On Sunday, October 4, 1992, when I was 16 years old, my brother Charles was murdered around the corner from my grandparents’ house. He was visiting one of his elementary school classmates. Two young men, motivated by beef with his classmate’s elder brother, entered the home and shot everyone present: my brother, his friend, his friend’s brother and the grandmother they lived with.
At the time, I was leader of a community service group for young black teens from across the city. They filled my living room to welcome and console me as brothers when I came home from school the next day. In that moment of loss, I needed that reminder that I was loved by other people, appreciated before the tragedy and surrounded by a community of support.
Right now, as gun violence takes away their sisters and brothers, St. Louis’ children are traumatized and grief-stricken with loss, looking around for loving support. How will we answer?
Last month, my nine-year old son, Mason, went to St. Louis City Hall with more than 160 kindergarten through fifth grade scholars from our Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools to ask city leaders to do something. Michael, a 15-year old in University City, born into a youth ministry I led, reached out to me Sunday because he feels God calling him to respond to the violence. My son, Starsky, is a student at McKinley Leadership Academy, with two teens shot last week near a football game.
They all want something to be done about gun violence in our streets. And while it may calm their immediate anxieties to have someone held accountable, more than anything else they need to know that someone cares and is willing to be present alongside them. Their teachers, school administrators, ministers and community social workers are doing their best.
They don’t need press conferences by elected officials to publicly shame or deflect responsibility to neighbors around them. These young people need city leaders to invest in ongoing, proactive supports for them and their thriving. They need a manifest expression of commitment to their well-being. They need to know this city loves them, appreciated them before the tragedy and will surround them with supports.
St. Louis’ demonstrated commitment to children must begin where all public priorities begin: Room 200 of City Hall in the Office of the Mayor. In the context of this emergency, there are three actions Mayor Lyda Krewson can take to demonstrate caring support for our children and youth that will not further criminalize them and their communities.
First, she should staff and fund the role of “Commissioner of Youth Services” called for in the St. Louis City Charter. In a candidate forum at Saint Louis University before the 2016 election, I asked then-Alderwoman Krewson whether she would take this step. She said, “Yes.” The position is currently (and perennially) vacant.
The Youth Services Division under the leadership of said commissioner is called by charter to “Convene meetings, maintain liaison and encourage cooperation between all agencies; public and private dealing with youths in St. Louis; provide information on year-round youth needs and youth programs; serve as referral agency for utilization of voluntary services; serve as a fundraising catalyst to augment usual resources applied to youth activities; accept private gifts and federal grants; promote public awareness of problems of youths and encourage development of possible solutions for their problems; and seek to eliminate duplication of effort and funds in youth service agency through coordination and communication.”
Second, she should reconvene the Mayor’s Commission on Children Youth and Families. Shortly after her election in 2016, I went to Room 200. On the agenda were racial equity and child well-being (although the first part of the meeting ended up de-briefing the session she had just completed asking for more funding for what she perceived as a shortage of police). I asked if she had reviewed the recommendations and staff memos from Mayor’s Slay’s previous Commission for Children, Youth and Families. Perhaps understandable for such an early visit, at that point she had not.
The commission was the gathering place for child service providers, philanthropies, school administrators and city officials (with the presence and participation of the mayor) to work through tough issues. It was at that table that the first regional plan for youth and gun violence prevention was crafted in 2012. I asked privately and followed up with staff and the office regularly for the continuity of this body. As yet, it does not appear. But, I wonder if it were still gathered what may have been in place this summer for the children who were lost to violence and those desperate enough to commit it.
Finally, Mayor Krewson can actually fully fund the CURE Violence initiative with a $1.5 million allocation. Deaconess Foundation’s partners in the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression have done a remarkable job investigating and socializing the concept. It was their work that our Freedom School Scholars were building upon in their July visits. I’m glad to see the $500,00 allocation. But, as the mayor knows, adequate funding to pilot the model in two neighborhoods is $1.2 to $1.5 million. Perhaps the recent generosity of her campaign donors can be extended for this purpose.
Of course, most answers to limited investment in children and youth are the same: “We don’t have the money. How will we pay for it?” Here, again, I rely on old conversations. If the mayor would close and divest from the Medium Security Institution (the Workhouse), she could invest the $16 million saved into health and human service efforts like these.
Let’s use the arms of city government to gather around and support our grieving children. Madame Mayor, won’t you lead us?
Rev. Dr. Starsky D. Wilson is president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation and board chair for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Deaconess Foundation and the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being pursues child well-being through public policy and racial equity. Follow him at @revdrstarsky and @deaconessfound.