Arrey Obenson, who has spent decades working to build economically and socially healthy communities in his native Cameroon, is bringing his experience as a lawyer, community leader, and immigrant to a new role: that of CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis.
He is succeeding Anna Crosslin, who has served as president and CEO of the Institute since 1978. Obenson has previously worked as co-founder and CEO of the consulting firm Transformunity, and has served as secretary general of Junior Chamber International, a St. Louis-based global youth leadership NGO.
Beginning Feb. 1, Obenson will be taking on the leadership of the Institute. This is at a time when the services provided, mostly centered around helping new immigrants and refugees settling in the St. Louis area, are needed more than ever. Many new immigrants are, for example, finding the language barriers they would already experience heightened by the fact that they cannot attend in-person English classes.
For those that are not yet U.S. citizens, stimulus checks were never delivered, and finding the jobs needed to retain visas is much more challenging as the job market shrinks.
The International Institute, which has been active in St. Louis since the 1930s, has had to adapt to the challenges of “broken communication channels” the coronavirus pandemic has caused, Obenson said. “The assistance that immigrants largely depended on is all slowed down. We’re finding creative ways to go around it, but it’s cumbersome.”
As Obenson pointed out, the most important aspect of successfully beginning life in a new country is integrating oneself into a supportive community. But the process of making friends and connections and constructing a support network in a foreign place during the time of COVID is a challenge compounded by the inability to safely spend time in-person with others outside the home.
While some of the International Institute’s volunteers and clients have found ways around this issue, such as holding outdoor English practice and communication via a text-blast system, other tasks are made much more difficult.
St. Louis, like many other Midwestern cities, has a shrinking population overall, but a fast-growing immigrant population, which helps offset some of the losses caused as many of its native-born young people leave.
As the Institute’s strategic plan puts it, “immigrant newcomers are essential if St. Louis and other Midwest regions are to achieve their full economic and social potential in a world economy, which now favors America’s coasts rather than its Heartland.”
St. Louis does, indeed, depend on immigrants to keep its economy going: according to Reuters, if not for the influx of 15,000 foreign-born residents who arrived here, St. Louis’s chronic population shrinkage would have been more than double the 10,000 recorded in that span.
For Obenson, encouraging immigrants and refugees to come to St. Louis isn’t the issue. It’s creating the infrastructure needed to convince them to stay. In 2019, Census data showed that St. Louis had the third-fastest-growing immigrant population in the United States.
“If we do not catch up to the speed that people come into the city, if we do not create opportunities … they’re going to move out. It’s one thing to have them coming in, but the next thing is: how do we make sure this talent stays here?” Obenson asked.
To do that, Obenson will have to use the community-mobilization and narrative-building skills he honed previously with Junior Chamber International. There, Obenson worked with young leaders across Africa and the Middle East to problem-solve and build resilience. He helps to use those community-building skills in making St. Louis a more immigrant-friendly space.
That goal is also informed by Obenson’s own experience coming to St. Louis in 2002.
“There are various things that you have to walk in the shoes of an immigrant to understand,” he said. For example, life in St. Louis can be economically challenging as a new immigrant.
In Obenson’s case, he struggled to find transportation from his home to his job in Chesterfield, given that he had no U.S. credit history with which to obtain an affordable car loan, and given St. Louis’ limited public transit network.
Through his work with the International Institute, Obenson plans to “change the narrative” around immigration by highlighting the centuries of immigrant history in the St. Louis area, and “build a community that has the capacity to embrace diversity.”