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International Institute of St. Louis seeks community connections with multicultural center

Provided | The International Institute of St. Louis
The International Institute of St. Louis plans to open the Anna E. Crosslin Multicultural Center inside the institute in January to encourage people to learn about other cultures.

The International Institute of St. Louis will open the Anna E. Crosslin Multicultural Center for Excellence in January to encourage people in the region to connect with those of other cultures.

Visitors will be able to take cultural education classes and attend events. Business owners also can use the center for company training and seminars.

The institute aims to foster multicultural connections, in which the broader community embraces immigrants and refugees and the center helps bring cultures together, International Institute of St. Louis President and CEO Arrey Obenson said.

“We realized that everybody wanted St. Louis to be more inclusive, we just had to figure out how we were going to make it happen,” he said. “So we figured that having the multicultural center could be a good starting point.”

The institute plans to raise about $525,000 to get the center through the first couple of years. It will be housed at the International Institute for the first few years. Once the institute raises nearly $2 million, officials will then use the funds to build a standalone location.

Obenson said he sees the center, which is named after the institute’s former leader, as a way to make St. Louis a more welcoming place.

“Together we can build something that stands out that is unique in America, and then put St. Louis at the center stage of what the future of this country looks like — one that is inclusive, that is diverse, and that provides equity and opportunity for everyone to succeed,” Obenson said.

Since 1979, the institute has resettled nearly 26,000 refugees. Over the past year, it has resettled over 825 refugees into the community, many of them from Afghanistan. In recent months, St. Louis has welcomed people from war-torn Ukraine. Institute officials say they are planning for an uptick in refugees and immigrants who first settled in other states and are now moving to St. Louis.

The demographics are changing in the region, and Obenson said these changes are partially because immigrants and refugees see St. Louis as a place where they can build their families.

Institute leaders want the center to continue to play an active role in bringing cultures together and helping people learn about other traditions, languages and ways of life. The region’s diverse communities attract immigrants and refugees to St. Louis, said Anna Crosslin, the institute’s former president and CEO.

“My dream is that the center will really be at the heart of it, regardless of what kind of program that it's offering, that it will remember that the core of the reason that they're trying to do this and how they're doing it, is to be able to help everyone better understand and appreciate the shared values and behaviors of all human beings,” she said.

Crosslin will not have a role at the center, but she is honored that the institute is acknowledging her 42-year tenure as the former director by naming the center after her.

The development of the multicultural center has been in the works for years. Crosslin said the center is not about her, but a reflection of the staff and volunteers who conceptualized the center.

“There are a million different reasons why St. Louis, in fact, will be stronger, will grow and be a more successful city, if it can attract and retain [diverse groups of people],” she said. “The diversity that I'm talking about … helps us to have strong businesses and to have a really effective entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.