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How she sees it: A conversation with local activist Jamala Rogers

Jamala Rogers
Provided by Jamala Rogers

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Long before most St. Louisans knew about Kwanzaa, paid close attention to gay rights, thought seriously about local control of the St. Louis Police Department or even were willing to consider putting the brakes on capital punishment, Jamala Rogers was working on these issues, mostly at the grass-roots level.

But Rogers' real passion was and continues to be uplifting teens. Her Youth Council for Positive Development included a rite of passage to help move young people successfully into adulthood. Now seen by some as a fad, such ceremonies nationwide are credited by others as effective in helping even wayward youngsters develop leadership skills and feel part of a community.

Rogers argues that more such programs are needed because they can change behavior by encouraging youngsters to stay in school, seek higher education and become productive citizens. That is part of the thinking Rogers brought to city government years ago when she set up an Office of Youth Development under former Mayor Freeman Bosley.

Now 61, Rogers writes a weekly column, "The Way I See It," for the St. Louis American. She has reworked some of those articles into a book, titled "The Best of the Way I See It (and Other Political Writings)." The book also includes commentaries from the Crisis Magazine, the Post-Dispatch and other publications.

One recurring theme has been a call for communities to find ways to value people and particularly to look upon all young people as assets rather than liabilities. A positive network of caring adults is necessary these days, she believes, as budget cuts, crime, unemployment and other adverse social and cultural conditions leave many youngsters, in her words, "in a deep, deep crisis."

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Since you have been active for years in programs to uplift young people, do you find that the public attitude toward teens is less caring and more fearful? I'm thinking of well-meaning people who might make the wrong assumptions when they encounter a group of teens in hoods and baggy pants?

Rogers: That's always part of the debate of race and class -- the fear factor of a kid coming your way in baggy pants. You don't know what he's getting ready to do, but the fact is that the kid could be a student at Morehouse (College).

I am not saying there aren't really bad characters out there. Some kids have been so damaged that they do need psychological and maybe even psychiatric help, and those are the folks who have been physically, emotionally, socially or sexually abused. So they come up almost like sociopaths. I mean they don't give a hoot; they don't care who they hurt. And because they have no empathy, they are scary and they really do need help.

But for the most part, kids are kids. They need a nurturing, and people need to find ways to connect with them. Do we help them or do we just turn our back and kick the can down the road? I always tell people that an unhealthy damaged kid grows up to be an unhealthy damaged adult. So intervention is very important.

Last summer, St. Louis faced what looked like a minor crisis over teens in the Loop. I'm sure the incident led some of us to think about flash mobs where young people flood an area and commit crimes. Do you see flash mobs as a trend among inner-city teens?

Rogers: Part of it is taking advantage of a situation. Flash mobs have been around. They basically have involved positive, fun things. But some began to realize (they are) a vehicle to get a bunch of folks together for other purposes. It just signals to me that a lot of young people are out there with nothing to do.

These kids have access to Twitter and have all kind of youth networks globally, and we're the only ones sitting around and wondering what's going on and why. When young people are in their teens, they need more guidance, more supervision, not less.

Following the incident in the Loop, you called on city and county political leadership to start a dialogue on youth. What message did you hope to bring to that dialogue.

Rogers: We know what the answers are, but we just don't have the political will. All the research is there -- that each kid needs a caring adult in his or her life. It doesn't have to be the parent; it can be a coach or a reporter (laughter) a granddad or a neighbor. But the kid has to have that one person to step with them over difficult waters.

How are things different now from the time when you were growing up?

Rogers: What the kids have to go through is nothing like what we went through. When I was growing up in Kansas City, we all had the equivalent of a village around us, truly a village. Folk in my church were there. The teacher in my school was also the Sunday school teacher. A nurse at my church was also the Girl Scout leader. My parents knew all of them, and everybody was giving us the same message.

What I see people doing (now) is taking a hands-off attitude around teenagers. Sometime it's fear or just not wanting to be bothered because so many other things are going on in your life, so let somebody else do that. Well, I don't care if I work 24/7. There has to be a critical mass to take young black males and put them in a positive environment so they don't resort to negative behavior, which is all around them.

