Expert Roundtable: St. Louis Business & Political Leaders Sound Off on Socioeconomic Inequality

Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

4 honorees and a host of tonight’s NAACP Freedom Fund Leadership Dinner give their takes on the state of race relations and economic inequality in St. Louis County.

JOHN GASKIN

MEMBER, NAACP NATIONAL BOARD; CHAIRMAN, ST. LOUIS COUNTY NAACP FREEDOM FUND

You can’t separate civil rights from economics. I’ve seen that first-hand as Chairman of the St. Louis County NAACP Freedom Fund.

Back when my grandmother Esther Haywood first became Branch President, our chapter was broke. It was so broke we didn’t even have $750 to send delegates to the NAACP convention in Kansas City — she had to pay the fee out of her own pocket.

The NAACP is supposed to speak for the people who don’t have the money to get down to the capitol and speak for themselves. That’s hard to do when you yourself don’t have the funds to travel, run communications, and support causes and candidates.

But we realized the fight for civil rights is a fight for economic growth…so we grew. And we found allies in that cause — Companies like Monsanto, Emerson, Centene, and Anheuser Busch came to understand how our leadership in civil rights impacts their economic bottom line.

Now we need these businesses to step up and become civil rights leaders themselves. The last election set civil rights back considerably, and the new administration threatens to cut trillions of dollars from programs that help America’s most vulnerable, both in Missouri and across the U.S. We will be dealing with the consequences of that election for years to come.

It’s time for our organization to grow again. Civil rights are a whole lot different now than what they used to be. Things change with the times, and we have to change too: change the way that we communicate with the world, tell our story, and speak for people who would otherwise go unheard.

JASON HALL

MANAGING DIRECTOR, ARCH TO PARK COLLABORATIVE

That’s a crucial point. Everyone would agree that the NAACP has played a powerful role as a convener. In today’s era, we’ve conquered civil rights challenges, brought down the Jim Crow laws.

But the fact is, we’re still facing the structural consequences of that history of exclusion. We have new civil rights challenges that may not be as widely understood or apparent.

Just look at St. Louis: you can live five miles apart across two zip codes and have an 18-year difference in life expectancy. That is an economic development and civil rights issue.

We talk about attracting millennial talent to St. Louis, but it’s not enough that we merely grow as a city and as a region. We must also judge ourselves by who participates in that growth.

For instance, we often think of entrepreneurs as being almost synonymous with the tech community. In my role as an economic developer, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a broader group of entrepreneurs: it’s the small business owner on Main Street.

After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, we were there on the ground working with many of the small businesses that were impacted by civic unrest. We helped establish a small business relief fund and collaborative “hotline” to call for assistance on a wide range of business issues, providing quick access to capital and resources. It wasn’t a conventional economic development project like attracting new manufacturers or other businesses to the region, but it had a regional impact. One small business in Ferguson, Natalie’s Cakes & More, is now a regional supplier for Starbucks. I can’t wait to see what a driven entrepreneur like Natalie accomplishes as she pursues her dream and creates more jobs.

Inclusion is first and foremost a business issue. We need to recognize we’ve got a lot of talent right here. We need to give that talent the resources and support network they need to be successful.

KEN FRANKLIN

VICE-PRESIDENT, BI-STATE DEVELOPMENT

And it’s important to note that when we’re talking about inclusion, we’re talking fundamentally about opportunity. I think that’s one angle that, talking with John, this new NAACP is going to lead the fight for: inclusion of opportunity.

Most people don’t want a handout; they just want the chance to compete. But to have a chance to succeed, a person needs mentorship, training, and access to capital. These things don’t come together in a vacuum — they come together when people come together.

As Vice President of Bi-State Development, most people identify my work with transportation: MetroLink, the trains, and buses. In reality, Bi-State’s work goes way beyond that: it’s about solving the region’s problems and creating opportunity. Transportation is just, so to speak, how we get there.

With transit, we either move people to spend money or make money. That’s good economic development. But we also bring people together, especially, as Jason said, across those segregated neighborhoods. This contributes to a more diverse cultural, political, and economic pool of thought.

We need to stop thinking in terms of lines and sections of this region and think about the region as a whole. If we realize all of our strengths, all of our assets — that’s how St. Louis can truly compete on the global scale.

LAURNA GODWIN

OWNER/PRESIDENT, VECTOR COMMUNICATIONS

To me, transit is equity. As Ken said, it provides a level playing field for people who need to get to where the jobs are. But on the flipside, transit often brings out the worst in people, precisely because it’s not only a transportation issue, but a socioeconomic one.

When my company Vector Communications was working on the Metrolink extension to Clayton, it was a real challenge. At one public meeting, I was called the “N word.” At another, I was told by a citizen attending that “If you people are so desperate to be in Clayton then why don’t you just rent tour buses? Because we don’t want you living here.” St. Charles County pulled out of the expansion altogether.

It was ironic because these negative voices could be loudest even when they were in the minority. Low income people didn’t necessarily have time to attend a public meeting.

It’s like John said: the fight for civil rights is changing. We learned that it’s not enough to just hold a public meeting. At Vector, we go to where the people are. We attend marches and neighborhood meetings. We stand at bus stops and outside grocery stores. We do whatever we have to do to give people a voice.

GINA WALSH

SENATE MINORITY LEADER, MISSOURI STATE SENATE

Taking what Laurna said one step further, inclusive participation leads to inclusive lawmaking. Being Minority Leader in the Missouri Senate has shown me that leadership on these issues has to come from the bottom-up.

I’ve got one bill that would have allowed folks that were in domestic violence situations to take off work to go to court. If you are a victim of domestic violence, you have a hundred different roadblocks thrown in your way: something as simple as transportation could keep you trapped in a situation like that. Large business owners were fine with it, but folks in the Capitol who themselves owned small businesses in rural Missouri were the ones who shut it down. It’s unimaginably frustrating. But in situations like that, I take a deep breath and remind myself not to lose perspective — real change does happen, and when it does, it can impact folks’ lives for the better.

I had a conversation with my daughter last weekend. I put a sign in my yard about Right to Work and how it’s wrong for Missouri. My daughter said, “We can’t put that in our yard out where I live. The neighborhood association doesn’t allow it.”

I told my daughter: “You know, there was a federal lawsuit challenging that. Some people in North St. Louis County wouldn’t let realtors put up for-sale signs because they didn’t want African-Americans to see that there were homes for sale and move in. But guess what? Someone took that fight up to the Federal Court and they won. Now you can put up whatever sign you want.”

In this particular case and so many others, inclusivity was fought for from the bottom-up — by advocates who used the judicial system to push back against racism and exclusivity. The law needs to follow the people, but it can’t do that unless the people first stand up and speak out.

GASKIN:

This year, the St. Louis County NAACP is hosting our 81st Freedom Fund dinner. The event’s theme is “Rise Together” — and I think it’s a fitting call to action. It’s not enough to come together when the cameras are rolling or when something goes wrong. We need to live together, work together, and march together — with a steady beat.

Featured image credit: Ben Evans