When 26-year-old Lorenzo Davis lost his job recently, he knew he had to do some fast thinking. He sent a quick text message to Jamie Dennis, director of the Save Our Sons program with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
“The bills don’t pay themselves,” Davis said. “The fridge – empty. I didn’t have any food in the house, but Brother Dennis – him being the good-hearted person he is – he went to his house, picked some things out and delivered them straight to my doorstep.”
Dennis also told Davis to attend an orientation for the Save Our Sons program, a four-week job-training initiative for economically disadvantaged African-American men living in Ferguson and surrounding St. Louis County communities.
“Brother Dennis had the floor and was basically talking about what the young men had to do to be the leaders in the community,” Davis said. “He didn’t say fill out this application. I had to have patience. I changed my whole wardrobe. I’m working on my posture, my attitude.”
Now two weeks in, Davis already has job interviews lined up, he said, and is confident he will walk out of the program with employment.
Davis is among about 520 men who have participated in Save Our Sons since it was founded in January 2015. The program came out of a call that Michael McMillan, president and CEO of St. Louis’ Urban League, heard on the streets during the Ferguson unrest – after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police officer in August 2014.
One night in the streets of Ferguson, McMillan 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,” McMillan told The American in 2014. “I felt it in my skin. The struggle is real.”
During those conversations at Ground Zero, McMillan heard the young men on the street saying they needed jobs, he said, so Save Our Sons was born. In July 2017, McMillan and community leaders cut the ribbon on the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center that now houses the program. It’s a job training center built on the site of the burned-down QuikTrip convenience store, which was destroyed during the unrest.
“At a time when St. Louis was floundering and did not have a sense of direction because of the Ferguson incident, Michael came up with Save Our Sons,” said Michael Neidorff, chairman/CEO of Centene Corporation and chairman of the National Urban League. “He set up a program that gave youth the skillset and the reason to have hope for the future.”
On Saturday, September 29, McMillan will receive the 2018 Stellar Performer in Education Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala.
“Seldom do you have find someone with the competence of Michael, the skillset of Michael, the business acumen and the humility,” Neidorff said. “He is among the most humble individuals I’ve ever met and, at the same time, the most successful I’ve seen at leading a city in a socially responsible way to overcome issues and become the best they can be.”
Save Our Sons – along with Save Our Sisters, which was established last year – is just one of the educational programs offered at the Urban League. McMillan “runs a big operation,” said Keith Williamson, general counsel at Centene and board chair of the St. Louis Urban League chapter. McMillan oversees a staff of 225 and 13 locations that serve more than 100,000 individuals per year through 30 programs.
“Many of those programs impact education, starting with Head Start,” Williamson said. “Our programs not only focus on 672 young children, but start with their moms – with training classes while the moms are pregnant.”
The Urban League hosts a popular back-to-school expo in conjunction with the St. Louis Public Schools, he said, and offers many technical-training programs to help people get jobs and lead productive lives.
“Michael has been a true force for positive change in our community,” Williamson said. “I’ve had the pleasure to get to know his mother, Rita (McMillan), and it’s very obvious where some of his good qualities come from.”
Rita, a human resources consultant at Saint Louis University (SLU), said Michael has always had a passion for helping students, especially African-American children. As a junior and senior at Bishop DuBourg High School, Michael worked at Denny’s and used his tips – which were matched by Denny’s – to establish a scholarship for African-American students, Rita said.
“He’s always been giving and making sure everyone else has a seat at the table,” Rita said.
Michael himself earned enough scholarships – including one from the Urban League – to attend SLU and graduate debt-free, Rita said.
Celerstine Johnson, retired associate vice president at SLU, remembers when Michael began working for her as a freshman in the student education services office as a peer mentor.
“His job was to connect with students and help them make the adjustment to college,” Johnson said. “When I hired him, I didn’t realize what a gem I had.”
Though just an undergrad, he ended up strengthening the university’s peer counseling model, she said.
“He has a magnetic way of dealing with people,” Johnson said. “You want to do something to help him because he has that kind of personality.”
While still in college, he founded St. Louis’ Young Democrats and worked part-time for then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Michael was elected as the city’s 19th Ward alderman at 25 and became the youngest person to hold an aldermanic post. Then, at 35, he became the youngest St. Louisan ever elected citywide as license collector.
Michael joined the Urban League on his 16th birthday, and he has now been with the organization for 31 years. Last year, his birthday of July 26 landed on the first day of the annual National Urban League Conference, which was hosted in St. Louis – and became the largest convention in the national organization’s history.
These are all some of Michael’s proudest achievements, he said. He is also proud of being taught by the Jesuits to be “a man for others.”
“They also told us that really there are three days in life that are the most important to you: the day that you were born, the day you die, and the day that you realize your purpose on this earth and what the Lord has put you here to do,” Michael said. “In my opinion, my purpose is to help St. Louis, to help this community to try to move forward and to make St. Louis city the best city it can be.”
His leadership role at the Urban League allows him to push for this every single day.
“And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s with my community service, governmental service or not-for-profit service,” Michael said, “and I will always be committed to that because I think it’s most important for all of us to leave a legacy trying to give back and help humanity.”
Proceeds from the St. Louis American Foundation’s four annual Salute to Excellence events benefit community grants as well as scholarships for local minority students. In 2018 alone, the St. Louis American Foundation and its educational, corporate and individual supporters will foster a record-breaking $1 million in minority scholarships and community grants.
The 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 2018 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 314-533-8000.