For the past year, St. Louis Public Radio producer Erin Williams has covered regional race matters, diversity and culture as part of an inaugural fellowship made possible, in part, by a grant from the Public Policy Research Center.
Her last day is today, October 18, 2013, and we wish her well as she continues her journalism career.
Williams' commentary about her one year in St. Louis as well as her conversation with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh appear below:
When I first arrived in St. Louis, I’ll have to admit – I was kind of like a bull in a china shop.
I had spent over two years focused on print journalism and had relegated my degree in broadcasting to a once-a-week volunteer producer gig at a small but mighty radio station. I enjoyed and had learned a lot in my current job, but was dying to do more of my reporting from behind a microphone. So when this opportunity came along – the chance to take an inaugural position and craft it into something new and insightful – I ran with it.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to run very far when you literally don’t know where you’re going. It seemed that the Maps app on my phone and I had become best friends in a matter of days, and I still found myself taking the wrong exits whenever I had to travel somewhere outside of the UMSL offices.
I had only been here for a few weeks when I had a meeting with Don Suggs, the editor in chief of the St. Louis American. I figured with his history in the city and seasoned perspective on life, he’d have a lot of insight to offer me. And he did. We talked everything from art to aging, and as I got ready to leave, he left me with a gem of a quote: “Make good use of your time – there’s a lot to be done here.” Looking back I don’t quite know what in particular he was focusing on, but it empowered me. I took those words, printed them to a sign that I taped at my desk, and got to work.
I entered in to my position with a reformed focus to plug into the ideas of every type of Saint Louisan. What’s the under 40 crowd thinking? What about the immigrant population? What ideas are lying just below the surface whose time has come?
I took advantage of my outsider status and plugged in to the events and ideas that attracted me the most. For me, it was arts and culture. I quickly saw that Saint Louisans were expressing themselves vividly through song, dance, the written word, and onstage. In fact, it was this focus that helped me find ‘Real Life,’ the play written by East St. Louis native Joel King about his rough days growing up across the river, as well as the Missouri Immigrant Refugee Advocate organization, or MIRA, that was hosting its annual art show. So far, so good – but I needed to do more.
A lot of my great ideas were fielded to me by my colleague Rachel Lippmann, who would come back from weekly Board of Aldermen meetings with just enough of a story idea for me to run with. That’s how I found out about Kathy Hall, the first female Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America – who was forced to hide her identity because of her race.
That was a shocker. But it helped me to hit my stride.
Tapping back into my fondness for and experience in covering the performing arts, I was turned on to a new venue down on what has become one of my favorite neighborhoods, Cherokee Street. Blank Space is more than just a name left to interpretation – it’s a place that, by trial and error, is hoping to do it all for the community – and still be a cool place to hang. Soon after that I became acquainted with Tef Poe – a rapper who works hard and, in today’s classic ‘jack of all trades’ fashion, is also a blogger and social activist. To me, he stands for the future of St. Louis: ambitious, honest, and ready to make waves despite the critics.
If creativity is brimming in South City, than change for the better is the motto that I’ve observed in North St. Louis. Within that region are people who are excited to offer up a piece of history and bring their neighbors basic events that others might not think twice about: a farmers market with live music every week, a sit-down diner-style restaurant, a garden of sweet potatoes for youth to harvest and cook and – the most ubiquitous idea of them all – a regular, everyday coffee shop. From Covenant Blu to Old North, these citizens are demonstrating that they don’t need permission to provide a quality of life for themselves that they deserve.
When I decided to focus on a story, I tried to remember to bring to it the spirit of Margaret Bush Wilson, the late civil rights lawyer who helped make my fellowship possible. I hate that I never got the chance to meet her, but I know that she had fire, she had passion, and she didn’t tolerate ignorance. She loved and believed in St. Louis, and saw opportunity where others saw tension.
I have had an unforgettable year here, and am grateful for every encounter from every person I’ve met. There’s a lot of opportunity in this city, and I hope the work that I’ve done is helping to leave it better than I found it.
St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh spoke with Erin about her time in St. Louis.
"I think St. Louis has a lot more to offer than it is marketed for," said Williams. "There’s so much moving beyond the surface of what people can see."