Blake Strode and Kayla Reed

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, and Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis

As leaders of organizations that are committed to racial justice and whose work seeks to counteract myriad forms of neglect, abuse, and systemic oppression in St. Louis, we are keenly interested in any plan that promises jobs, economic investment, and inclusive growth for our region. We believe what ails us most are longstanding problems of systemic racism, economic exploitation and exclusion, targeted disinvestment, and an inequitable concentration of power and resources. It is through this lens that we assess the draft STL 2030 Jobs Plan put forth by Greater St. Louis, Inc.

This Plan falls short in important ways.

A full, public, and inclusive exchange is required if we are going to disrupt the enduring pattern of regional decision-making and resource allocation by an elite few. In that spirit, we hope that these and other critiques will prompt substantive changes to both the Plan and the process surrounding its development. And perhaps, given all that follows, Greater St. Louis, Inc. should consider whether it is the right entity to be convening and leading this massive effort at all.

The entities behind the STL 2030 Plan should be forthcoming and transparent about their respective histories in this region, and the level of financial investment that has been or will be made in support of this plan.

For an economic and jobs plan of this scope to be effective and inclusive, it must also be fully honest and transparent. This includes honesty with respect to the problematic histories of many corporate entities in this region, and transparency about the financial investments secured or sought by Greater St. Louis, Inc. in support of the STL 2030 Plan.

How does Greater St. Louis, Inc. reconcile its stated mission of equity and inclusion with the history and impact of groups like Civic Progress on marginalized communities in the St. Louis region? What role has the corporate sector played in creating and perpetuating the disparities outlined in the STL 2030 Plan, and in what specific ways will Greater St. Louis, Inc. be different? How much money, in total, does Greater St. Louis, Inc. intend to commit to the implementation of this Plan? How much money has already been committed or pledged?

These are just a few questions that Greater St. Louis, Inc. and its partners should address publicly to begin building trust and establish a practice of transparency. 

The Plan’s treatment of “racial activism” in the St. Louis region is superficial and not representative of a robust and multifaceted sector of work and civic engagement.

The STL 2030 Plan takes the important step of naming the robust activism for racial justice (though it never quite uses this term) as one of the St. Louis region’s greatest assets. However, the critical work being done to expose the vast and varied manifestations of centuries of white supremacy cannot possibly be reduced to the handful of entities listed in the Plan: “[s]easoned organizations like Beyond Housing, newer entities like WEPOWER, The Opportunity Trust, and Invest STL and efforts like the Business and Community Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force organized by Civic Progress member companies…”

This list is as perplexing as it is insulting to the far broader array of individuals, organizations, campaigns, and coalitions working daily to combat historical and ongoing racism in housing, healthcare, criminal legal enforcement, education, jobs, environmental policies, democratic participation, and more. As Forward Through Ferguson noted in its critique, this characterization obscures the role of decentralized and grassroots protest across the region from 2014 to the present in naming and demanding an end to racist systems and practices. And, frankly, the conflation of racial justice activism with DEI efforts by Civic Progress gives the local corporate sector far more credit than it deserves. 

This is not a trivial point. The first half of the Plan spends a fair amount of space noting, rightly, that systemic racism is at the heart of our region’s economic challenges. But because it defines the scope of racial oppression—and the corresponding antiracist work in the region—too narrowly, it fails to offer strategies that measure up to the enormous task of simultaneously promoting growth and dismantling white supremacy. Instead, the plan offers only a halfhearted appeal to equity that is most concretely expressed in terms of Black and brown entrepreneurship. This is not even close to sufficient, and does not live up to the invaluable “racial activism” that the Plan purports to honor.

The Plan’s focus on programmatic initiatives obscures the need for systems and policy change as a critical means of achieving inclusive growth.

The outcomes will not change without a radical shift of fundamental conditions – mental models, policies, resources, and power dynamics between institutional leaders and impacted people. In other words, achieving a set of racially equitable economic outcomes demands a commitment to both programmatic initiatives and systemic changes that dismantle the fragmentation, structural racism, and extreme disinvestment that has led to the need for inclusive growth planning.

We know that jobs and economic growth are possible when equitable policies and systems-level shifts occur towards permanent solutions that prioritize people of color as beneficiaries. The STL 2030 Plan must have a holistic analysis and set of criteria that define “the right kind of” jobs and economic growth. The Plan currently lacks serious consideration of systemic solutions such as: 

● Guarantee of living wages;

● Equitable transit policies and investments;

● Opportunities for wealth building and democratic control of wealth for St. Louisans of color and Black residents of North St. Louis;

● Affordable housing that avoids displacement;

● Community benefits agreements that shift power to residents in the areas where developments are on the horizon;

● Investment in early childhood education so that parents and guardians, particularly women, are able to enter the workforce; and

● Disruption of tax abatements and TIFs that divert funds from public schools, which should serve as a core workforce pipeline.

The kind of transformational inclusive growth that our region needs and that communities of color deserve won’t be accomplished by programs alone but by a commitment to resource and support bold policy and systems-level change.

The Plan has no concrete pledge of financial resources to economically-distressed Black neighborhoods and communities, despite earlier proposals and commitments to do so.

Fundamentally, St. Louis has a resource allocation problem. Wealth and access to education, technology, and other economic catalysts are not absent; they are concentrated. This concentration of resources is at the core of the region’s racial disparities, the significance of which is widely recognized and well documented. However, this has not led to a consistent and substantial commitment of resources to majority-Black communities that experience the greatest economic hardship due to decades of exploitation and disinvestment.

