SLM’s new bi-weekly Solutions newsletter takes an in-depth, ongoing look at five key issues impacting the region: fairness, growth, education, sustainability, and safety. Below are just a handful of people doing important work in these areas. Keep in mind that these areas aren’t mutually exclusive—many of these leaders are working toward solutions across a range of issues. Along those lines, there are also elected officials—mayors, county executives, and legislators—working to address all five areas, which are in myriad ways interconnected. And there are difference makers in other areas—from the arts to fashion, media to medicine, dining to development, fashion to philanthropists—driving positive change in ways large and small.
COURTESY OF THE BELIEVE PROJECTS
Julius B. Anthony
Julius B. Anthony
FOUNDER/PRESIDENT, ST. LOUIS BLACK AUTHORS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
What changes have you witnessed through your work with St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature? What we have done in this country is really render many children invisible in the learning process, and we said that that’s OK—and that’s not OK. And then we wonder why they don’t do well in school. The Believe Project [literacy spaces within schools that serve prekindergarten through third grade] creates these spaces where literacy is the pathway for them to connect, to not just reading, but to the school experience. We collaborate with a lot of local literacy-based organizations, and we encourage them to purchase our authors’ books as part of their programs. That’s a huge shift in this whole literacy community here in St. Louis, and had we not shown up and existed, that would not have happened. Now people are having that conversation. Schools had already started trying to have the conversation after Ferguson, but there was no outside catalyst pushing it.
What work still needs to be done? We’re already in a position to scale up, but we don’t have the human capacity. That’s our short-term goal. Long-term goal is to become national. Period. The whole idea of education being a pathway to a better life is not a new one for Black children. It is actually the oldest dream in the Black experience in this country…When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are the manifestation of that dream…We have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to create, to be innovative enough with whatever it is that we have, to move that dream forward until it is fulfilled.
What changes have you witnessed through your work with WEPOWER? We’re a super fast-growing community of hundreds of folks, and we’re starting to see ways that thriving entrepreneurs and prepared leaders can work together to push for our systems to really transform. We are seeing a shift in our demographics in this country. Pretty soon, we will be a majority people of color country…I don’t think it’s a coincidence that voting and voter suppression is at an all-time high because there are deliberate efforts being had to make sure that everyday Black and brown folks aren’t able to exercise their political power.
What work still needs to be done? I’m really excited about what’s possible with this emerging demographic and population, but it also means that we have to be very intentional to protect the rights of everyday people because there are targeted efforts to decrease and deny folks of the power they should have the right to exercise, whether that’s at the ballot box, whether [that’s] the power to send your kid to a quality school, or whether that’s the right to the economic resources at your job to pay your bills to provide for your family.
MANAGING DIRECTOR, UMSL’s DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION ACCELERATOR
What changes have you witnessed through your work with UMSL’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Accelerator? When our founders succeed, we all succeed as a region because it strengthens and improves our community… It’s just what’s happening, and we’re starting to see people get on board. I think in the next two to five years, there will continue to be positive growth in our region, and it’s because of investment. Investment in these founders of color is a big game-changer for our entire region, and I’m so glad people are starting to take notice.
What work still needs to be done? We need more hand-raisers. We need more funding because we want to fund more founders, but we can only do that with more resources—i.e., more finances. Be a customer, be a client to some of these founders coming out of the program. Be a connector—introduce them to investors, introduce them to people that they wouldn’t have been able to get in front of before. Be a resource for them. Take it a step further. Don’t just clap and say, “This is great,” but really sit and think about how can you personally support them.
LANCE OMAR THURMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF INVEST STL
What changes have you witnessed through your work with Invest STL? In St. Louis, we have a really rich ecosystem of community development organizations and practitioners, but we don’t really have a central thesis that we’re all operating from. Having Invest STL provides the space and the table for us to shape what that could be, to create the roadmap, the way that we do the work, [and] the signs of equitable transformation that we’re looking for.
What work still needs to be done? We are seeing a shift and some momentum toward investing in Black neighborhoods, investing in organizing at the neighborhood level, [and] investing in Black-led organizations. I think we’re starting to see more openness to it, but I think that there’s further to go in being able to actually realize the dollars in the support going toward that effort in a real way—that is supportive of neighborhood-led transformation, versus using the typical playbook of external actors driving change.
