After 2 years: Are commitments turning into action in Ferguson?
Many organizations are still working to make a difference in Ferguson and North St. Louis County two years after unrest erupted in the city. That includes several foundations and other nonprofits that made promises of funding and commitments to change as part of the healing process. We decided to check in with a few of those organizations to see how well they have followed through on their commitments.
You can scroll down to the end of the post for a more detailed look at some of the promises made to Ferguson and other north St. Louis County communities and whether those goals have been reached.
The provider of services to government health care programs was one of the first groups to follow through on a physical commitment to Ferguson. It fulfilled a promise to open a $25 million center, which has 117 full-time workers. The company says almost 90% of those employees are from Ferguson and surrounding communities.
The effort goes beyond brick and mortar. The Centene Charitable Foundation is very active, especially through its partnership with the Urban League’s Save Our Sons program. A big part of that is helping prepare residents for the workforce by establishing the importance of so-called soft skills.
“How do you do resume writing? How do you do interviewing skills? These kids have never gone through interviewing skills,” said Centene Senior Vice President Ed Gallegos. “Those are the things that they may not get, even going through colleges.”
For Monsanto’s Vice President of Community Relations, it’s personal. Al Mitchell grew up in the area. His family lived behind the Canfield Green apartment complex for a time.
“It's good for me just to see the businesses that were there stay and be successful,” Mitchell, who is also president of the Monsanto Fund, told St. Louis Public Radio.
Monsanto says it has kept its 2014 commitment to provide $1 million in grants to several North County groups. The Monsanto Fund also reaches out to organizations and programs ranging from tutoring programs at the OASIS Institute, Science, Technology and Math initiatives with the Challenger Learning Center and Maryville University to an artists in training program with Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
“It's always a work in progress,” said Mitchell, who is also President of the Monsanto Fund. “The work that we do is never what I would say is a silver bullet that's going to solve all the problems.”
The events of 2014 also really hit home for workers at Emerson. The multinational corporation is based in Ferguson. Officials say the company has exceeded many of the goals in its Ferguson Forward program. Like Monsanto, Emerson also supports efforts concentrating on science education.
“In the elementary (education) and secondary (education) areas, across the community, STEM is a huge buzzword in terms of emphasis and focus,” said Executive Vice President Patrick Sly. “Almost every high school whether they be public, private, independent or otherwise is investing more in STEM labs and STEM education to prepare these kids for STEM careers and college."
But it could be too soon to judge all of the global manufacturing company’s initiatives.
“I think we are going to see success. Although it's way too early to measure outcomes, because as I said we are only in the second year of a five-year investment in education,” Sly told St. Louis Public Radio.
“We will continue to measure outcomes from our initial investments and we'll continue to invest in the community where we see the best returns.”
Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis - Save Our Sons
Many organizations have contributed to an Urban League program designed to take men in Ferguson and north county, who might not have any job prospects and give them the skills and connections needed to bring home a paycheck.
“We go into these communities, whether that may be the local liquor store, the McDonald’s. Whether it’s the recreational facilities, neighborhoods, apartment complexes you name it,” Jamie Dennis with Save Our Sons told St. Louis Public Radio.
Since launching in January 2015, the program has trained at least 250 men and has expanded from north St. Louis County into the city of St. Louis.
“We train them in the soft skills, helping them to both understand the economic pipeline back into the workforce,” said Dennis. “We teach them the purpose of looking someone in their eyes, standing up when you shake someone’s hands firmly. Teaching them to look the part – dress for the job they want, not the job they actually have.”
It’s all done in a four-week course.
“It’s very tough. I can’t sugarcoat anything.”
James Fuller is a Save Our Sons graduate, who is a senior at Webster University.
“I picked up a lot of skills that Webster doesn’t even train us on.”
His main takeaway is the importance of responsibility.
“That’s a huge thing that colleges don’t really train you on,” Fuller said. “And then the politics of the workplace is a huge thing. Learning how to work and function in workplaces.”
He is convinced that the Save Our Sons experience will help him give back to the community.
“I want to find opportunities to work on community development, with an emphasis on youth and just kind of go from that angle.”
Fuller is starting down that road. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for alderman in his hometown of Northwoods. Fuller considers himself an example of how Save Our Sons can provide a chance for young men in north St. Louis County to improve their lives.
"If I feel as though there's an opportunity for me to continue to grow and get better at making money, providing for my family - whatever aspect of life it is that I'm really focused on - then I'm not really going to spend as much time out putting myself in the cross hairs of something that is negative and could potentially end my life."
The program will soon move into a permanent home in Ferguson. The Urban League has started construction on a Community Empowerment Center at the site of one of the flashpoints of the 2014 unrest. Save Our Sons will join the Salvation Army, Better Family Life, University of Missouri-Extension and other groups that are expected to be housed in the center, which is going up at the former site of a QuikTrip on West Florissant, Ave. Construction should be complete in March.
Monitoring and Impact
It has been tough to find an independent group that is monitoring all of the commitments made to Ferguson and the north county community over the past couple of years. St. Louis Youth Advocates put out a report in the summer of 2015.Organizers tell St. Louis Public Radio they are hoping to issue another report next year.
There was interest in launching a monitoring project at an area university, but officials could not secure funding to support the effort.
So, that essentially leaves it to the foundations and nonprofits to monitor themselves. And many say they are taking that responsibility seriously.
Monsanto officials have asked for progress reports every 6 months.
“That's one way,” said the company’s Al Mitchell.
“The other way is we go visit. I have a U.S. program director here. And between her and I, we go out and actually see how the money is being used.”
One community leader who is tackling the impact issue on a daily basis in Ferguson is Wellspring Church Senior Minister Willis Johnson. He is grateful for all of the support that has come into the area over the past couple of years, but wants to make sure everybody is on the same page going forward.
"If it is simply about keeping your business solvent. If it is simply about branding your nonprofit and holding your share and your sense of territorial equity, then that’s not helpful to us."
He understands significant change takes time, but that luxury could be running out.
"If I’m a parent, I don’t have two years of grade school to entrust, or wait for the change. If I’m a business owner, I don’t have two years to wait to see if the population growth does what it does and if I’m going to be able to sustain my business," Johnson told St. Louis Public Radio.
Johnson is on the ground, trying to make positive change on a daily basis. He is also director of The Center for Social Empowerment at the Church, which focuses on urban education, social enterprise and engagement in an effort to transform communities.
The center and church appear to share a key goal with foundations, businesses and nonprofits who are trying to help. They all want to build up Ferguson and surrounding communities, in part, by providing area residents with the necessary skills to become productive members of the workforce.
Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter: @WayneRadio