You were among people who answered University City Mayor Shelley Welsch's call for meetings and dialogue between adults and young people following the incident in the Loop. It's winter now, so the issues are not as pressing, right?

Rogers: Young people still need places to go year round. Most of the time our facilities are underused because we don't have interesting things for kids to do. Kids say they can come to play basketball at recreation centers, but otherwise there's nothing there. I don't know about St. Louis County, but I don't think recreation centers are keeping up with young people in the city.

Kids are into technology, and the after-school programs are pretty much shutting down. The interesting and engaging recreation (opportunities) in place now, kids have to pay for. That's a problem. So the barriers include access, interesting programs and welcoming adults. Sometimes these adults don't want the kids at the centers because when the kids are not there, it's less work for the adults.

You've mentioned state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, as an example of positive young African-American leadership. Are there other examples of young black leaders trying to address the needs of teens, particularly on the north side?

Rogers: I'm really encouraged by what (Alderman) Antonio French (D-21st Ward) is doing. He's been very innovative. He turned an old church into a community center. He put out the word on Facebook, telling people they could be part of the project by making donations toward the thousands of dollars needed so that it could be matched (with public funds). And people donated, and he was able to buy the church for a community center.

To me that's innovation, not just folks sitting around waiting for somebody else. A lot of times we talk, but we don't do the walk. Young people are tired of that. Anyway, Antonio French is an example of somebody effectively using limited resources to make a big difference for his constituents and community.

You seemed way ahead of the curve on two controversial issues: local control of police and ending the death penalty. What caused you to be so passionate for decades over local control?

Rogers: Police have a lot of power and authority that some of them abuse. That has always been a big part of the work that I've done. Plus I've always worked with young people, and their interactions with police are often negative.

I wish all police would do what they're supposed to. But they don't. I have respect for them; they are a necessary part of a civilized society. They need to set the best example. We all know it's a difficult job, but when you have a gun on your hip, you have to be a special person with a special temperament and special training so drawing your weapon is not the first order of business. Our push for local control is to make police more accountable to the communities they serve.

The move to halt the death penalty seems to be gaining traction.

Rogers: Some folk are facing the death penalty for cases involving wrongful convictions. You have to dismantle that system because it's really not fair; it's inherently racist, geared toward people of color and poor people. It's supposed to be geared toward the worst of the worst, and we know that hasn't been the case. We also know it's supposed to deter crime, but that also hasn't been the case. So it seems like legal lynching. The other issue is that while we're working on these death penalty cases, we need a moratorium on capital punishment until people can prove that they are innocent.

What were some issues and experiences that have touched you the most and ended up in your book?

Rogers: Those would have to be the ones about education and children in poverty. One column that I did amounted to a tale of two cities, about two children, Precious Doe and Baby Doe. Both were decapitated children, one in Kansas City and one in St. Louis. When you think about a kid who has been murdered and nobody ever comes forward, that to me is troubling, that's troubling. The kind of community response that Kansas City gave was interesting. They named that child Precious Doe, not just anonymous Baby Doe. The whole response to the murder was very different in Kansas City. The community raised money; they kept the case alive. The killer was found and prosecuted. It just affirmed that they did the right thing in Kansas City.

What kind of reaction are you getting to your book?

Rogers: A good reception. I started writing these columns because I've really been concerned about literacy. Always have been. Some kids really don't like books, don't like to read or don't know how to read well. They grow up to be adults and are taken advantage of because they don't know how to read well.

There's a need for social literacy, too. You need to know what's going on around you. You need to be engaged in helping to create the kind of community you want. If you don't know what the forces are bearing down on you and your family, then you have no way of knowing how to combat them. Part of what I do is point to ways we can address an issue. Now whether people do it remains to be seen. But you don't want to go out and just paint a picture of a problem. You want to offer answers so that people come away feeling like "I can do something about it."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.