Ferguson: Broken trust and the urgency of equal opportunity

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have been on the minds of many of us at the Department of Education. Secretary Duncan addressed the topic in a staff-wide email just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Because of the importance of the topic, we are posting his email below.

Dear Colleagues,

Like many of you, I have been troubled by the death of Michael Brown, the tragic loss to his family and his community, and what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, over recent months and over the past 36 hours.

We come to work at this agency each day because we believe in the world that is possible when equity and justice and peace and opportunity are a reality in the lives of our communities and our young people.  Thus, it is especially difficult to watch the scenes of violence and unrest in Ferguson.  Evident in those scenes is a broken trust that exists within communities well beyond Missouri, between people – particularly those of color – and the official institutions that are there to serve them.

I must stress that nonviolence is the most powerful strategy and the only path to a real solution.  What we are seeing in Ferguson speaks to some important and deep issues that won’t be resolved just by bringing quiet to the streets there.

For our young people to succeed, they have to be connected, to know that they have a stake, to have opportunities open to them, to trust in our legal system, and trust that the adults and society around them have their best interests at heart.  I worry when young people may have lost their trust in our system of laws and democracy, and become disconnected – from adults, from society, from school, and from the police.  I believe that this alienation, lack of trust, and disconnect is how we start to lose some of our young people, especially in communities of color.  I believe it is our job as adults to do everything we can to rebuild that trust – in Ferguson and throughout the country.

Solving those problems and setting communities on a path to trust isn’t a quick fix.  Relationships are built – or damaged – over time.  We should take away from Ferguson that we need a conversation to rebuild those relationships, throughout the country, and that need is urgent.  It needs to involve everyone – our young people, our parents, our schools, our faith communities, our government officials, and the police.  It needs to happen now.

Moving that conversation forward is part of the work that so many of us do – and in fact, for many of us, it’s the reason for it.  We are together in that effort, and it has never been more important.  Thanks for what you do every day to advance opportunity, cohesion, understanding, trust, and justice.

Finally, as you gather with your families and in your communities for Thanksgiving, let’s all be thankful for our many blessings and hopeful that we can get to a place where all of America’s children feel they have an equal opportunity to succeed in life thanks to a great education, a rewarding job, and the caring of adults around them.

Best wishes,



  1. Violence in America has become endemic, yet our leaders — public and private, like Al Sharpton — have failed to rise up against the violence that caused the death of young students like Shamiya Adams. Our leaders puff up their chests, hold preannounced meetings of high-ranking public and private leaders, and make public pronouncements to further their political agendas, but they don’t take a public stand against the common violence that wracks our communities, especially low-income communities. Why is that? As Mr. Keith notes herein, we need more than words, Secretary Duncan.

  2. The call for reform of American education is not new. Foundations and the federal government have made efforts tom”level the playing field” for poverty schools and students of color. The economic inequality and resulting social unrest continues to build. It will take a restructuring of traditional methods of discipline, instruction, and assessment to build a system that closes the achievement gap in our schools. This system will challenge the “way we have always done things” and those groups who have benefitted from the traditional system must be willing to let go of their privilege so all children have the opportunity to learn and reach high levels of attainment. Are we brave enough?

  3. Arne, and you are located right here in DC, if this is how you really feel then, my team would first like a sit down with you and yours on how we first rebuild trust in our own backyard right here in our Nations Capital. Believe it or not, behind closed doors, we are in no better shape than Ferguson! In short, I have personally sent your administration emails, phone calls etc, to no avail. We wish to examine ways on how we can better our communities which should become as an example for others to follow. Someone from your office should contact me ASAP!

  4. Thank you Secretary Duncan for addressing what is going on in Ferguson and all across the country. We need more than a conversation, we need systematic change in the way communities of color are policed. We need to move away from “top down” policing to community policing where the community and police departments work together by utilizing nonviolent solutions to problems like what occured when Michael Brown was initially pulled over by Officer Wilson.
    The larger issue is poverty, underfunded schools, lack of jobs, and lack of healthcare in communities like Ferguson. As long as there is a lack of investment in these areas in communities of color, we will continue to face issues like what happened in Ferguson. The U.S. government must commit to greater investment in education, healthcare, economic development in order to address these issues. We need concrete policies and solutions not just dialogue.

  5. This was a very timely message. Perhaps we should consider also focusing efforts on helping Americans understand that their voice can be heard at various levels (community, city, state, federal). It seems that in our internet age, where so much attention is focused on going “viral,” we sometimes overlook the fact that there are very practical, though lower key, ways to voice opinions, before frustration boils over. Members of a community should be able to come together and express their concerns to make change within those communities. That’s why civic understanding and education is so important – because it helps people realize their own influence on their own communities!

  6. Glad to see this message coming out from Secretary Duncan just at the right time. Many thanks to Arne for being fully aware of the problem and much appreciation to his thoughts and ideas for an effective, reasonable and realistic solution. Racism and violence need every one of us to take them seriously and become actively involved for a happy ending to these two social epidemics. Let me add my voice to Arne’s and ask every American to educate themselves, their families and communities about the danger of racism and violence to our country and to the whole world. Let me also stress the importance of education in this particular area as we, in our Bridges Program, always say: ” Education is the Solution”.

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