Young Professionals Urge Others To ‘Step Up’ In Their Communities

Aug 12, 2014

Last week, St. Louis Public Radio held a panel discussion with local young professionals about fostering community engagement and activism.
Last week, St. Louis Public Radio held a panel discussion with local young professionals about fostering community engagement and activism.
Credit St. Louis Public Radio

A number of young professionals are changing St. Louis in positive ways. But these days, it’s difficult to start any conversation without talking about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the protests and police presence that remain in Ferguson.

“It makes me nervous,” said Jason Wilson, who owns Chronicle Coffee Co. and Northwest Coffee Roasting Co. “This situation makes me nervous because I’ve been seeing this all of my life — situations like this. I have two young black males that I’m raising, 6 and 4. The one thing I don’t want them to be involved in is to fall victim to a situation like this.”

Sunday’s looting and arson along Florissant Avenue in Ferguson prompted a stronger police presence Monday night.

“I hate to see people destroying and rioting in that manner, but I do understand the significance and what it means,” Wilson said. “Rioting is a form of vocalizing how you feel.”

Wilson pointed to riots in Egypt that helped change the country’s government.

“When you’re oppressed and you lack resources and your hands are tied, people will come together and they rise up and they overthrow, and that’s kind of what this situation is,” he said. “They’re not looking to overthrow, I don’t think, but they’re looking to make some changes, to get people’s attention and have this dialogue that’s overdue.”

“This is not just a St. Louis problem, this is an American problem,” said Randy Vines, co-owner of STL-Style. “This is an American cultural problem dating back centuries. No community in the country is immune to the potential of something like this erupting.”

Alderman Scott Ogilvie agreed: “It isn’t, to some degree, relevant that this is an incident that happened in St. Louis County because I think it highlights the fact that this really is a regional issue,” he said.

“This can be a teaching moment,” Randy Vines said. “Some very positive changes can occur as a result of these awful, horrible, tragic events.”

Building St. Louis

Every story has its start, and every St. Louisan, at some point, makes a decision to stay or move away. For twins Randy and Jeff Vines, that decision was made long ago.

“I think we can trace it back to when our dad took us around his old neighborhood on the north side,” said Jeff Vines. “He would point out where he lived, where his grandparents lived, where his grandfather’s store was. He talked about the old streetcar line and all the places they used to walk to at all hours. It kind of painted a picture of an ideal urban environment — who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

The Vines said they’ve always been proud of their St. Louis heritage and the city. That’s one reason they decided to open their business, STL-Style, on Cherokee Street.

“As a small independent business, we really feel strongly about … giving back to a neighborhood that needs us more,” said Randy Vines of the store’s location. “We’re inspired by the grittiness and the unpolishedness of Cherokee Street. There’s a palpable energy there, and you can tell people are really passionate about it.”

Ogilvie got involved in St. Louis politics because “I thought I could do a better job than the person who preceded me,” he said. Ogilvie was elected to St. Louis’ Board of Aldermen in 2011. “National politics is all about left/right and ideology, and local politics, I think, is much more about communicating with voters, to residents; ideas; service; and also thinking ... about what works in an urban environment.”

For Rosa Mayer, the decision to stay in St. Louis came after the decision to move to St. Louis from New York. A job with a nonprofit brought her to the city, but it was what she found here that made her want to stay.

“I just loved that in St. Louis, there was a problem and we’re just going to figure out how to solve it, no matter what,” she said.

After her job ended, Mayer wrote to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, sharing her background and asking who she should talk to about jobs so she could stay in the city. She ended up working with T-REX, a tech and digital design startup incubator, before moving to LaunchCode.

“I feel like people stick their necks out here,” she said. “I’ve been embraced by this community.”

Wilson began opening coffee shops to “provide confidence in the community.”

“The one thing they say we lack in the north side of St. Louis is places for community engagement, and places that are healthy for dialogue,” he said. “I want to make sure we provide a place for that.”

Does St. Louis Have An Inferiority Complex?

While many people have said the St. Louis area is great, they may not be shouting it from rooftops, especially in light of demonstrations and turmoil taking place this week in Ferguson.

“Unfortunately, I think St. Louis bears the brunt of negative press more often than it does positive,” Jeff Vines said. “If the Ferguson tragedy is an example of all that is broken in the region, I really think that the progress happening in places like Cherokee Street Street and the Grove and so many others … is a display of all that is working in St. Louis.”

“St. Louis has an inferiority complex much the same as Detroit and Cleveland and Baltimore and Pittsburgh and these other rust belt cities that once reached a level of prominence and have since fallen from grace,” his brother said. “When the people who live here are constantly inundated with reminders that we’re not what we used to be, it kind of wears on our collective consciousness in a way that manifests itself as an inferiority complex.”

Randy Vines said he believes that attitude has changed over the last 10 to 15 years, though, and more people are taking pride in and bragging about the city.

Perhaps, as Ogilvie suggested, St. Louisans don’t know how to tell the city’s story.

“St. Louis, as long as I’ve lived here, has always seemed like a place with a lot of opportunity and a lot of potential, and a place where maybe we don’t communicate those opportunities and that potential as well as we should,” he said.

Like Ogilvie, Jonathan Goldford of Launch St. Louis, which helps nonprofits create young leadership boards, sees a lot of opportunity for young adults in St. Louis.

“I’m constantly blown away not only by the potential, but the energy that young people are bringing to the table now,” Goldford said.

St. Louis’ Challenges

Without a doubt, there are several challenges for St. Louis and St. Louisans.

“There (are) economic disparities and education disparities in a swath of the city that’s densely populated with black Americans,” Wilson said. “St. Louis is constantly growing, but the north side of St. Louis is still looking worse than Beirut.”

Ogilvie wants to tackle suburban sprawl: “If we could take the whole region and give it a hug and squeeze it together a little more closely, I think that we would be really one of the premier places in the entire country,” he said.

The Vines brothers cited “misguided priorities.”

“We need to make the north-south Metro line a priority for the region,” Jeff Vines said. “If streets and neighborhoods are the veins of the city, then transit is the blood that flows through them. We need to reconnect some of these divisions that we’ve created over the last 60 years.”

Hope, Promise And Optimism

Even through criticisms, a sense of optimism flowed through these young professionals, who offered advice to others seeking ways to get involved in their communities.

“It’s on us to make the future better,” Mayer said. “Step up, and whatever you’re passionate about and angry about, make your voice heard.”

Wilson echoed her sentiment: “Middle-class black America, step up your game.”

“Come together in a unified, solidarity effort to reunite our region and everyone in it,” Randy Vines said. “Stop trying to make excuses for the shortcomings that face this region, and embrace our imperfections and use them as teaching moments.”

“We’re one of America’s great cities,” Jeff Vines said. “We have that legacy to always build and strive for.”

While encouraging young voters to get to the polls, especially in local elections, Ogilvie said there are many other opportunities to get involved politically. “Change can be slow,” he said, “but it never happens unless you start kind of pushing the wheel. You gotta try.”

“If you’re a young person looking to get involved, go for it,” Goldford said. “Make sure it’s something you’re really passionate about.”

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.