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RCGA chief meets with protesters who crashed RCGA annual dinner

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - As promised, Richard Fleming, president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, met with activists who crashed the RCGA's annual dinner last week demanding that the organization do more to stimulate job creation in the area.

Fleming said the meeting, held Wednesday at the RCGA, was "cordial and substantive.''

"They had a list of concerns, and we all agreed on the first one -- that we all want jobs now,'' Fleming said.

About a half-dozen of last week's protesters attended the meeting, including Jonathan McFarland of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), who had read a statement at the dinner. In addition to Fleming, RCGA staffers Blair Forlaw and Keving Riggs attended.

McFarland expressed concerns over a number of issues, including tax credits, summer jobs for youths and long-term funding for Metro, Fleming said.

Fleming said he explained to the group that a number of their concerns -- including the layoff policies of corporations and local tax credits to retailers -- were outside the purview of the RCGA.

Fleming said he invited several of the group's members who are unemployed to participate in back-to-work resource programs sponsored by the RCGA, including Bounce Back St. Louis.

"We are very empathetic to people who have been hurt by this recession, including many who have never before been unemployed,'' Fleming said.

Fleming said he was happy to meet with the group.

"I felt that while their approach was unconventional and out of the ordinary Thursday night, my request was to meet in a substantive setting,'' Fleming said. "We may or may not agree on all issues, but I don't think there is any harm in talking.''

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

Who were those chanting protesters who crashed the Regional Chamber and Growth Association's annual dinner party on Jan. 21 demanding that business and civic leaders do more to stimulate job creation in the St. Louis area?

Earlier this week, the Beacon caught up with Jonathan McFarland and Hannah Allison of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), which helped plan the RCGA drop-in.

McFarland said the protesters chose RCGA for their first action because its members help create economic growth in the region.

"Where are the jobs?" McFarland asked.

The demonstration was a combined effort of MORE and a group from Mexico, Mo., called Grass Roots Organizing (GRO). Calling themselves the Unemployed Coalition, several dozen protesters wearing neckties and carrying signs, marched into the Khorassan Ballroom of the Chase Park Plaza during the RCGA's annual dinner, attended by about 900 people.

During the protest, which lasted about 10 minutes, McFarland read the following statement:

"I have stolen the stage today in a peaceful demonstration to give you a list of demands that we believe all red-blooded Americans are requesting. We beseech you, to say the least, to put people before profit. To have us help you in creating an economy that works for us all and for these solutions to be real solutions, not quick fixes." 

Richard Fleming, president and CEO of the RCGA, introduced himself to the protesters that evening and offered to meet with them.

Gary Broome, vice president of communications for the RCGA, said that Fleming remains willing to meet with the protest leaders.

"It was a surprise, but as Dick mentioned to them, he understands that people are hurting out there. That's one of the reasons RCGA is here -- we're here for job recruitment and to do whatever we can for job creation,'' Broome said.

'We need to make things'

MORE is a bare-bones, nonprofit operation as new as the decade.

Headquarters is the basement of the World Community Center on Skinker Boulevard, long a home to area civil rights, peace and environmental activists.

The basement office is furnished with a wide assortment of chairs but little else. There is a hand-lettered MORE poster on the wall. A portable heater in an adjoining room throws out what feels like the only warmth in the place.

McFarland, 31, volunteers with MORE. Allison, 22, is a paid staffer with the title of organizer who has yet to see her first paycheck. The only other staffer is executive director Jeff Ordower, interim director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, also known as Pro-Vote. Ordower was the Midwest regional director of ACORN until December.

Ordower said that MORE is not an off-shoot of ACORN or any other organization but is an independent, grassroots group that will focus on letting its members make the decisions. He is still scraping together funding for MORE, though he expects it to come largely from donations.

Ordower said that MORE's main focus will be unemployment and jobs, but is also interested in education and financial justice. While other local groups are doing good work in those areas none of them would crash an RCGA dinner or take over a bank lobby, he said.

“We have a unique niche in terms of direct organizing and direct action,’’ Ordower said.

Allison said the RCGA protesters came from a number of community organizations and represented diversity in age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds. They met in a conference room at the World Community Center to coordinate the demonstration before carpooling to the hotel.

"What we did, put a face on unemployment in St. Louis,'' Allison said.

With unemployment in Missouri at nearly 10 percent, local unemployed people have to wonder what companies are doing to resolve the problem, McFarland said.

Allison, a native of North Carolina, was involved in environmental activism in the Appalachians during college. She moved to St. Louis to work with Greenpeace and still works for the group part-time. She said she grew up in a middle-class lifestyle. Her father runs a GM dealership and got one of the "bad letters" from the corporation last year when it announced that it would be scaling back its dealerships.

McFarland said he was born and raised in St. Louis. After dropping out of high school, he earned his GED and took college courses in engineering.

He said he works part-time at a Home Depot store after being fired from his job of 10 years with a national delivery firm. He is involved in a legal action against that company because he said his supervisor told him he was fired because he is black.

While unemployment and underemployment have affected a wide swath of Americans, Allison points to the unemployment rates among African-Americans and Latinos as an indication that they are bearing the brunt of the hardship. She said the urban poor and rural poor need to combine efforts to demand change.

The nation's economic difficulties offer an opportunity to create unity among Americans who are frustrated and feeling disenfranchised, she said.

McFarland believes that the region -- and the nation -- need to develop a sense of community. "We are so polarized now. We are separated by many different things, and race is one of them,'' he said. "We need to come together and be a country again.''

McFarland said that business leaders need to listen more to people who are affected by their decisions. He suggested holding a meeting "where people can have their opinions heard.''

"We need an economy that works for all of us, not just big corporations. They were bailed out by the government, but the rest of us are still struggling to find work and make ends meet,'' he said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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