Recognizing this as a core need for the region, the Ferguson Commission Report, released in 2015, called for creating “a 25-year managed fund to solely support regional racial equity infrastructure for all sectors.” The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Civic Progress were listed among a number of public and philanthropic entities as the “accountable bodies.” Despite public guarantees of funding for this initiative, the money was never provided.

This makes the “STL Inclusive Capital Initiative” in the 2030 Plan all the more dubious. The Plan states that this Initiative “will aggregate capital from families, corporations, universities and other investors to support critical elements of the STL 2030 Action Plan,” and do so by “deploying it in an evidence-driven manner in close collaboration with other public, private and civic institutions and stakeholders.” It is hard to understand this as anything other than Greater St. Louis, Inc. in an ongoing gatekeeping function with respect to money and resources in the region. This is not necessary or helpful. 

To truly transform economic conditions and processes, our focus should be on shifting resources to the areas of greatest need through direct transfers, participatory budgeting, and support for trusted partners on the ground. Anything less than this will simply maintain the status quo of wealth concentration and philanthropic control. 

There must be a strategy for Black-led implementation of the plan in order to disrupt historical patterns of marginalization and exclusion. 

Power lies in the ability to convene, to decide, and to implement. The STL 2030 Plan places a great deal of this power into the hands of Greater St. Louis, Inc. and its partners. Consider: 

● The creation of Greater St. Louis, Inc. itself, which the Plan says “will provide the leadership and stewardship needed to keep stakeholders focused on STL 2030 Jobs Plan’s larger mission and goals”;

● The “STL Pledge” seeking various commitments from major employers, which includes the note, “Greater St. Louis, Inc. will oversee the commitment process for the STL Pledge”;

● The STL Inclusive Capital Initiative, also stewarded by Greater St. Louis, Inc.;

● The Brickline Greenway project led by Great Rivers Greenway;

● The “Supply STL Initiative,” a proposed new intermediary to channel local purchasing power, which will “[i]nitially [be] launched within Greater St. Louis, Inc.”; and

● A “Talent Surge Fund” that appears to be loosely tied to the STL Pledge, which will “provide grants [of up to $500,000] for program expansion in high-demand fields… with an eye toward expanding the capacity, reach, diversity, inclusivity and success of proven solutions in the region.”

Many other proposals either do not specify a lead convener or implementer, or make vague reference to partnership with a range of entities including innovation districts like Cortex, philanthropic institutions and funders like the United Way and Opportunity Trust, financial institutions, and a range of higher education and professional development entities.

The Plan lacks a clear and intentional focus on grassroots, Black-led implementation as a critical strategy for achieving inclusive growth. If this effort is going to be any different than those that have come before it—and had disastrous effects on generations of poor and working-class Black St. Louisans, in particular—we cannot afford yet another project designed, directed, and implemented by the same unrepresentative circle of traditional corporate and civic leadership. There are models locally and across the country for more participatory, representative implementation.

The lack of a strategy for Black-led implementation is particularly troubling given that, as we have learned, the Acknowledgements section of the Plan overstates the involvement of several Black-led organizations and their Black and brown team members. This is not a helpful starting point for building the kind of inclusive process that the Plan promotes.

* * *

Our region is at an inflection point. If we are serious about achieving different outcomes for St. Louis, we have to do things differently in every aspect of our public and civic lives. To date, the STL 2030 Plan misses the mark. We encourage people to read other critiques and analyses of the Plan, including that of Forward Through Ferguson, and to engage with efforts like the People’s Plan, which sets forward a transformative vision for St. Louis.

Economic growth is possible, and needed, but can never again take priority over equity and justice.

Blake Strode is executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a holistic legal advocacy organization.

Kayla Reed is executive director of Action St. Louis, a grassroots racial justice organization.

David Dwight IV is executive director of Forward Through Ferguson, which advocates and builds capacity for racial equity in the St. Louis region.

Charli Cooksey is the CEO of WEPOWER, a community of Black and Latinx changemakers and entrepreneurs building political and economic power.

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(1) comment

ogel

Individuals who fail to recognize the critical and indispensable need for every person, regardless of his racial identity, to develop his individual God given character and skills through the achievement of education and/or training, but persists in placing the blame on others, should not refer to themselves as “leaders,” other than self-proclaimed.

You state that “what ails us most are longstanding problems of systemic racism, economic exploitation and exclusion, targeted disinvestment and an inequitable concentration of power and resources, etc.” You neglected to acknowledge any requirement for individual responsibility and accountability and any true leader would certainly acknowledge such as critical parts of the equation for any individual success, regardless of one's racial identity.

Some the descriptions and statements you used in your expressed condemnations, reflected a clear lack of knowledge on your part and false assumptions about all that is involved in some of the processes you described.

The STL 2030 Jobs Plan put forth by Greater St. Louis, Inc., is a sincere effort put forth by a large number of people who are genuinely interested in bringing about positive changes for the better. The organization is fairly new but the number of individuals involved is continuing to grow. Your active engagement in the process so as to collaborate and offer your ideas would have been more productive than your blanket, ill informed condemnation.

Effective leaders seek to engage and collaborate so as to achieve quick results. Pointing the fingers to criticize and condemn others serve little purpose in the absence of new and better proposed solutions. They strive to build alliances and consensus. They seek to motivate and inspire, not alienate because it is least productive. It is easy to focus on problems, but as a longstanding advocate of social justice, I ask that you follow up your commentary to share and highlight your own proposed solutions. Many would like to know what they are and might find them helpful.

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