Gateway journalism review - 2016

For the sake of all

Members of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon gather beneath the reproduction of Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park in St. Louis for their meeting Monday, March 2, 2015. It was the group's seventh meeting. Photo © copyright 2015 Sid Hastings.

Members of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon gather beneath the reproduction of Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park in St. Louis for their meeting Monday, March 2, 2015. It was the group's seventh meeting. Photo © copyright 2015 Sid Hastings.

By William H. Freivogel

 Think about the slice of Clayton running between Forsyth Blvd. on the north and Clayton Rd. on the south and from Forest Park on the east to Shaw Park on the west.  That is the 63105 zip code and it includes Washington University and the county seat.

Now think about the part of St. Louis from St. Louis Avenue on the north to Martin Luther King Dr. on the south and from Tucker Blvd. on the east to Grand Blvd. on the west.  This is 63106. It runs roughly from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building to the location of the old Sportsman’s Park, just south of Fairground Park. It’s the part of St. Louis where blacks had to live in crowded conditions before and after World War II because restrictive real estate covenants blocked them from moving west.  

Only 10 miles separate these two St. Louis zip codes but 18 years of life expectancy separate them.  People who live in Clayton live almost two decades longer than those on the near north side of St. Louis.  

That shocking disparity was a signature finding of Jason Q. Purnell’s For the Sake of All report in the spring of 2014.  The report tied health disparities to social determinants such as education, quality of neighborhoods and economic status. 

The report, put together by seven African-American scholars at Washington University and Saint Louis University, was well-received. Three months later, after the death of Michael Brown, it became required reading.  Purnell, a professor at the Brown School of Social Work, says he and his colleagues had no idea how timely their work would become.

Outside media came to Purnell for clues about what fueled the Ferguson protest.  St. Louisans looked to the report as a kind of roadmap toward a better and fairer St. Louis.

Prime among its recommendations were health clinics in public schools, universal child development accounts, early childhood education and inclusive and affordable housing.  These recommendations were central to the Ferguson Commission’s calls for action. Over the past two years, For the Sake of All has pursued a deliberate strategy of presenting its ideas at community action forums while drumming up support among stakeholders.

Purnell hopes to help set up two more school-based health clinics to go with the ones already functioning at Roosevelt High School and Jennings.  He and Washington University’s advocates of childhood development accounts also are working to set up pilot programs in St. Louis and St. Louis County as a step toward universal accounts statewide.

A childhood development account is a small savings account usually set up when a child is born, using state or private donations.  The money can later be used for college or other purposes. Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Nevada and parts of Indiana have accounts, ranging from $50 in Nevada to $500 in Maine.

Researchers have found, Purnell says, that “socially disadvantaged kids who have these accounts have better social and emotional function….Their mothers had lower levels of depressive symptoms….Parents and caregivers have not just higher education expectations but educational expectations that remain high.”  Some studies show that “children who have savings in their name are three to four times more likely to go to college and graduate from college,” he said.

Purnell grew up in St. Louis. His family moved from Northwoods to Creve Coeur when he was little.  He attended St. Louis University High School, Harvard and then Ohio State.  After scooping frozen custard at Ted Drewes, the manager asked if he’d be coming back and was a bit surprised when Purnell told him he’s be working at Lewis, Rice, Fingersh, the downtown law firm.

A trained psychologist and public health expert, Purnell is cool, calm and dispassionate.  But over a 90-minute interview he built to a crescendo of passion, still expressed with a slow, quiet cadence.


New conversations

Purnell says conversations and plans are underway that wouldn’t have happened but for Brown’s death.  “I don’t think this conversation happens the same way without Ferguson, and for some people it doesn’t happen at all.  Some people were dragged into this conversation because of Ferguson…..But we have to understand what we mean by Ferguson. It didn’t start on Aug. 9.  You can pick your staring points, 1619, the beginning of the great migration from the South, 1865, 1872.”

Purnell says St. Louis needs the civic infrastructure for a deliberative reform process.  This is how he describes that process: Collect the data and research evidence, identify best practices used in other places, make recommendations, implement programs that use best practices, evaluate and track the data that comes out of the reform strategy and start all over again.

