We are St. Louis
Here’s what I’m going to need us to do, St. Louis. I’m going to need us to take a good strong look in the mirror and make a decision.
I get that national politics are in a dramatic state of flux, I get that global warming is real, I get that the rash of celebrity deaths has blown everyone’s mind. But this isn’t about anyone or anything else. This is about us.
There are a ton of cliches I could use; about people in glass houses, about starting with your own closet — they all come down to the same idea: we’ve got to fix us, we’ve got to strengthen and heal us before we can grow.
Not dramatic. See all of the numbers about everything over the past xx years. Sorry.
In short? I’m asking us to claim this as our rock bottom, and I’m asking us to treat the Spring elections as though our life depends on them. Because it does.
Dramatic? For some, probably; but for many, long overdue. Herein lies the crux of our largest obstacle.
It was a quick trip to Chicago last week that triggered all of this in my brain. My feelings about Chicago have always been in reflection to St. Louis and NYC but this trip, driving through many different parts of the city, I found myself really looking at Chicago. Chicago has racism, Chicago (and the state in which it resides) has governmental issues, Chicago has issues with public education, no one would dispute that Chicago has issues with crime. But Chicago has not lost half its population over the past 50 years.
St. Louis has lost half of its population over the past 50 years. Half. Take that loss of population and spread it out across 28 wards.
My frame of thinking took a huge shift. First, what are we actually doing if we’re not doing it together, collectively, equitably and in alignment with each other — which I’ve always been deeply invested in but now see with more clarity and urgency. Second, the solutions and disparities and opportunities we’ve been strategizing and working on — how are they sustainable if not enough people want to live here?
Yes, many cities have the same issues we do. And we are infinitely more at risk for these same problems because of who we are.
There are some great, nationally recognized things happening in this city. There is growth happening in this city. This city is laden with opportunity. For some of us.
Those same things described above, to some, are a constant reminder of what is not for them or accessible to them. Those same things described above, absent equal attention to our deficits, double down on our weaknesses.
That disconnect is what is killing us. The more some successes are lauded, financed, prioritized and doubled down on while other plans languish, don’t get made or are ignored — or even worse, thrown symbolic scraps — the more vulnerable and damaged we become.
Let me say this another way: this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. This is about consistent outcomes that we cannot debate away. It is about our inability to accept that the problems some of us face are problems for all of us and to act accordingly.
This disconnect plays itself out in all the ways we see and grapple with its symptoms: our schools, our transportation, our justice system, our crime, our regional growth, etc. The root cause of each of our symptoms is our refusal to act as one city and work together on behalf of us all.
Acting as one does not call upon us to give the same to everyone. It does not call upon us to be more charitable to those in need. This calls upon us to focus first and directly on the part of us that is most vulnerable and most at risk. It calls us to act in ways that are sustainable, regenerative and systemic. This — and only this — will make us whole and return parts of us to full thriving mode so that we can collectively become stronger and grow.
The damage and lost gains wrapped up in this disconnect — this inability to solve for us as an “us” — is what I reference when I say “rock bottom.” In order for any of the awesome things happening here to take off, in order for the great systems-level social entrepreneurship breakthroughs occurring here to benefit St. Louis, we need. To. Grow.
We need the people who are already in this city to be able to thrive and grow their neighborhoods and families. If that can’t happen, more people will not choose to build their lives and families here. Without that shift, we are on a hamster wheel. Without more people staying, growing, thriving and investing here, this shift does not happen for St. Louis in a way that matches our potential.
Why is this more critical for St. Louis than for other cities? Why should St. Louis be expected to figure out what the country is far from figuring out? Why is now a pivotal moment?
All together now: St. Louis is deeply and uniquely divided. From the history of the state in which it resides to the reality of its 28 wards that don’t map to its myriad neighborhoods; healing and wholeness are not possible without acknowledging our well documented separatist reality. That’s all without even bringing in racial segregation. That’s leaving St. Louis County out of this for now (start the healing from within — healthy partners make healthier relationships!). Our lines divide and conquer our ability to scale and maximize solutions and investments. “Best Practices” come here to be obliterated.
Racial segregation is in our bones. The number of supreme court cases that have to do with race that originate or move through St. Louis is no mistake. We took over two decades years to adhere to Brown v. Board (school desegregation) and ultimately only did so under threat of the creation of a unified district. We are also so paralyzed by the disparities and disconnect between our black and white citizens that our understanding of equity is myopic and exclusionary of our immigrant communities. I know there are a bunch of people who don’t think this is a problem anymore. Unfortunately, no set of regional outcomes exist to support this belief — not to mention the lived experience of many people of color who have lived in or had experience with St. Louis.
The cycle of awareness in the wake of Michael Brown, Jr’s death opened a door. The national momentum fed the local momentum in a feedback loop. While some are still narrowly focused on the symptom of citizen-law enforcement relations (which is critical), the continued energy has held the space to widen the conversation to root causes of structural inequity and systemic racism. Locally, we have a growing population of people at varying levels of power and influence who understand these concepts and acutely what it means for St. Louis in the context of the two points above. This is why we are at a turning point.
Anyone who’s been around St. Louis for decades, working in politics, social services, civic infrastructure, race relations, can tell you that there’s always been a thirst for systemic change. There have always been efforts and momentum and they come and they go. They go because those who are leading, pushing, and stretching get tired, get blocked, don’t get supported, and/or leave.
What we have on our hands now is a movement — in concert with what’s happening nationally, but so very uniquely our own (see: everything above) and so very critical to our ability to grow.
