Turan Mullins, assistant dean for diversity & inclusion at Maryville University

Bank executive Bill Bayer grew up in a white middle-class neighborhood in Sunset Hills and attended private Catholic schools.

“My understanding of race was embarrassingly limited,” said Bayer, director of syndications & new business initiatives for U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation. “I grew up thinking Abraham Lincoln had basically made racism illegal after the Civil War. Sure there were still some bad people who were racist, but not many.”

He thought that he lived in a mostly fair and unbiased country, where everyone was getting fair access to quality education and health care, he said.

“I feel like I don’t even know that person anymore,” Bayer said.

Bayer was among the first graduating class of FOCUS St. Louis’ Impact Fellow program, who celebrated their graduation on January 25 at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. As part of the ceremony, the graduates presented their group projects to address specific issues in the region. The three groups used the Ferguson Commission’s report and calls to action as a guidepost for their 10 months of work.

Bayer’s group presented the Catalyst Circle, which is basically an outline for a 12-session “book club” for people who want to learn more about racial equity. The sessions walk participants through the history of racism in St. Louis through suggested articles, videos and books for each meeting time.

Bayer said his understanding radically changed three years ago when he attended an intense three-day anti-bias and anti-racism workshop, hosted by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training and City Garden Montessori School. Being in his community developer role, his boss thought the training would be helpful. There he learned statistics that he never had heard before – including that a person born in Clayton lives 18 years longer than a person born in the Jeff VanderLou area.

Missy Kelley, president and CEO of Downtown STL Inc., said her story was identical to Bayer’s just “substitute St. Charles for Sunset Hills.”

While the Ferguson unrest concerned her, she didn’t know how to talk about the topic, she said. 

“I didn’t even know if you should say African American or black,” she said. “How could I have a conversation if I couldn’t use the right words?”

Kelley said the book club model is a safe introduction for people who want to educate themselves about racial inequities but don’t know where to start.

Turan Mullins, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Maryville University, said he hopes the resource helps to bring change in the region.

“Without the history of what it has been, you can’t envision what we can be,” Mullins said.

The next group of graduates tackled racial gaps in income. In 2014, the St. Louis Metro economy would have been $15.6 billion larger if there had been no racial gaps in income, according to their research. For their project, the group felt they needed to narrow their scope to truly be impactful, so they focused on the construction industry.

The St. Louis Metro construction industry could account for $400 million more in GDP if there were no racial gaps in industry employment and wages.

“That’s real opportunity we are leaving on the table,” said Katie Carpenter, program manager for COCABiz.

The group outlined ways to encourage recruitment and retention of minority apprentices.

And the final group looked at how to break the school-to-prison pipeline. At the graduation, they asked the audience how many of them had been suspended for writing on a desk, fighting or other minor offenses. Few raised their hands.

They explained that although black children make up only 17 percent of K-3 students in Missouri, they received almost 70 percent of all out of school suspensions in the 2013-14 school year.

“Young students who are expelled or suspended are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure, hold negative school attitudes and face incarceration,” said Cassandra Ray Brown, director of finance at the St. Louis Zoo.

The gap between the suspension rates between black and white students in Missouri public schools is the widest in the nation.

“This was something that struck our group, and this was something that we knew we had to tackle,” she said.

The group created a multimedia campaign to address racial inequity in school discipline, and resources are available on the FOCUS Impact website. They also partnered with local organizations to bring superintendents, parents and community members together in a regional school assembly to talk about the issue.

FOCUS Impact Fellows Director Felicia Pulliam said she was proud of the work that the first graduating class had accomplished.

“After 11 months of walking through the struggle of centuries of oppression and systems of segregation, history hiding in plain sight, more blood in the streets, the swelling discontent both social and political, our call became even more apparent,” Pulliam said. “The Impact fellows dug deep. St. Louis is a traumatized community that needs to focus on its healing.”

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