Town hall meetings tackle issues of inequality, social justice in East St. Louis
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
The East St. Louis chapter of the NAACP has launched a virtual series of town hall meetings geared toward addressing inequalities faced by Black communities across the nation and in East St. Louis.
The first meeting, on business and economic sustainability, was Sunday night.
The series, titled “Call for Change: Eliminating Systemic Racism in Pursuit of Justice and Equality,” is the second phase of the chapter’s initiative to bring more attention to and provide solutions for injustices that residents in East St. Louis experience.
The virtual town hall meetings will run over the next seven weeks and focus on the following themes: business and economic sustainability, education, criminal justice reform, healthcare initiatives and voters rights & political representation.
“Like millions of the people across the country, they are fed up and tired of the conditions and situations happening in this country, especially since the death of George Floyd,” chapter president Stanley Franklin said to begin the meeting. “There were hundreds of cities that protested because of the unjust criminal justice system. During this global pandemic, the world began to see things a little bit clearer, how unjust this criminal justice system is for Blacks and people of color. Black people aren’t happy with the things going on in their communities and they have protested all over the country.”
Franklin said the the first meeting was intended to address concerns of business owners around the East St. Louis community.
Panelists for the meeting included Black business owners and consultants in the East St. Louis and the metro-east, including Lorenzo Savage, co-founder of I AM East St. Louis, the Magazine; Kourtney Teat, owner of Teat Funeral Chapel in Fairview Heights; Robert Bonner, owner of Save-A-Lot grocery store in East St. Louis and Grand Marais Golf Course in Centreville; Willy Mason, owner of Mason’s Landscaping in East St. Louis; Richard Weathers, comptroller and retired colonel at Scott Air Force Base and Todd Gilyard, project director of the Minority Business Development Agency in St. Louis.
Discussion was mainly based on the need for more investment in East St. Louis and solutions to help remedy the issue. About 43% of residents in East St. Louis live below the federal poverty line.
“I think as far as infrastructure goes, improving the roads and streets is good, but a better question will be why hasn’t development happened in spite of that?” said Savage, a native of East St. Louis. “In the last 20 years, we’ve seen all of this boom and development happen around us, but not in our communities.”
“Over my lifetime, the city of East St. Louis hasn’t had any worthwhile development on the scale of a Shiloh or even Edwardsville in the last 20 or 30 years. I think effective leadership and informed citizen participation, a sense of community, fostering healthy families and other things are some of the key items for a striving community," Savage said.
Mason argued the need for residents to take better care of their community to encourage economic development.
“I think that people from East St. Louis are proud people, but we need to do more than just be proud,” said Mason, whose business has been in the community for over 30 years. “We need to keep our properties up the way we see people in other communities keep our properties. If we want to be respected like other communities, we have to hold ourselves and our neighbors to those same standards.”
“We need to start cleaning up our own backyards and stop littering and hold our neighbors accountable before we even start thinking about infrastructure items. The fact that we would throw garbage in our own backyards, but we would never do that in Belleville, Fairview Heights and other communities that are getting the development, and developers see that as well. If we don’t show the respect to our own community, I don’t see developers and other investors making it happen for us.”
Weathers also mentioned the need for the interests of the community to align with the interests of potential investors.
“When you talk about getting companies to invest, at the end of the day, companies are focused on their bottom line,” Weathers said. “We need to consider that companies have their own strategic goals and objectives, and the question becomes do the things we want to do in this area meet those objectives.”
“I think it’s important for us to have our elected officials sitting at the table with the people making those decisions and understanding what motivates them. Because if you don’t know what motivates them, you’re basically shooting in the dark. This is why it’s important to vote because you need to be educated about what they’re trying to do in each election.”
The meeting also addressed the issue of some Black-owned businesses not receiving adequate financial support from the federal and state governments. While some panelists argued the need for business owners to fill out the appropriate paperwork to receive the financial help, Savage called for closer attention to the broader, systemic issue facing many Black-owned businesses, especially in East St. Louis.
“It’s a structural problem with the system as a whole because we’re starting off in the hole from the get-go,” Savage said. “When we say that we don’t have our paperwork together, if you’re a part of that system, you’re better able to get that help than other businesses.”
“Our power structure is up on the hill. We have to ask them for help to do anything. We need to get people who have pride in the city to rebuild it. We need everybody. We need all hands on deck.”
The next “Call for Change” meeting takes place on Sunday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. and will be focused on education. Additional meetings include the following:
- Health Care Initiatives: Sunday, Sept. 27
- Criminal Justice Reform: Sunday, Oct. 4
- Voters’ Rights and Political Representation: Sunday, Oct. 18
Meetings will be streamed at 6:30 p.m. on the NAACP East St. Louis Branch’s Facebook page. For more information contact the chapter at 618-271-4698
Deasia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.