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Grassroots group S.H.E.R.A.H. works to combat poverty, empower women through self-love in St. Louis

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Shante Duncan, the founder and executive director of S.H.E.R.A.H.

When Shante Duncan founded Sisters Helping Each other to Reach a Higher Height (S.H.E.R.A.H.) in 2004, three women came to her house to share their dreams and goals and to “become better versions of themselves.” Duncan was in her early 20s, a native of north St. Louis who returned to the area to help her community, and she was going through a difficult breakup.

“I was a woman hurt and I wanted to reach out to other sisters to say, ‘This hurts, are you hurting? What can we do to heal? Once we do that, how do we take this to heal our community?’” Duncan explained.

After a few months, the gatherings grew to around 30 women coming to Duncan’s house for sister circles, potlucks, tea parties, retreats and conferences … all with the same mission, but with a more expanded vision.

“We started out as a sister circle, providing a safe place for women to come to talk about our challenges and to make strategic plans on how to move forward,” Duncan said. “With S.H.E.R.A.H., our focus is health and wellness. We are really serious about providing women with the information they need to make healthier food choices, financial choices, all of those things … to have a healthy life here in St. Louis.”

Today, more than 200 women are involved with S.H.E.R.A.H. and the group has expanded to include mentorship in local schools for young girls, known as the LOVE project. Now, the group is looking to grow again by opening the Maple House, a communal living space for women and children to help challenge poverty in north St. Louis, where Duncan grew up.

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Duncan told host Don Marsh that a broad range of women join the program. There are women from ages 18-60 who come from all over St. Louis and the Metro East to be a part of the group.

“Our concern is creating opportunities for ourselves," Duncan said. "We know we’re dealing with economic empowerment, we know women are struggling to pay their bills … so it is hard to think about how to get women involved in community activity when there are struggles for sustainability: how do I pay my bills? How do I provide food for my children? How do I go around services that are out there because I don’t want to be a statistic? These are women who have day-to-day challenges but don’t want to be seen in a certain light—so we make a space for ourselves.”

Maple House is the next step for the organization. It is a three story building that was donated to S.H.E.R.A.H. and will be used to house six women and their children at a time at no charge for two years while the families work to create a new life for themselves.

The building is being remodeled, and Duncan says she plans for it to open in September. On Thursday, the group is holding a fundraiser at the Tivoli to help fund the renovations with an event called “Rage Against Poverty,” which will feature a screening of “Rednecks and Culchies” from a local documentary filmmaker examining the issues faced by America’s working class.

The LOVE (Learning Oneself Very Extensively) Project serves girls aged 10 through 17 by teaching them a curriculum of self-love, community development, sisterhood and entrepreneurship. SHERAH currently has volunteers administering these programs in Most Holy Trinity Catholic School, some St. Louis Public Schools and the Rockwood School District.

"One of our mottos with S.H.E.R.A.H. is self-love. You have to love yourself no matter what."- Shante Duncan

“One of our mottos with S.H.E.R.A.H. is self-love,” Duncan said. “We push that, we promote that. You have to love yourself no matter what.”

Duncan said that the curriculum works with these young girls because it comes from people who have had to deal with similar challenges and questions of self-worth. Duncan grew up in the Jefferson Vanderlou Apartments in north St. Louis and her mother gave birth to her when she was 13. Although her mother and father tried to create a loving childhood, they still faced severe economic challenges. Duncan went on to survive and thrive in college but she always knew she’d return to St. Louis.

“Since I was 10 years old, I had a strong desire to help recreate the way we were living in the city,” Duncan said. “I wanted to be one of the people who came back and redeveloped the community and brought resources to the community and explain to my people who we are and how valuable we are and how we can create our own oasis.”

If women are interested in becoming a part of the S.H.E.R.A.H. group through volunteering or joining the board, information is available at www.sherahmovement.com. Duncan also offered her phone number, 314-479-8681. Specific volunteer information is available here.

“I love what I do,” Duncan said. “All of this starts with me. I had people come into my community and say ‘Hey, Shante, we think you’re amazing, come join this program.’ I’m only doing for the people of my community what somebody has done for me.”

Related Event

What: Rage Against Poverty: A Screening of Rednecks + Culchies
When: Thursday, March 24, 7-9 p.m.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Blvd.

More information.   

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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