By Jen Roberts, St. Louis Magazine | March 1, 2021
As the 2014 death of Michael Brown brought increased awareness of the inequities that exist in the United States, it also ignited an intentional, cohesive effort to make St. Louis a more equitable community where all residents have the opportunity to thrive.
In November 2014, then-Governor Jay Nixon appointed the Ferguson Commission to conduct a study of the “social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality, and safety in the St. Louis region.” The commission produced a report that provides a look at the region’s racial inequities and outlines 189 calls to action. Today, Forward Through Ferguson is working to tell the story of the region’s journey toward meeting those calls to action.
“It’s complex work that takes a combination of storytelling, community education, and community partnerships, as well as collaboration on supporting bipartisan bills and local campaigns,” says Faybra Hemphill, director of racial equity capacity. Forward Through Ferguson developed an action plan to guide their work with a target date of 2039—25 years after Brown’s death. They’ve established three action strategies: advocate for policy and systems change, build racial equity capacity, and sustain the work.
Local universities are also using research as a catalyst for change. In 2014, scholars at Washington University and Saint Louis University produced the “For the Sake of All” report, which examines the unequal distribution of health in the metropolitan area and explores the “transformative process of data and community collaboration to drive health equity.” The initiative has since evolved into Health Equity Works, housed at Washington University’s Brown School and led by report co-author Jason Purnell, who also serves as vice president of community health improvement for BJC HealthCare. The initiative is focused on how data can help drive meaningful change in the community.
FOCUS St. Louis also believes in the power of knowledge. The organization works to educate and connect leaders across all sectors, as well as to facilitate important conversations. “To be truly effective, leaders must look at the work they do and the decisions they make through the lens of equity,” says FOCUS St. Louis president/CEO Dr. Yemi Akande-Bartsch. “They have to examine their own biases and get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.” Teaching leaders how to do this work is a key component of the FOCUS Impact Fellows program.
Likewise, the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative partners with area companies to build diversity and inclusion programs. Nearly 400 professionals have graduated from its Initiative Fellows Program, a yearlong leadership program that teaches best practices in professional development, building relationships, and civic engagement.
With more than 4,000 members of color, the Regional Business Council’s Young Professionals Network is the region’s most sweeping network for the next generation of leaders.
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis fulfills its mission of working to “empower African-Americans and others throughout the region in securing economic self-reliance, social equality, and civil rights” in a variety of ways, including utility, food, and clothing assistance and such programs as Save Our Sons and Serving Our Streets. The Save Our Sons program helps African-American men find jobs that will provide a livable wage. The nonprofit hosts a four-week job-training program that teaches participants how to find and keep a job, get promoted, and remain marketable in the workplace. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization found a way to help, hosting a series of socially distant open-air hiring events at the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. Instead of a typical sprawling career fair, small groups of qualified candidates met with staffing companies and community partners. Serving Our Streets is an initiative aimed at reducing violent crime in St. Louis through community outreach and engagement with people who live in high-poverty areas. The program recently received a $1 million federal grant that provides the financial support to expand into four more neighborhoods.
The St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective at BioSTL works to ensure that a person’s race or gender does not determine success as an entrepreneur. A grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2016 enabled the collective to host an equity summit, which sparked pilot solutions to help make the entrepreneurship ecosystem more equitable. Today, more than 400 members are working to build equitable opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Based near BioSTL, in Cortex, WePower’s Elevate/Elevar accelerator strives to build equity by providing Black and Latinx founders with access to capital, a co-working space, training, advising, and other key resources. The 2020 cohort, for instance, included St. Louisans who are working to build burgeoning businesses, nonprofits, and community programs.
The St. Louis Promise Zone works to create a “more equitable and thriving region through radical collaboration, alignment, and intentional, strategic investment in our most disadvantaged communities.” The Promise Zone serves a population of 193,842 in 25 different ZIP codes spanning seven school districts by increasing economic activity, reducing crime, improving educational outcomes, improving health and wellness, increasing workforce readiness, and creating sustainable mixed-income communities.
Each of the goals of the St. Louis Promise Zone aligns with the calls to action in the Ferguson Commission Report, creating a comprehensive approach to working toward a more equitable region.
“The Promise is a reminder of the residents and community leaders in North St. Louis, who are examples of resilience and hope. It is also our promise to those residents. It is up to us, as a region, to ensure current and future opportunities reach across race, class, municipal, and political boundaries,” says executive director Erica Henderson, who works with more than 100 partners to provide services to underserved neighborhoods.
Henderson also oversees the Small Business Resource Program, which has provided zero-interest loans to a number of local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The individuals working to make St. Louis a more equitable region speak with optimism and hope for the future.
“People now, in 2020, are much more willing to have conversations that acknowledge racial inequity exists in St. Louis. Five years ago, people were hesitant about that conversation. People are willing to reckon with the real history of the St. Louis region and how systemic racism has had a very unique sort of cocktail here,” says Hemphill.
“People are more willing to learn and talk about that and deal with the ways in which they have either benefited from that over time or the ways in which they have been marginalized. That’s some of the hardest parts of the work when you talk about…the capacity to really change.”
FG TRADE GETTY IMAGES / ST. LOUIS MAGAZINE | Engineer using tablet in factory