they allow a group to understand what is possible for them. The fate of Fairburn is still possible for the people of Ferguson.
Errin Whack is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about culture and politics. She also serves as Vice President of Print for the National Association of Black Journalists. This article originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.