That is both our opportunity and our risk.
It is a movement because a critical mass of people are leading, pushing, stretching and aligning. The level of emotional and intellectual investment, awareness, knowledge of St. Louis history and complexity, systems thinking, compassion, passion and empathy that are necessary to have the type of impact and momentum that is in motion is intense.
These people and this intensity are the only way forward through to the wholeness and healing that must take place in order to turn the tide on the decades of outcomes that are synonymous with St. Louis — to shift and change the default experience that people have with our city for generations to come.
And this is what brings us to the Spring elections.
Nothing is more systemic than policy and the way in which our city runs. In addition to the opportunity to elect a new mayor, as of this writing, there will be races in 9 of the aldermanic wards (only odd are up this year). These campaigns, the issues raised and how they are framed, the public’s engagement, how we hold our press and leadership accountable — this is a litmus test for whether or not we are ready for a new version of ourselves.
Should the next four months be business as usual, the part of us who’ve seen so clearly what’s at stake will be forced to consider that St. Louis is not capable of change. The people leading, stretching and pushing will be faced with what it means to pour what it takes into a city that isn’t interested in healing and growing.
Yes, people always come and go and come in and out of engagement. This will be different. To lose who and how and what has come together over the past few years would be falling off the wagon in the most devastating of ways.
Some of us won’t realize anything has happened. Some of us will consider it par for the course. Some of us will mourn the type of break-up where you know you’ve left everything on the table, but also know that to stay would have been an act of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results). We’ll know that breaking up was what we had to do to preserve our own ability to stretch and grow and thrive.
So back to that mirror and that pivot point and these elections. On behalf of all of the parts of this body that make up this amazingly beautiful, complex, segregated, stubborn, brick city dripping with potential; let’s take a long hard look in the mirror and be the type of brutally honest that turns everything around.
Don’t just see certain parts of the city in the mirror. Stare long, hard, and deep at the reflection of the city as a whole. That’s who we are. That’s us. That’s we.
We’re broken. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s dangerous.
So is changing, but the alternative to not changing is scarier, harder, and leads to more pain and brokenness.
We inherited a lot of this. It’s not all our fault but seeing it and not doing everything in our power to change it is 200% on us.
Most importantly, we’re worth it, and we’ve got what it takes; more so than most places in this country. We have more positive within our grasp than we do negative but we have to decide to take hold of it. We have to commit to us. All the parts of us.
So what do I practically mean? This is the part where I am expected to list out specific action steps. But honestly, what I’ve learned to be true over the past two years is that when talking about change of this magnitude it is less about what and more about how. In order to see the shifts that would make St. Louis whole, we have to be different. Only that will trigger the specific action steps that make the most sense to you. Adopting a frame of commitment to the healing and growth of all the parts that make up St. Louis is a great place to start. Here are some other thoughts:
Learn about the history of this awesome city. Yes, the past is the past. And, you cannot accurately treat for an ailment without a proper diagnosis. Understanding what we’re working with will make us better at using our energy efficiently to get us well.
Find some people or organizations who deal with local policy and follow/support/learn from/amplify them. This election season is going to bring them out of the woodwork. Who is writing articles or blog posts about proposed policy and how things are run? Who is holding candidate forums? Who is attending hearings and public meetings and asking questions? There’s always an element of doing your own homework and deciding where you stand for yourself — I’m not advocating following blindly, but you just might find your way to a solid bandwagon or two.
Get involved in St. Louis elections. Whether it’s an aldermanic race in your ward or an issue on the general ballot, find a lens through which to learn and explore all the details and sides of things. At a minimum, hold those asking for your vote accountable to all of St. Louis and what their commitment is to making sure it heals and grows. Don’t limit your engagement to the folks running — watch and ask and hold accountable all elected officials as the issues of this Spring’s election are debated and discussed.
Learn about systemic and institutional racism. This is different stuff than individual acts of racism. It is about policy and law and how it intersects with opportunity for people based on race. It is not about black and white. It’s about the “ruling class” and “everyone else.” If you don’t believe this is an important aspect, think of it like going to a professional development course for how to interact with and recruit a target audience that’s important to your business. Buy it or not, it’s critical understanding to live up to a commitment of being part of the “us” of St. Louis’ whole.
Talk to people about their experiences and real issues. Many of us were taught not to talk about money and politics in polite circles. More than ever, we need to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about the details.
As for me, I’ve decided that I’m going into 2017 with this frame of density and growth. My conversations and work and personal experiences have led me to the opinion that people don’t stay in/move to the city because “schools” (I use quotes because that’s code for many things), because of “safety” (more quotes on purpose) and because of segregation and racism (no quotes needed). To me, the conceptual strategy is education equity and integration of neighborhoods (which of course has roots in systemic racism). The practical strategy is how we equitably and in partnership with those already living there grow our low-density/ high-poverty neighborhoods sustainably and systematically.
There are some best practice public safety basics where St. Louis needs attention, but if we are not turning the tide on the environments that statistically align with high crime outcomes we’re not changing anything. This means schools that aren’t “chosen” (more quotes!) by families but default, free of many of the policies and practices that statistically align with the school to prison pipeline, and neighborhoods that are connected and self-sufficient. Poverty rates in high-poverty neighborhoods are outpacing growth in our rebounding neighborhoods.
Sorry, I know. More facts. I’ll stop.
That’s how I’m doubling down on us in 2017. How about you?
PS: All you non-city folks reading this are not off the hook ;). What does your backyard look like and how does the success of the region’s center impact your future?