One of my former college professors from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Robin Wingo, recently reached out to me upon her retirement to say that she was proud of me. She included a letter that I had sent her several years after graduating. Reading the letter, I was reminded of my youthful enthusiasm. Armed with an advanced degree in social work and starting an MBA program while working full-time, I was on fire about life and our collective ability to change the world.
In the letter, I wrote about the work that I was just beginning and that I was so proud of. I began my formal work career in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood in North St. Louis City. Today, this community is one of the poorest communities, as was the case then. Today, it is one of the most violent neighborhoods, as was the case then. It is also one of the most inspiring communities, as was the case then. A recent report, led by Dr. Jason Purnell of Washington University, cited an eighteen year difference in life expectancy between residents of 63106 (JeffVanderLou) and residents of 63105 (Clayton).
The people of JeffVanderLou want the same thing that the people in Clayton, Chesterfield and Edwardsville want. In fact, it’s likely that they want the same thing as the people in West Plains, Mo., the 17th poorest congressional district in our nation but that happens to be demographically the opposite of JeffVanderLou. Many of us can envision what the residents of these communities want for themselves and their children; it is likely similar to what we all want in the areas we work, live and learn.
Sometimes we pigeonhole entire communities and people as not hardworking because we struggle to believe that their efforts wouldn’t lead to bigger success. I’m at the halfway mark of my career and I’ve come to really appreciate the complexity of community issues. It’s one thing to read about the challenges of raising a family in an economically deprived community, it’s another thing to work in it, and altogether different to live in it. I am inspired by communities like JeffVanderLou, West Plains and Granite City because these are the kinds of communities that produced me. I believe that we can reduce the disparity in life expectancy of certain zip codes by focusing earlier on the whole child, prioritizing education and employment. I am convinced that we cannot overcome the economic hurdles that exist in some communities unless we lock arms and work together – it will take our collective energy. I am proud of my work up to this point, but know we can do more.
We owe a special thanks to the many people and institutions in this region who have chosen to invest through the community campaign powered by United Way.