International Institute Of St. Louis Welcomes New President And CEO
Arrey Obenson is ready to fill some big shoes, as he takes the helm as president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis on Monday. He replaces longtime head Anna E. Crosslin, who is retiring after more than 40 years on the job. Obenson, an immigrant from Cameroon, came to the United States nearly two decades ago. In that time, he spent 17 years in various roles at Junior Chamber International, co-founded the organization Transformunity and wrote a book called “Bridging the Opportunity Gap.” St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Obenson about his new role and his commitment to the immigrant community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: What do you hope to bring to the role?
Arrey Obenson: This country is at a crossroad now where we really need to think about the future as being very different from the past. Whereas in the past, there could have been waves and waves of immigrants and refugees that came into the United States, the last four years have shown that that may not necessarily continue. But we have to work towards building a more inclusive and prosperous society, one that leverages the talents of the immigrant — the vibrant immigrant population, to contribute towards building prosperity.
So what I mean by expanding the constituencies, I want to have a conversation with the St. Louis community to be part of building this incredible tapestry. That should be the beautiful American experience that embraces diversity of culture, that encourages inclusion, that fosters equality, enhances justice, and that it's not the immigrant communities not being looked at as a community outside the St. Louis community. That we’re woven in together. And that's the narrative that I would like to develop for the institute, and that the institute plays a key role in fostering this inclusion that is needed.
Lewis-Thompson: You spent 17 years with Junior Chamber International working with young people to better their communities. How will that work influence the work you're doing right now?
Obenson: In planting the seeds and working with young people, we were able to run a global campaign where we mobilize and engage 4 million young people in one day to do activities around the world. And spark conversations around the world, leading a peace march in Aleppo, Syria, that really brought an end to fighting in Aleppo. And lots of other places around the world where we saw transformation take place as a result of conversations that we sparked.
So coming to the St. Louis community, I would not spend time having a conversation about what is wrong and how different we are and what the divide is. That's not the conversation that I want to have. I want to paint a picture of what it would look like, if we could just bridge this divide. If we could just work together. What kind of society can we have?
Lewis-Thompson: You mentioned a lot of imagery here, a picture, painting. What would that painting look like?
Obenson: It is proven, the statistics and facts that demonstrate that diversity is a strength, and that immigrants in the United States have played a significant role in development. And maybe not only, because people will think about the Googles of the world that are led by immigrants, but even looking at, you know, we know that this country's economy is really run by small businesses. And looking at the small businesses that immigrants bring to the community really creates jobs and opportunities for people. It is a prosperous, vibrant, accepting and welcoming community where talent comes and doesn't leave. It stays here and helps build this community.
Lewis-Thompson: The day that President Joe Biden was sworn into office, he issued several executive actions that reverse many of the previous administration's anti-immigrant policies. What do you hope these changes mean for immigrants coming to this country in this region?
Obenson: We should be celebrating this action. I'd like to stay away from the politics of it and really call upon the community to look at this as we're looking at a world in which there's only going to be continuous movement of people. These man-made boundaries of ours—the next generation is going to function in a way where they would look beyond these boundaries in almost everything that they do. Understanding that these are the trends that the world is obviously moving towards, we really have to be progressive in the way that we prepare ourselves for that future. We can resist it, but it would eventually come upon us that people will continuously move into our community. And instead of keeping them on the sidelines of the community, why not capitalize on their talents? Why not capitalize on the diverse culture that they're bringing to enrich our experience here?
So I think that this would only create a lot more opportunities. These executive actions are putting us on a path towards that future. Now, besides that, the policies that they are developing, because policies in themselves have to be implemented, and they are only implemented and effective by the people who are affected by the policies. So we, the civil society, organizations like the International Institute, the corporations in this city, you have to also play our role in ensuring that as we bring in or allow immigrants to come into this community, we add that to, not only embrace their own cultures, but to help them embrace the cultures here, help them understand the values that we have in this country. And it's the combination of our cultures, our values, that enriches our American experience.
Lewis-Thompson: How do you intend to build more trust within the immigrant community in the region?
Obenson: We may look at the divide as a challenge, I want to look at it as an opportunity. We have to find ways of communicating, of telling the immigrant story, a story that didn't start today. It's a story that started centuries ago, and how that story has evolved, that everybody that comes to these shores is looking for a home. People don't want to leave their homes, but when they do, they're certainly leaving for a reason that is beyond their control.
And when they come to our shores, they are finding a home. They're finding something that they can build and protect for the next generation that comes after them. They really just want to be part of this incredible society that the world over is being admired and loved. And so they don't come here to destroy. They actually come here to construct. And I think we need to tell their stories of how they have come and how they do contribute to building our society, by setting up small businesses, creating employment and helping build that next generation of America that really believes in what America is.
Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011