Phoenix Coldon, 23, was last seen on Dec. 18, 2011, sitting in the driveway of her family’s St. Louis County home. Her mother, one of the last people to see her, thought Coldon had gone to the store. When she wasn’t home the next morning, Coldon’s mother reported her and her car missing. Coldon’s mother told HuffPost in 2012 that the disappearance was out of character and that the family had a hard time generating media coverage for the case.
Natalie Wilson remembers the first time she spoke to Coldon’s mother. Once they got off the phone, Wilson called every single news station in the St. Louis area, begging them to just show Coldon’s profile. “Every station,” Wilson told me. “Finally, one of them got tired of me calling and showed her profile. It’s an uphill battle.”
Wilson and her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, work to ensure black folks and other people of color reported missing don’t slip through the cracks. In 2008, the two founded the Black And Missing Foundation to help raise awareness around these cases and help families navigate police and the media ― two spaces that can be hostile for people of color.
During my conversation with Natalie for Women’s History Month, she explained how the organization navigates tensions between law enforcement and communities of color, how they deconstruct stereotypes of missing black folks and their families and the benefits of simply being there to offer support.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the genesis of your organization.
The Black and Missing Foundation was created in 2008. There was a young lady by the name of Tamika Huston who went missing from Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is Derrica’s hometown. We heard that her family struggled to get any type of media coverage for her disappearance. And, a little while later Natalee Holloway went missing. Her name and face dominated the news. So, Derrica and I decided to do some research to find out if this was an issue. “Are people of color disappearing, or is it just Caucasians who are disappearing?” Because they dominated the news.
We found that, at the time, 30 percent of all persons missing were of color. So we founded the organization.
Derrica is in law enforcement, and I’m in media relations. Those are the two critical professions needed to bring awareness to find our missing. Families desperately need our help. Many times when they contact us, they have nowhere to go. They don’t know what to do. We are their last resort. We are their last hope. So, we cannot let them down. We have to do everything that we can and channel our resources to help them find their missing loved one.
What makes your organization so powerful is that within the support you offer, there is that pushback against media coverage. Y’all say, “You need to cover it when people of color, when black people go missing. And, whenever you cover it, don’t just make it seem like this black teenager ran away.”
Many times when children of color are reported missing, they’re reported missing as a runaway. If you’re classified as a runaway, you do not receive the Amber Alert or any type of media coverage. Even if they did run away, we need to help them within 24 to 48 hours, because many of them are lured into sex trafficking. We need to understand what are they running away from, and ultimately what are they running to. We’re also finding that when people of color — men and women — are reported missing, they’re deemed to be involved with some type of criminal act, they’re stereotyped and their cases aren’t taken seriously.
How does your organization go about deconstructing these stereotypes that are placed onto black kids and other kids of color whenever they go missing — from a media perspective and within law enforcement?
We humanize that individual. The media is all about advertising, and the gatekeepers believe that their audience is people who look like them — meaning white male, white female. It’s assumed that they don’t want to see that or that that’s normal for what happens in that part of the community. But we try to humanize our missing individuals because they’re mothers and they’re fathers. They’re grandparents. They’re daughters, they’re sons, they’re grandchildren and they deserve to be found because they are important to their family. They’re important to our community.
What benefits of this organization have stood out to you?
The whole package. We’re bringing awareness to this issue. You’d be surprised when we go out in the community. Our communities don’t know that people of color are going missing at an alarming rate. Since our inception a little over 10 years ago, the number has increased to nearly 40 percent of all persons missing being of color. And the key here is reported missing because we believe that there are many, many more people of color who are not reported missing.
We help families from A through Z. Something as simple as filing a police report. Many times, they don’t know how to do it, or they go to the police department to file a police report, and a police officer says, “Well, your loved one may be on drugs,” or, “Your loved one may have walked away on their own. Just wait. They’ll come back.” No. You know your loved ones, and you know that that’s not their behavior.
I am curious as to how your organization navigates the tensions between these families of color and the police because as anyone who has ever filed a police report knows, it can be an absolutely terrible experience for a number of reasons.
Right. We do know that there’s a sense of distrust between the minority community and law enforcement. The good thing is Derrica has been a police officer, so she knows the lingo. We just had a case recently where she was talking to the family member of a young man who’s missing out of Las Vegas. She was telling them to go the police department and ask for a detective because a detective was not assigned to his case. She was telling them what they needed to ask.
And that’s what I do with the media. I prep people so they don’t come across as an angry black woman or angry black man because that’s the stereotype that we have in the media and you have to present yourself a certain way. I hate to say it, but these families are grieving, but they have to play that role so the audience can be sympathetic to their plight.
It’s really maddening that black people have to do that.
It is. And think about it: You’re missing a loved one, and you don’t know what happened. Then you have to file the police report and you’re treated badly. Then you’re trying to get media coverage and you can’t get that.
It’s very frustrating. That’s why we are advocates for these voiceless individuals and their families. Our role is to bridge the gap between law enforcement, the media and these families.
Why is it important for an organization like Black and Missing to exist?
It’s important for us to exist because we are the only nonprofit organization that is a voice for an often ignored group. They’re ignored by law enforcement. They’re ignored by the media, and they’re ignored by the community. We all have a role to help find our missing and bring awareness to their disappearance.
We’re there to hold their hand. Sometimes these families become our families, and sometimes we don’t have to say a word, and they just call and they cry. They scream. They are venting their frustration with the whole process to us, and that’s what we’re there to do. We’re there to help.
If not us, who will do it? We have the professions. We have the resources. We have the talent to help our community. We have to help.