Over the years, Beyond Housing’s Chris Krehmeyer has appeared on St. Louis on the Air to discuss issues ranging from poverty to home ownership to health and the economy. Most recently, he came to the studio to discuss Beyond Housing’s work with the Normandy School District, a project called the 24:1 Initiative.
But as the recipient of the 2014 Focus St. Louis Leadership Award, the focus of conversation today was Krehmeyer himself. Host Don Marsh spoke with Krehmeyer on a more personal level, asking him about his start in the field of community development, his work over the past 21 years, and his vision for the future.
A Desire to Help
“I got my first job at the Housing Authority of St. Louis County in 1986,” said Krehmeyer. “My first three years I worked in the Section 8 department, and I saw low-income moms and their kids every day…I didn’t recognize it at the time, but (on an oversimplified level) it gave me the chance to see the two faces of poverty.”
Some people living in poverty were still optimistic about their future, while others were so beaten up by life that they had given up.
Today, he works to find ways to give people hope. He says it’s not enough to provide resources. And even those that have hope have a lot of roadblocks along the way.
“The systems that we have set up in our country don’t always work well for those who don’t have a good start and don’t have a great support system and resources to get them there. The idea of bootstrapping is a little outdated today,” said Krehmeyer. “Part of what I’ve tried to do in my twenty plus years of doing this is can we provide resources and create opportunities for folks to achieve the dreams and aspirations that they have, because on its own the system doesn’t work well for folks.”
Sometimes You Need to Be Uncomfortable to Affect Change
From the time he was selected as the president of Beyond Housing in 1993, he has been making people uncomfortable, said Krehmeyer. But sometimes that is what needs to happen in order to make an impact.
“I was 31 years old, never worked for a not-for-profit,” he explained. “They took a chance on me, so I know it made some people uncomfortable. We changed our name (from Ecumenical Housing to Beyond Housing). We started as only a rental housing organization (and switched) to a community building organization, and that made people nervous. They said … people have tried to do this community stuff and they’ve failed.”
But, he added “we kept pushing ourselves to say, ‘where do we think we can have the biggest opportunity to have sustainable and systemic change?’ and keep trying to be in those spaces. Be smart about risk, don’t be foolish, do our due diligence but not be afraid to jump. And I’m normally the lead jumper.”
A Multi-Faceted Approach with a Focus on Normandy
The 24:1 Initiative is going well, said Krehmeyer. They are currently working towards building a movie theater and a community services center. In August, they plan to start building a senior center and use the building as an experiential learning opportunity in the Normandy School District.
“The plans on what to build come from the community,” he explained. “The community tells us here’s what’s important to us. Now once they do that, our job is to get it done. We’re the driver, we’re the planner, we’re the folks who put the money together but we’re driven by the voice of the community.”
Giving Up Control
The idea of giving up control is vital, said Krehmeyer, not just in working with a community but also in building partnerships with other organizations.
“That’s the uncomfortable space that I think all of us in the not-for-profit world, and quite frankly the for-profit world, need to be in,” he said, adding that in order to truly work together “you give up a little bit of control and a little bit of what’s in it for me for the greater good.”