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Scholars from WU, SLU focus on disparities among blacks in St. Louis region

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Jason Purnell was a fourth grader, his mother gave him a book on Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. From that moment on, Purnell quips that he had hoped to become the second black Supreme Court justice, “but Clarence Thomas beat me to it.”

Having lost that battle, he set his sights on becoming a scholar, picking up degrees from Harvard, Ohio State and the University of Rochester on his way to joining the faculty at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work.

His career choice probably influenced his latest academic endeavor. He and a team of six other scholars from Washington University and Saint Louis University have embarked on an ambitious project to focus on closing racial disparities in areas such as health, education and economic conditions in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The project, called For the Sake of All, is funded by a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health.

The final report and conference on their research next year coincide with two milestones that have had a far-reaching impact on American social history. Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court handed down its Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and half a century ago, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Purnell calls the timing of the study “a nice coincidence” to tie in with Brown and the Civil Rights Act. “I think there was a great deal of hope attached to both of those events. Some people might have thought we’d be farther than we are 50 or 60 years later.”

For the Sake of All

For the Sake of All is a study of the health, education and economic status of African Americans in St. Louis City and County. The year-long effort is a combined effort of researchers from Saint Louis University and Washington University. Briefs will be issued periodically during the year. A community conference will be held in conjunction with the release of the final report in May, 2014.

For the Sake of All: Doing the math on poverty and death

Are we?

“In some respects we definitely are. The fact that you can collect seven (black) faculty members at two major universities is progress. There definitely has been overall improvement. But if you grasp any number of (social, economic and educational) outcomes, definitely the gap between groups remains, and that is what we need to work on.”

Purnell and his colleagues will issue briefs on various issues, followed by a major report and conference next year. He calls the scope of the project unprecedented, but was asked about how to avoid their work being another impressive study that ends up gathering dust.

“That’s always our concern,” he says, “but part of our plan is not to just simply report but put this information in the hands of policymakers and cross sections of our community” as well as “a standing coalition to move the agenda forward.”

The goal, he says, is to “present the best and most recent data we can find on the health, education and economic status of African Americans and make recommendations that are informed by evidence and community engagement.”

Citing the level of “disease, disability and death” borne by African Americans in the region, Purnell says the team’s hope is to use their policy briefs and a report to “identify the issues and offer real solutions.”

Another component of the project, he says, is to call attention to St. Louis projects that are working. “Remarkable stuff already is taking place,” he says, citing nationally-recognized projects and community groups, such as the Wyman Teen Outreach Program or TOPS; the Fathers’ Support Center; Better Family Life, and Beyond Housing.

Other WU scholars on the team are Bettina F. Drake and Melody S. Goodman, both assistant professors in the Washington University School of Medicine; Darrell L. Hudson, an assistant professor in the Brown School; and William F. Tate, chair of the university’s department of education. Team members from Saint Louis University are Keith Elder, chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy; and Keon Gilbert, an assistant professor  in the College of Public Health and Social Justice.

The St. Louis Beacon is a member of the project's Community Partner Group. This is the first in a series of reports on For the Sake of All, the group's research, findings and recommendations.

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.

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