Late in 2016, 5 On Your Side news managers came to me and news producer Sarah Gahagan with an idea. We were given four days to research and come up with a story-telling project about race in St. Louis to be launched on Today in St. Louis. Just like the entire country, St. Louis has a long and complicated history when it comes to racial equity, inclusion, and diversity, so the assignment was certain to be challenging.
For a couple of reasons, I was excited. A rare opportunity had been presented by my bosses: here's a blank canvas, tell us some stories. Another reason I was looking forward to the project is Sarah is an exceptional colleague and we work well together. But by the time we started to research potential ideas, Sarah was packing to move to the east coast because her husband got a significant promotion. Another example of life getting in the way of the plans we make. Sarah still made a significant contribution because that's what she does, but it was long distance.
Monday, December 5 was day one of the four-day deadline to suggest an idea for our story project. I had a list of phone numbers, I had Google, but I had no idea what our story telling project might look like. An internet search led me to a newspaper quote about race relations in St. Louis: "Everybody knows there's a problem, but the question is what do we do about it?" I saved the quote on my notepad.
I saw on our morning newscast that the Ladue School District was holding a town hall meeting at the Ethical Society of St. Louis later that evening, following a school bus incident that involved racially insensitive student-to-student comments. I decided to attend the town hall, hoping that I might get a spark of inspiration, maybe find an interesting character to build a story around.
There was a room full of Ladue stakeholders at the Ethical Society that night. While I listened to students, faculty, board members, alumni share opinions in town hall conversation about race in an affluent school district, I kept focusing on the man who was guiding the discussion, a social justice facilitator named Kenny Murdock. I wondered, why does someone decide to be the lion tamer? Maybe a story about a social justice facilitator would make an interesting story.
And what about the people and organizations having difficult conversations, trying to unite St. Louisans? Everybody knows there's a problem, but what do we do about it?
On day two, I had several phone conversations, including Dr. Jason Purnell at Washington University. I had interviewed him a few years ago about his For the Sake of All project, which focuses on improving the health of all people by eliminating racial inequities in the St. Louis region. When I explained that KSDK was planning a story telling project about race and uniting the region, Purnell asked if I had ever heard of We Stories. I had not. He explained that Laura Horwitz and Adelaide Lancaster had started a non-profit to help white families have meaningful conversations about race and inclusion with their children. I wrote the suggestion on my notepad.
After a series of phone calls and face to face meetings, Building Bridges was starting to take shape, although there wasn't a title yet. We would find the agents of change in our community, the people answering the question 'what do we do about it?'
One of the things that unites many St. Louisans is Cardinal baseball. I was reminded that part of Stan Musial's legacy was his treatment of Jackie Robinson and the subsequent black players who integrated Major League Baseball. The greatest Cardinal of them all went out of his way to recognize the humanity of African-American ballplayers while many players, including Musial's teammates, were openly hostile to integrated baseball. So we borrowed the design of the Stan Musial Veteran's Memorial Bridge for our Building Bridges artwork. It seemed to fit well.
For all these reasons, I've been thinking a lot about race lately. A friend and former teammate I've known since middle school invited me to lunch a few years ago.
After we were seated he said, "Doc, what was it like to grow up black in St. Charles?" It was an unexpected question which made for a fascinating lunch. So I told my friend, who is white, about being the only family not invited to an all-white neighborhood party when I was 5 years old. My mother's response was to make me come into the house so I wouldn't keep staring at the party several yards over. I told my friend about all the white teachers and coaches who went out of their way to support and encourage me from grade school through college. I told him about visiting my parents and standing outside their house when someone drove by and yelled the N-word before speeding away. My young daughter could see that mom and dad and her grandparents were upset, but she didn't know why, and she wasn't taking no for an answer. My smart little girl, now a teacher, wanted to know what just happened. That was my daughter's first experience with racism. That was a hell of a conversation, trying to explain to a 5-year-old why someone who didn't know us, yelled upsetting words at us.
I still hang out with my friend. We frequently laugh about our bench-warming days on the varsity basketball team.
Laura Horwitz, co-founder of We Stories, said "probably most St. Louisans want to be part of the solution."
We're all familiar with book clubs. We Stories is a different kind of book club, a non-profit started by two St. Louis County women. It began as a book club about race, diversity, and inclusion.
If she's right, we shouldn't run out of stories to tell. We also want to hear from you. If you know people and organizations dedicated to uniting people in the St. Louis region, contact me at email@example.com.
After a well publicized racial incident on a high school bus, the Ladue School District was challenged to do some soul searching. Who guides stakeholders to have emotional conversations about race, equity, inclusion, and diversity? What does real-time problem solving look and sound like when it comes to these issues?