When Pamela Fergus set up the online fund-raising campaign Philando Feeds the Children, she initially set a $5,000 goal. She thought that was a pretty bold ask.
“I thought it was just ridiculous to think that me and a few college students could actually wrangle that kind of money,” said Fergus, a professor in Minnesota.
Money collected through the site would help pay off the lunch debts at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Philando Castile had worked before he was killed in a police shooting. And when Fergus presented the project to her diversity and ethics class at Metropolitan State University, the students were pretty excited about it.
Before long, it became clear that the $5,000 goal wasn’t bold. It was low.
“I never imagined it as anything more than a project for this semester, this class and that school,” Fergus said. “And once my students took it on, by the time that website was a week old, there was already $17,000 in it. And then the next Sunday, when it was two weeks old, there was $50,000 in it.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Philando Feeds the Children had collected more than $80,000, money that will be used to help not only the students at J.J. Hill, but other local schools as well.
“We actually have enough money now to pay off all of the schools in the St. Paul public school district,” Fergus said. “So all of the grade schools, all of the middle schools and all of the high schools. Plus more. I mean, we’re still making money.”
So what started as an online fund-raising project is now looking to become an official charity, one that will work with a foundation to keep the effort going for schools in the state, according to Fergus.
“I don’t think there’s an end in sight. I want a million dollars in that account,” she said. “That’s my goal. I want a million dollars.”
Castile, 32, was shot by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop in Minnesota. The fatal encounter came amid a larger national conversation about use of force by law enforcement and garnered widespread attention. Castile’s girlfriend used Facebook to broadcast the aftermath over social media.
Before his death, Castile worked at J.J. Hill, managing the cafeteria. He was known as a warm and gentle person, who learned students’ names and got to know them. Fergus said she has spoken with Castile’s mother, who discussed Castile and his job.
“She said that every day on his way home from his job at school, he would call her and talk about those kids,” she said.
The idea for the fund-raising effort started bubbling in the summer, when a string of events happened around the same time, said Fergus. There was the anniversary of Castile’s death. Around that time, the officer who was involved in the shooting was acquitted.
There was so much unrest surrounding the shooting and acquittal, she said. And Castile’s birthday fell in the same stretch, too. Also, Fergus watched dashcam video of the shooting, a viewing that left her devastated.
“I remember just sobbing and getting really nauseated and thinking that there needs to be a way that people who think this is wrong, wrong, wrong can identify each other,” she said.
First, she made buttons with Castile’s face on them. And she met members of Castile’s family, and told them she wanted to do something. As Fergus prepared to return to the classroom, she thought about the kids in the school where Castile worked. She remembered a previous effort in the state to help children pay off school lunch debt.
“And I thought that would be kind of a cool thing to give my diversity class to do as a project,” she said. “Let’s raise the money to pay off the lunch debt for Philando’s school.”
Fergus is a professor at Inver Hills Community College, and also teaches diversity and ethics at Metropolitan State University, a public school in Minnesota. Her Metro State students are supposed to complete a diversity project — attend an event or put themselves in an environment that is different from what they’d normally experience. Fergus has tried to push students toward activities in which they give back, she said.
“For them, it was just a social media push. They were told that they’re not allowed to collect money,” Fergus said. “They’re not allowed to take a check or take cash or anything like that. They just need to get on Facebook and get on Twitter and get on Instagram, and all those other things, and push this website, talk about it with people. So that’s all it’s been.” Which hasn’t been hard, really: Fergus said she can’t get them off their phones anyway.
Some of the students have been so motivated and determined, she said, mentioning one who wants to bring the effort to a television personality. (“She’s kind of a mover and a shaker,” Fergus said.)
“I think it’s going to last, I think it’s going to go really far,” Fergus said. “Well, it has gone really far.”