Before the Ferguson unrest, Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, had never spent an hour in jail.
After trying to shut down Interstate 70 in an act of civil disobedience on Sept. 10, he spent eight hours in a cell alongside more than a dozen other protestors who demanded justice in the Michael Brown case.
McMillan had also never experienced the agony of tear gas. One night on the streets of Ferguson, he was talking with three young men about the Urban League’s programs when he saw a can fly through the air in their direction.
“The name ‘tear gas’ does not do it justice,” he said, cringing at the memory. “I felt it in my skin. The struggle is real.”
The Urban League will to do whatever it takes to support the community, he said, and they’re working hard to implement real solutions. Organization leaders heard the voices of the young men on the street saying they needed jobs, he said, and they created the Save Our Sons: Workforce Development Initiative. The four-week job-training program will help economically-disadvantaged African-American men living in Ferguson and surrounding St. Louis County communities find jobs and earn livable wages. The program will launch soon.
They also heard clergy members and residents who’ve asked for more assistance organizing, and they hired Marlon Lee as director of community organizing. Lee has been on the job for one hectic month.
McMillan wants the community to know that they will continue to adapt to their needs – and that the Urban League plans to be here for the “immediate and long term.”
“We will adjust our programs, policies and procedures to deal with what they need,” he said, “because the agency will only be successful by continuing to engage each generation and evolve with every single one of them.”
“We want them to know that they have a place there at the table with us,” he said. “That this organization is ready to embrace them, and we are looking to recruit them so they can become part of the Urban League movement. And their voices will be heard.”
The Save Our Sons program is an expansion of their already existing Workforce Investment Act program (WIA), a federally-funded initiative that has reached 6,000 local high school students. Save Our Sons will specifically reach out to young men between the ages of 21 and 40 and help them pass General Educational Development (GED) tests, receive workforce training and make sure they are well versed in financial literacy and leadership strategies.
The Save the Sons model isn’t much different from what they’ve already been doing with youth, starting at age 14, said Herta Shikapwashya, vice president of the Urban League’s youth services division.
The training sessions will include everything from public speaking and team-building to emergency financial preparation and health care. However, with this group, she imagines that case managers will be having more conversations on how to work through certain barriers, such as child care and warrants. Shikapwashya will oversee the program, and courses will be held in North St. Louis County locations.
Monsanto and Emerson each donated $200,000 to support the program’s launch and implementation.
Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund, said the initiative “will help meet some of the critical long-term development needs of young men in our community by empowering them to access services that will bridge the gap between their resources and their needs.”
As part of his duties as community organizing director, Lee will serve as a liaison for the initiative. Lee earned his bachelor’s in business administration from Harris-Stowe State University. He also sits on the board of directors of the 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis, Inc.
Lee was only on the job for six days when McMillan was arrested. The St. Louis American interviewed Lee moments before the I-70 protest began. He told the American that he was ready to go to jail that day. However, after before he knew it, McMillan was linking arms with other activists and marching towards the highway on-ramp. He was snatched up soon after. Lee didn’t end up going to jail.
He said, “Someone had to take care of the car and get him out of jail.”