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In memoriam: Gena Gunn McClendon, a champion of justice and equity

Dr. Gena Gunn McClendon offers remarks on the power of the African American vote during an event at the Missouri History Museum, February 4, 2020. Photo by John Gabbert / Center for Social Development.
Dr. Gena Gunn McClendon

Gena Gunn McClendon, esteemed director of community engagement at the Center for Social Development (CSD) at Washington University, passed away on October 21, 2023. She leaves behind an enduring legacy as a fierce advocate for equity, a champion for the disempowered and a passionate defender of voting rights.

“Throughout her career, Gena has been a focused and effective advocate for inclusion, a clarion voice for the underrepresented, the marginalized and the unseen. Her kindness, wisdom and deep sense of justice have informed her research and her commitment to equitable democracy,” said Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at Washington University and founding director of CSD. “Her passing is a profound loss for our center and for all of those whose cause she championed.”

McClendon grew up in the Maywood, Illinois, a Black community surrounded by all-White suburbs near Chicago. Her father was a police officer who rose to become a detective, and her mother administered a Head Start center through the family’s church.

“I think my father’s attitude of helping people spurred my interest in community,” McClendon said in a 2019 interview. “He insisted that we be nice to everyone because we were all we had.”

“Maywood protected me from racism and discrimination that lay just across the alley from my home,” she said. “I remember not being allowed to ride my bike, walk, go trick-or-treating, or play because Blacks were not allowed and could possibly get hurt.”

McClendon’s upbringing also instilled a profound connection to the community and a deep sense of justice.

She began her career managing Missouri’s first Individual Development Account program for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. Interest in asset-based economic interventions led her to CSD in 2001. There she began directing coalitions that developed asset-building strategies for nonprofits serving low-income populations.

Lissa Johnson, associate director of administration and research at CSD, described McClendon’s extraordinary skill in “coalition building, advocacy, and empowerment” but emphasized her ability to guide others. “She helped me to better understand the depths and nuances of racism, and how it shows up in our work and daily life,” Johnson said. “She modeled a way of working with everyone, from students to colleagues and collaborators – she called them ‘thought partners,’ a very empowering approach. It was a privilege to work with her, and I continue to honor her by applying what I learned from her.”

Rising to become the director of asset building in states and coalitions, McClendon led CSD’s contributions to the Southern Regional Asset Building Coalition, a partnership to alleviate persistent poverty and marginalization in the Southern Black Belt region by mobilizing support for asset-based policies and programs.

She also codirected the center’s Financial Capability and Asset Building (FCAB) initiative, working with colleagues at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal universities, and CSD to develop curricula in financial education and asset building for social workers and other human-service professionals. Her efforts contributed to the publication of a 2016 textbook, which has been translated for use in Singapore and China.

“She and I developed an instant bond when we first met. She became my friend, sister, confidant, colleague all in one,” said Jenny Jones, dean of the Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, who worked with McClendon on the FCAB curriculum. “She was thoughtful and kind, and passionate about the work.”

A new line of engagement

McClendon was a dedicated election volunteer, and her experience on Election Day in 2016 sparked a new line of engagement. “I noticed that equipment malfunctions and other issues seemed relatively common at some sites,” she said in a 2019 interview. “I wanted to know whether those conditions are more common at some locations than at others.”

McClendon and Michael Sherraden were also concerned by what they saw as efforts to limit access to voting.

In 2018, they created CSD’s Voter Access and Engagement initiative, which she would direct. Through the initiative, McClendon worked to educate voters, broaden electoral participation among underrepresented groups, and protect voting rights.

“The League of Women Voters will be forever grateful for Gena’s dedication and commitment to empowering and educating voters,” said Nancy Thompson and Victoria Turner, co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis. “She contributed to our work in many ways, including serving on the LWVSTL Board of Directors, and she will be sorely missed.”

Research conducted by McClendon and colleagues through the initiative documented variations by race and income in voting conditions within the St. Louis region. Findings from the work were published in Social Service Review.

McClendon was skilled in translating the research into insights for advocacy.

Denise Lieberman, general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and faculty director to CSD’s Voter Access and Engagement initiative, said, “Gena McClendon’s leadership and commitment to voting rights have had an impact at Washington University and helped make democracy more accessible in the broader St Louis Community, particularly for young people and local communities of color, whose voices too often go unheard.”

“It was a pleasure to work with her at the Voter Access and Engagement Initiative,” Lieberman added. “Dr. McClendon combined scholarship with passion for civil rights, leaving a legacy of for our work ahead. For these reasons, Missouri Voter Protection Coalition was proud to name Dr. McClendon the 2022 Missouri Voter Protection Advocate of the Year.”

Vicki C. Washington, cofounder of the St. Louis Area Voting Initiative., described McClendon as “a tireless voter advocate, who constantly sought ways to help people understand the significance and power of their vote.”

“She used to tell folks that we were ‘Good Trouble Partners,’” said Jennifer Slavik Lohman, director of the St. Louis Area Voter Protection Coalition, “and she lived up to that label every single day.” McClendon, she said, “explored every possible avenue for empowering communities through voting. If there was a voting rights event in the St. Louis metro, Gena was there – and had often planned the event to begin with.”

“Just days before she passed, I had the privilege of spending a few hours with her,” Lohman added. “She began our visit with a question that exemplified her commitment to voting: ‘So, what are our plans for getting folks to vote in 2024?’”

“The best way to honor her memory is by making sure that this work is carried out,” Lohman said.

In the community

McClendon’s contributions to the community extend far beyond her work at CSD. McClendon was an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Gamma Omega Chapter. She served on the governing boards of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis, the Mitchell Resource Center for Social Services, the Alabama Asset Building Coalition, and several other organizations. She was a commissioner of the St. Louis Science Center and member of the St. Louis Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Task Force. She served on advisory boards for Family Support Council, Connections for Success, the Great Rivers Reinvestment Community Trust, and other organizations.

McClendon received numerous accolades for her work. The 2022 award from the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition was one of several honors related to contributions on voting rights. Washington University’s Brown School honored McClendon as a Black History Month champion in February 2023. In the same month, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen adopted a resolution celebrating her efforts to serve the community by empowering vulnerable populations, educating and uplifting families, and advancing equity.

In 2019, she received the Ambassador Andrew Young Award for Community Service from the Ethics Project. Dr. Christi Griffin, the organization’s founder and president, said, “Dr. Gena McClendon recognized the importance of the vote in determining our quality of life and the justice to which we’re entitled. She put action to that understanding and was a well-respected leader across the region.”

Through her service, McClendon rallied others to the work of broadening equity and inclusion.

“I don’t want to leave the world in this situation.” McClendon said in a 2020 discussion of the Voter Access and Engagement initiative’s work in Missouri. “People fought for me, and I need to fight to make sure everyone can vote.”

A service celebrating McClendon’s life and achievements will be held on November 4 at 10:00 AM at Christ Pilgrim Rest MB Church, 1341 N. Kingshighway Blvd., Saint Louis, MO 63113. Arrangements are in the care of Baucom’s Funeral Home.