How Transform 314 empowers Black St. Louisans to engage with local government
Dangerous roadways, delayed trash pickup, an abundance of liquor stores in a food desert — these are just a few of the issues facing many predominantly Black neighborhoods in St. Louis. After decades of disinvestment and a lack of engagement by city leadership, residents are left with feelings of hopelessness. They become less interested in local government, and in turn, the work of elected officials goes unchecked. The cycle continues — wash, rinse, repeat.
Kelly McGowan aims to break that cycle. She believes in a future where Black St. Louisans realize the civic power they wield and then meet the powers-that-be with demands for solutions.
That’s the idea behind Transform 314, which McGowan founded to educate and empower Black St. Louisans to become civically engaged.
While working in public health for St. Louis County, McGowan saw that the desire for change in Black communities was there, but residents didn’t always know who was responsible or how to share feedback with elected officials and city offices.
“Local government designs the fabric of our communities and the fabric of our built environments,” she said. “They dictate how we have resources or how we don't have resources, like grocery stores, or too many liquor stores, or lacking access to health care. They make these decisions that impact us every day, and we don't engage in that process.”
One of Transform 314’s first initiatives was survey Black St. Louisans on the local issues that matter most to them. A majority of participants highlighted the poor conditions of area roadways and walkways.
“In order for a community to thrive, it needs investment and resources. So if our roads and sidewalks don't have that investment … that says a lot about the rest of the community,” McGowan said. “Roads lead you to places. Sidewalks lead you to places. If you don't have properly maintained roads or sidewalks, you can't get to where you need to go. You're late to work because your bus was late. … It's not just a pothole —it's health and well being, and providing opportunities for folks to thrive, especially Black St. Louisans.”
A major part of Transform 314’s mission is to make learning about local government fun. McGowan hosts weekly livestreams on Transform 314’s YouTube channel and Facebook page where she candidly recaps the happenings of St. Louis Board of Alderman and St. Louis County Council meetings because — as McGowan puts it — “Local government is boring as hell. Period.”
“[To engage] Black St. Louisans, we need some flavor. We have to put our twist on it. We have to do that in order for people to at least give it a listen, to pay attention,” she says. “Finding things that are relevant, that people care about, but making sure it's presented in a way that they can digest and do something with.”
McGowan hosts monthly meetups where attendees can learn about the departments and offices in local government and work together to come up with strategies to address issues. All ages are welcome to join Transform 314’s gatherings, and McGowan is excited to foster intergenerational relationships between elders and younger adults.
“[We need to] speak their language and really connect the dots. Not just [say], ‘Oh, you need to vote,’ but really asking them, ‘What's important to you? What are the biggest issues in your community?’ Because it all starts with the conversation.”
For more on Transform 314’s efforts to engage Black St. Louisans in local civics, as well as Kelly McGowan’s thoughts on apathy toward politics, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.
What:Transform 314 Community Meetup
When: February 15, 2023
Where: Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being (1000 N. Vandeventer, Ave, St. Louis, MO 63113)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.