Jason Purnell

Before the Ferguson uprising exposed to the world the race-based inequities in the St. Louis region, there was For the Sake of All, a research project based at Washington University with an admirably simple, yet profound and visionary, mission: “We work to improve the health of all people by eliminating racial inequities that stifle our region’s growth.” There is a very powerful argument packed into that mission statement. The argument is that the health and wellbeing of African Americans in the St. Louis region should matter to more than just black people. The premise is that we should work to improve the life conditions and health outcomes of black people, not only for black people, but for the sake of all.

After the shocking electoral college victory of Donald Trump, this kind of inclusive and holistic thinking already feels like a throwback. Trump, and the nonstop media coverage of Trump, has given unprecedented airing of white nationalist views that are the antithesis of For the Sake of All’s mission. The idea that it would benefit white people if black people were provided with better economic opportunities and experienced improved health outcomes would be laughed off the stage at a Trump rally. The next American president has chosen as his top domestic advisor Stephen Bannon, the publisher of a news site, Breitbart, that normalizes white nationalism. For years Breitbart had as one of its news categories “Black Crime.” That’s about as far from the thinking behind For the Sake of All as one can get, but that’s the voice that has the ear of the president who will succeed Barack Obama.

Jason Q. Purnell, director of For the Sake of All and a professor at the Brown School at Washington University, told those who attended the Parents As Teachers national conference in St. Louis this year that we are ready to move from research to practice in improving racial inequities, and we need to start early. “There are effective interventions,” Purnell said. “We know what to do. We just have to marshal the will to do it, and that includes political will and financial support and all things that go into robust support for children.” And yet we all know, after the November 8 election, that we can expect less and less government support for inclusive, forward-thinking strategies that attempt to invest in young, black children rather than demonize and incarcerate black people who commit crimes.

Donald Trump may have won Missouri by 20 points, and Missouri state government may now be led by Republicans who, for the most part, share his divisive and reactionary thinking about this country and what is needed to make it “great again.” But we know that Jason Q. Purnell and For the Sake of All are right where these Republicans are wrong. It might have been politically successful in this toxic election year to sell hate, fear and division, but the constructive way forward is exactly the opposite. It is better that we do what For the Sake of All is trying to do:  work together to improve the health of all people by eliminating racial inequities that stifle our region’s – and nation’s – growth.

We published an essay by Purnell in November 2014, when Ferguson was still on fire. He remembered what Martin Luther King Jr. said as a young organizer mustering activists to work together on a bus boycott in Montgomery and applied it to the activists energized by Ferguson. “We have the choice to ‘stick together,’ as a 26-year-old King encouraged the crowd to do that December of 1955, or to fall apart,” Purnell wrote. “They walked for 381 days in Montgomery. It will take the energy of youth and the wisdom of our shared history to continue the long march toward freedom in 2014.” The march toward freedom is even longer and more perilous as 2016 ends then it was in November 2014, but we must gather all of the enlightened and “stick together” as we fight for the sake of all. For his prescient vision, solid evidence-based data and the sane steadiness of his mission, we celebrate Jason Q. Purnell as the St. Louis American’s 2016 Person of the Year.       

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