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Commentary: Bridges Can Help Heal St. Louis; Build Them One Conversation at a Time

Yemi Akande-Bartsch
Provided by FOCUS

In the aftermath of Ferguson, voices in our region have called for many things – for peace, for justice, for dialogue, for answers, for change, for healing. The issues at hand are complex, which makes the call for leadership all that much greater.

Our frustration and sadness over what is still lacking or broken should not overshadow our gratitude for what we do have, or our motivation to make things better for our neighbor and region. One of the ways in which we can begin to do that is to build community and trust, one conversation at a time.

In 1993, the Bridges Against Racial Polarization program was founded by two Leadership St. Louis alumni, Daniel Schesch and Gregory Freeman. The program allowed participants to get to know people from other races and cultures while increasing their awareness and understanding of racial issues. In May 2002, the Bridges program was one 19 initiatives across the United States to be recognized as a "Solution for America" by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.

The format of the program is simple: groups of eight to 15 individuals meet six times a year over a potluck supper and have meaningful discussions about race and culture. The goal of the program is to build trust and friendship across races, cultures and backgrounds – fundamentally building relationships, bringing people and organizations together, and developing robust connections for future impact. In the course of their many conversations they discover lots of significant – and sometimes surprising – ways in which they are more alike than different. More than two decades later these conversations are still thriving and are much needed even more so today.

In light of the crisis in Ferguson, FOCUS St. Louis recently sought to engage citizens from our region on the issues involved during An Evening of Learning at the Missouri History Museum. The starting point and framework for the evening was the 2002 FOCUS task force report, prepared by 30 citizens, that looked at the state of racial equality in the St. Louis region over an 18-month period. Throughout the evening, we sought to provide opportunities for residents to participate in civil conversations that can serve as a call to action for all citizens of this region.

The task force’s report found that while individual attitudes toward race have improved substantially, there had only been marginal institutional progress. The report looked at the intersection of race with education, economic development, housing, transportation and community engagement, all points of discussion for our evening.

From attendees, we learned

  • That we are a very divided community and have much work to do.
  • That we have to change the conversation. This isn't just about Ferguson, but the painful reality that racism is systemic in our community.
  • That we in the St. Louis region have a historic opportunity to bring about real change, and the optimism and commitment to move forward.
  • About the importance of constructive engagement.
  • We need to develop action planning groups about policy change. (There is no single course forward or magic fix. Lasting and meaningful change will require effort on many fronts, from many individuals, communities and organizations.)

In a recent FOCUS poll, 90 percent of 150 surveyed felt that more is needed to be done to achieve Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality, and 74 percent are very interested in improving relations between blacks and white in the St. Louis area. When asked, “overall, how much progress toward Dr. King’s dream of racial equality do you think the U.S. has made in the last 51 years?” 11 percent reported a lot of progress has been made, while 48 percent reported some progress and 36 percent reported a little progress.
As a neutral convener, our goal in bringing the community together was not to chart a course of action or try to quickly “fix” the problem, but instead to move the conversation forward and open eyes, minds and hearts to the many ways that each individual is and can be an agent of change. Because, as we’ve seen through the Bridges program and many other FOCUS programs, changing attitudes, perceptions and beliefs starts on a personal and individual level.

The recent events in Ferguson highlight the importance of programs such as Bridges as vehicles for addressing racial polarization in the St. Louis region through dialogue in relaxed settings.  Programs like Bridges address change on a personal level using the development of relationships and self enlightenment as its primary lightning rods for individual growth and broader community impact. 

While we cannot predict what lies ahead, FOCUS St. Louis will continue to do our best to support our region and its citizens. We will strive to be a neutral convener and facilitator and to empower our community to work together. In the face of pain and conflict, it can be tempting to turn away, but as we reiterate time and again in our programs, leaders show up. Our hope is that our FOCUS alumni, friends and community we serve will continue to “show up,” in ways both big and small, to influence positive community change.

Find our more by contacting FOCUS at 314-622-1250 or visiting www.focus-stl.org.

Yemi S. Akande-Bartsch is executive director of FOCUS St. Louis. This article also appears in the St. Louis American.