Social Activist Group: ‘We All Have To Be Leaders’

Aug 14, 2014

Cultural Leadership students (left to right) Mikal Smith, Ian Madden, Aaron Garriga and Ben Schenberg at the Little Rock National Historic Site Visitors Center in Little Rock, Ark., in 2013.
Cultural Leadership students (left to right) Mikal Smith, Ian Madden, Aaron Garriga and Ben Schenberg at the Little Rock National Historic Site Visitors Center in Little Rock, Ark., in 2013.
Credit Cultural Leadership

As Gov. Jay Nixon promised a change in the way law enforcement is being managed in Ferguson, Cultural Leadership alums and leaders see a need for action.

“Cultural Leadership was founded 10 years ago because people thought we had an issue with racial segregation and anti-semitism in St. Louis,” said Holly Ingraham, the group’s executive director. “I think it’s clear that we still have those issues today.”

Cultural Leadership is a social activist group that helps teens from different backgrounds understand each other’s cultures. When the group was founded, its primary goal was to promote understanding between African-American and Jewish high school students. Since then, it has expanded to include students of all faiths and ethnicities.

“What we saw 10 years ago with (Cultural Leadership) being founded and what we’re seeing today is that it’s still a problem,” said Cultural Leadership alum Wynn Hawker-Boehnke. “We can’t keep sitting back and saying ‘Oh, next time it will be better.’ ”

Hawker-Boehnke, Mikal Smith and other program alums participated in a community event Tuesday in Ferguson.

“We all have to be leaders,” Smith said. “Cultural Leadership trains us to get together, grab an ally or two because change, of course, is messy and you need allies to roll up your sleeves because it’s dirty — it’s a dirty job that you have to dig into.”

Ingraham believes the younger generation will lead the way through the turmoil in Ferguson.

“I think our young people understand diversity much better than we do as adults,” Ingraham said. “I think many adults are not sure what to do right now — they’re sitting back and listening, which is good, but we’re counting on our young folks to lead the way here.”

“Take a look at the modern civil rights movement as we know it with people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers and the Southern Leadership Christian Conference,” said Cultural Leadership alum Brian Hamilton. “Those were young people. A lot of that movement was led by young people. It’s not surprising to see the same kind of thing being done here.”

Ingraham said one of the most important skills Cultural Leadership students learn is to listen.

“We teach our students to stand up and speak out, and we’re seeing that” in Ferguson, Ingraham said. “We then teach our students how to dialogue: Not only how to create a safe space for people to talk about really tough and messy issues, like this one, but how to listen in that and be that good listener to create that safe space.

“We train our students to think about how could you bring attention to a situation. More often it’s been by writing and speaking out, but I think you’ll see many more young people taking to the streets (and) peaceful sit-ins.”

Rabbi Susan Talve, a member of Cultural Leadership’s advisory board, said familiar issues are getting attention in Ferguson.

“St. Louis has to stop racial profiling,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this for years. Enough. This means stop, because nobody feels safe.”

She also said the aggressive role police are taking has caused distrust.

“Police are there to protect us. They work for us. And I don’t think that’s the perception in the community of people of color. That needs to change,” she said.

Part of that change can come from residents, Ingraham said: “Be engaged. Please don’t sit on the sidelines, St. Louis. Get involved.”

“We can be the change,” Hawker-Boehnke said, echoing Ingraham’s sentiment. “Every one of us can make the impact, make it better.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.