Why I Started A Non-Profit At 23

I quit my salaried job, moved in with my parents, and now work full-time for no salary on a supposedly unfixable issue. Like you, I often ask myself, “Why?”

Last year I had made the decision to move back to St. Louis to start a non-profit organization committed to tackling regional fragmentation.

Again—as I often shudder to myself—why?

As a kid, my elementary school in West County taught students that they could achieve their dreams as long as they worked hard enough for them. Yet over thirty years after the Civil Rights Act, my school district still had to bus in African American students from elsewhere to manufacture diversity. Teachers, parents, and students used "city kid" as a euphemism for black kid or African American student.  The real lesson I learned in West County was that your zip code of birth played a fundamental role in governing your fate.

That blatant hypocrisy of working hard and sweeping racial disparities under the rug infected me with the political bug and disgusted me with St. Louis. I wanted out and had the privilege of getting out. So I left for American University to study how to drive change through policy.

dc-view.jpgAfter graduating, I remained in D.C. to work for Dewey Square Group. Joining one of the leading grassroots public affairs firms, educated me on how to connect policy to people. Over the next year and a half, I discovered how to drive initiatives that aligned with community values. Building relationships is what builds results. I was doing the kind of work that I had always wanted to do. It seemed like St. Louis was in my rear-view mirror.

Then Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed.

During the week of August 9, 2014 televisions throughout our office repetitiously rolled scenes of my hometown finally imploding under the weight of its ugly history.

I felt sick.

As much as I loved where I was, I felt obligated to do something. I began building out an old passion project of mine—but this time with a business plan for a non-partisan, non-profit that would directly attack fragmentation (modern socioeconomic segregation).

Unlike reform attempts of the past, this effort would center on people. Regular residents would ultimately strengthen St. Louis.

As St. Louis Strong concludes its first year, my savings have vanished, my student loans have accumulated interest, and my personal relationships have suffered. However, the persistent growth of St. Louis Strong has made accepting and embracing those consequences easier.

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A coalition of people and organizations that believe St. Louis can change is gradually rising, as St. Louis Strong continually meets with residents, community stakeholders, and business executives. Together, we’re discovering common ground for success across the region. Together, we’re gaining momentum.

Let’s be honest, I’d love to not live in my parent’s house. But, when I deeply reflect on why I'm doing this, I think back to elementary school and remember: courage—not governmental boundaries—should determine the potential of individuals and the character of communities. Perhaps that's an absurd attitude and I'm just pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down.

Still, I would rather try and fail than have sat on the sidelines as fragmentation ruined not just my hometown and its regional economy, but also the futures of kids and teenagers who happened to be born on the wrong side of Delmar Boulevard.

We must stop letting chance, fear, and the faults of our past govern our common fate. If you have the will to believe in a greater St. Louis, then join our grassroots community and turn that belief into action.

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.