What remains is how far people will be willing to go, how much they’ll be willing to live up to and invest in many different ways in the words that they’re starting to use and the phrases that they’re starting to use. The next challenge is getting people to honor the ideals that they’re starting to adopt.
FOUNDER, SANKOFA UNITY CENTER
Seals has showed up at schools and handed St. Louis youth their own obituaries. He isn’t trying to be morbid; he wants to stop life-ending violence by making teens understand the consequences: “I don’t want to leave any kid behind.” He’s mentored more than 6,000 young men. “We teach them how to do drywall; we teach them how to do plumbing. We have them write letters to their unborn child,” says Seals, who makes himself available to St. Louis youth 24 hours a day. “They can call me at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “If they need me, I’m there.” With a team of nearly 70 volunteers, the organization has made a significant impact in the Walnut Park West and East neighborhoods. He hopes that more people will start listening to youth. “Just imagine a kid, 7 years old, searching for happiness. How can you have happiness when the mother and father are on crack cocaine? How can you have peace if the household is messed up? How can you be happy if you’re not eating? There is an unheard cry,” he says, “and people need to start listening.”
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ORGANIZATION FOR BLACK STRUGGLE
This year, the human rights coalition that Rogers helped start four decades ago has been part of a statewide movement that collected more than 350,000 signatures to get Medicaid expansion on the August statewide ballot. The organization has helped raise funds for Missouri inmates to stay in contact with family and legal advisers while incarcerated, and it’s raised awareness of the toll that COVID-19 has taken on Black communities. “You have to be grounded in the community and the issues, and you have to push those issues in the most powerful and profound ways,” Rogers says. “I think the fact that we’re still here after 40 years means that we’ve done something right.”
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, METROPOLITAN ST. LOUIS EQUAL HOUSING AND OPPORTUNITY COUNCIL
According to the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, every American has a right to secure housing without discrimination. Jordan has spent nearly 20 years with the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council working to make that right a local reality. In a city where life expectancy is strongly correlated with ZIP code, he wants to see people either be able to change their ZIP code or change the circumstances within it. Jordan has collaborated with community banks to develop credit products for underserved populations, offering legal counsel to those facing discrimination and securing affordable housing in redeveloping areas. “Home ownership is the biggest wealth-building tool most Americans have,” Jordan says. “It should be preeminent in St. Louis, because the housing stock is strong and opportune.”
COURTESY OF MAXINE CLARK
FOUNDER, DELMAR DIVINE
One day while driving, Clark took a wrong turn. The Build-A-Bear founder, who left the company in 2013 to focus on her work improving public education, found herself at a vacant building. It was once the St. Luke’s Hospital on Delmar…and there was a “for sale” sign. Now Clark is on track to open Delmar Divine—the name a take on the Delmar Divide—in that space in fall 2021. The $100 million mixed-use project will feature both a nonprofit hub and 150 affordably priced apartments to support community development and improvement. “I know how much talent exists in this community,” she says, “and I know that we have a great future ahead of us if we just unlock that talent.”
“We’re all in the same boat. Some may be in the front, some may be in the back, but whatever happens to that boat happens to all of us. We’re all going in the same direction… [We should be] concerned about the welfare of everyone—not that everyone will end up in the same position but [instead] that everyone should have the opportunity to live their best lives.”
DIRECTOR, SAVE OUR SONS
As the region fell into the throes of a global pandemic, Dennis helped the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis coordinate a drive-thru distribution of food and essential items for families in need. His usual focus on the Urban League’s Save Our Sons program, a career training initiative for economically disadvantaged Black men, seemed to be on hold, but all of that time spent outside gave Dennis an idea for how to continue Save Our Sons’ core mission despite the pandemic: a series of socially distant open-air hiring events at the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. Instead of a typical sprawling career fair, Dennis helped organize small groups of qualified candidates to meet with staffing companies and community partners.
LEADER, MUTUAL AID NETWORK
When the pandemic began, Ho says, “it became obvious that all the problems that already existed in our community were going to get worse.” The Mutual Aid Network spans more than 1,000 people who support one another by providing supplies, funds, and emotional support. “It’s easy to feel powerless by everything that’s happening,” says Ho, “but there’s always something you can do.”
