The HomeGrown STL Inaugural Summit, February 9 at the Brown School, drew about 120 people committed to improving the lives of black boys and young men in St. Louis City and County.
“Equity and economics are different sides of the same coin,” said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, in welcoming remarks at Examining the State of Opportunity for Black Boys and Young Men in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. “We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.”
Sean Joe, PhD, who leads the HomeGrown STL initiative and organized the summit, laid out the barriers facing young black males and their consequences: higher mortality rates, higher unemployment, and lifelong lower wages. He emphasized the economic and moral benefits of improving the well-being of black men, stressing the importance of a strong community effort, during the segment “Arrested State of Black Male Development in St. Louis: An Opportunity for Regional Action.”
“We will be able to do something as a region that no other region has been able to do, and that’s to close the economic disparity gaps between one segment of the population and another. How powerful would that be?” said Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School.
“We’re talking about changing the experiences of 60,000 individuals,” he said.
HomeGrown STL, based at the Brown School’s Center for Social Development, is a group of researchers, providers, funders and advocates working to strengthen and support the health and development of black boys and young men in the St. Louis area. Focusing on data-driven evidence and community collaboration, participants seek to boost the ability of black boys and men ages 12 to 29 to attain a better quality of life than their parents over the next decade.
A collaborating network of resources and support was a theme throughout the day. The panel “Black Boys and Young Men Speak Out” featured a high school junior at Hazelwood East, a history teacher at St. Louis University High, a young father with college aspirations and a college graduate who works with LGBTQ young people of color. They discussed their experiences with organizations in the HomeGrown STL network and what they had gained: positive role models, leadership opportunities, problem-solving skills, and educational aspirations and tools to achieve them.
When asked what they feared most, each named failing and disappointing others. “It’s not by chance we all fear failure,” said Darius Rucker, 25, representing the nonprofit Williams and Associates Inc. Black boys are too often expected to assume the responsibilities of men without receiving the time and support for the transition, he said. The panelists also stressed the deficit in opportunities for black males in St. Louis and the positive impact that more educational, professional and leadership opportunities could have.
Another panel, “Collective Impact Strategies for the Development of Black Males,” focused on ways to improve social mobility and quality of life. Key factors include improving accumulation of assets, attaining education, and having access to health care, said Michelle Witthaus, program manager for the For the Sake of All project at Washington University in St. Louis. Panelists also emphasized the importance of mentorship and leadership opportunities, and positive relationships. They encouraged focusing on collaborative solutions, becoming less competitive about funding and other resources, and remembering why they are doing the work.
“When we work together across institutions, across sectors, with a focus on what’s best for our kids, we can be much more successful than we can if we’re working by ourselves,” said panelist Katie Kaufman, project director at Ready by 21.
In “Data Driven Solutions: Tools for Change,” Joshua New, policy analyst at Center for Data Innovation, said schools must harness the power of data. “While other sectors of the economy and society are becoming more data driven, education has not even made the first step toward digitization,” he said, encouraging audience members to read the report “Building a data-driven education system in the United States.” “We know how valuable data can be, and education is one of the most critical sectors for economic and social opportunity.”
In the afternoon, summit participants broke into eight working groups to concentrate on health and well-being, housing and homelessness, school to work/living wage and financial capability, civic engagement and participation, public safety/corrections/justice, faith and philanthropy, parenting and family, and East St. Louis (to explore the feasibility of a collective-impact strategy for black males in that city). Afterward, facilitators reported to the whole meeting.
‘The house is burning’
James Clark, vice president of community outreach at the nonprofit Better Family Life Inc., delivered the closing keynote.
“Brothers and sisters, the house is burning, and we are moving too slow,” Clark said.
“I’m happy that Dr. Joe has pulled us together and that Washington University has opened up their resources, but brothers and sisters, we have to do work,” he said. “Knowing the plight is just not good enough anymore. It’s not. We are losing and losing bad. I want to challenge this body – come into the neighborhoods, stand on the front porches. Let’s begin to draft programs out of this lens.”
Since 2015, HomeGrown STL has held quarterly networking breakfasts at the Brown School, and today more than 90 organizations are members of it. Going forward, HomeGrown STL will hold an annual summit to, among other things, measure progress.
Jeffrey Irons, a facilitator at the nonprofit Fathers’ Support Center, said the inaugural summit showed “all of the organizations in our community coming together to try to make our community better than what it is for our youth.”
Allison LaMont, director of expansion and implementation support at Parents as Teachers, said the summit made her realize “the extent to which our community resources are siloed: We are all doing separate work and not sharing our resources and knowledge to work together to touch more families.” At the summit, service providers were able to figure out how to share more resources and reach more people with needs, she said.
“Know that we are committed to finding the resources to work with each and every program and organization over the next 10 years,” Joe said in remarks about next steps. “This is a rare opportunity. There is real work to be done.”