King regularly brings people together to have authentic conversations as part of Our Community Listens. “We teach an interpersonal class that allows people to learn who they are in the world and how they can create connection with others who may be different,” says King, who served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years. Students range from nonprofit directors to CEOs, ages 19 to 75. King says the classes “ignite this human-to-human connection.” Her advice: People should work to find things they have in common with others instead of differences. “Then listen to that person,” King says. “Allow them to share, and don’t justify or argue. Just listen and learn from their experiences.”
KEVIN A. ROBERTS
“The region would be better prepared to weather a pandemic by expanding health care and accessibility to health care resources, bridging the digital divide, improving public transportation, and improving job opportunities… We would have to make a significant investment in health care; place facilities and resources in underserved communities; fund public transportation at a higher rate; and make a conscious and consistent decision to value diversity and inclusion at the governmental, corporate, business, civic, and philanthropic levels in order to remove the barriers.”
PRESIDENT AND CEO
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ELEVATE ST. LOUIS
Bell knows the power of candid conversation. The program partners with schools to provide underserved students with long-term support and guidance. Asked what he believes could help move the region forward, Bell challenges local media outlets to shine a light on efforts to engage in courageous, difficult conversations. “Everyday people like me are talking about systemic racism and discrimination in mixed company,” he says. “My sense is that most in our region aren’t aware that many of their neighbors are creating the grace and space needed for one another to work through feelings, ideas, and thoughts about the racial disparities. I’m seeing firsthand that trust and love emerges when a person is afforded the opportunity to work through their ignorance instead of being shouted down for it… I am seeing more common ground created. More attention placed here may help St. Louisans develop the courage to share, listen, and act.”
FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ST. LOUIS PROMISE ZONE
As the former executive director of the St. Louis Promise Zone, Henderson worked with more than 100 partners to provide services to a 60-square-mile portion of North City and North County. She also oversaw the Small Business Resource Program, which provided zero-interest loans to local businesses during the pandemic. “We can already see the impact that the lack of adequate health care has had during the pandemic in our economically undervalued communities,” she says, “and we know that if we improve our educational institutions, children will have more opportunities to be upwardly mobile, getting jobs at companies that have benefits.”
COURTESY OF ARCH CITY DEFENDERS
“We have a choice to make,” Strode recently wrote in an essay titled “Our Crisis” that was posted on Medium.com. “We can deepen our crisis by doubling down on failed systems and racist policies, or we can respond to it by transforming our public institutions and investments to recognize the fundamental humanity and dignity of Black people in a way that America never has before. We should choose wisely, because it will determine whether this crisis, our crisis, becomes an artifact of history, or a harbinger of an even more deeply troubled future.”
Dr. Marcus Howard
After moving away to earn a Ph.D. and teach, Howard, who grew up on St. Louis’ north side, always knew he wanted to return home. But he wanted a comeback with purpose. Now, Howard has it: launching a Black-owned pharmacy and wellness center to provide culturally competent health care, scheduled to open in summer/fall 2021. African-Americans here are disproportionately affected by conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Black-owned pharmacies provide services like genetic testing, medication education, and weight loss programs to improve health outcomes. “It’s specific things that focus on what communities of color are experiencing,” Howard says. “[At a chain pharmacy], you walk up, you get your medicine, and you walk away. For communities of color, that’s not enough.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN A. ROBERTS
Davis’ largest and most prominent work to date, Pillars of the Valley, is an essential part of the Brickline Greenway, just outside CITYPARK. The series of pillars honor the once-thriving Mill Creek Valley neighborhood and preserve the legacy of its 20,000-plus residents, who were displaced by the city in 1959. Davis, who is a musician and filmmaker in addition to a visual artist, says his work boils down to stories and problems. “I’m trying to solve problems, whether they be internal or external, and I’m trying to tell stories,” he says. “You start to think, Maybe if I look at the world in a different lens, I might have more control over changing it than I thought.”
PRESIDENT/CEO, REGIONAL ARTS COMMISSION
On what she wishes people understood about the arts in St. Louis: “What I’m calling ‘intratourism.’ If you live in North County, you have to make your way on down to South County. What creatives are doing in this community, all over, is absolutely outstanding.”
On other leaders she looks to: “We have an amazing number of women leaders across industries and sectors. So I will admit I look to the ladies first, whether it’s Penny Pennington at Edward Jones, Mayor [Tishaura] Jones, Congresswoman [Cori] Bush—that has been a consistent experience for me in St. Louis, the wonderful women leaders.”