Part of what still holds back St. Louis, though, is that “is baked into the structural fragmentation of St. Louis, and frankly a national reputation we have as a region that does not work well together. St. Louis lacks some of the civic infrastructure for…coordination and collaboration….Everybody talks about collaboration and coordination, but it’s nobody’s job to manage it….

“I understand that when you grow up in St. Louis this is the way things happen and on the 7th day God created Maplewood.  This crazy patchwork of 97 municipalities, that’s just the way things are unless you know how they got that way….In addition to dealing with the civic infrastructure, we have to deal with our civic amnesia.” 

Still, Purnell looks at the school health clinics as a green shoot of improved collaboration and coordination among St. Louis institutions.  “Where else have you seen the there major health system cooperating on something?” he asks.  He adds that “serious institutions are taking a serious look at the Ferguson Commission report which was influenced by the For the Sake of All Report.”


Role of race

A citizen at one of the first community action forums asked, “Why aren’t you talking about racism.”

Purnell told him he would find issues of race on just about every page of the report.  But he added, “Just standing up and saying racism is not a solution or a strategy.”  St. Louis’ problems are “shot through with racism but what do we do? And what we do has to be couched in terms that speaks to that family in Clayton and Chesterfield and Webster Groves and Kirkwood and Ladue. 

“If we had called this For the Sake of Black People, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”

The question that needs to be answered for citizens, Purnell said, is “Why does this matter for me?”

“If we can’t both quantify and communicate the answer to that question we ought to pack up our stuff and go home because St. Louis is not going to change fundamentally because it is good for black people. But if you can tell me how helping a child in his or her family thrive and live in health and safety” and how that “is going to accrue to the benefit of my family and my life and the livability of the region that many of us call home, then we are cooking with gas.

“Which is not to say you don’t have conversations about race. You do.  But they have to be strategic conversations about race and realistic conversations about race.” 

Purnell admires the new generation of civil rights leaders he has watched develop out of Ferguson, such as Brittany Packnett, head of Teach for America in St. Louis and a member of the Ferguson Commission and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  He praises the Campaign Zero project on police use of force that Packnett put together with other Ferguson activists, Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson. 

But he has reservations about the “real hesitance among some of the younger leaders to even use the word leader…as if leader is a bad word….At the end of the day you need leadership. Period….If people can’t see a better future and you are not able to articulate what that would like like, you cannot sustain the movement.  You cannot sustain a movement on anger and frustration.”


King’s legacy

 “Dr. King gets beat up by the younger generation,” Purnell added.  “But we wouldn’t be talking about an “I have a List of Complaints” speech 50 years later.  The clarity of the goal was crucial, integration of public accommodations, the vote, those were clear goals.  You knew what they meant.  And then he used this new fangled technology of TV to broadcast a modern-day moral drama that people couldn’t escape. It was coming into their living rooms and there were only three or four stations you could turn to.”

The younger generation’s use of social media has been “quite masterful” he said, but “it is hard to have that kind of discipline of message with so many outlets and so many ways people get information.” 

There is no escaping the enormous impact that race and segregation have on St. Louis’ problems, he said.  “The most difficult challenge that we uncovered in this work and has slapped me in the face over and over again is segregation….if you asked me one is the one thing we need to tackle it would be segregation.”

Purnell adds, “I’ve begun saying that St. Louis is an innovator in segregation” from the 1916 housing segregation law to restrictive real estate covenants to slum clearance to the discrimination against blacks in receipt of FHA loans.

“As an African-American man it makes my blood boil.  So much of the current conversation is why don’t people just try harder, but people have been trying hard for a century and at every turn they are blocked and not blocked just by personal prejudices, structurally blocked by law and politics. Richard Rothstein has a statistic…in his paper (on housing segregation) that there were thousands of FHA loans and the number that went to African Americans was double digits. ..These are people trying hard, they’ve been trying hard for generations.

“They say baseball is the national pastime. Forgetting is the national pastime in the United States. There is nothing more quintessentially American like forgetting. We have no sense of the sweep of history and how current day outcomes are shaped by these baked in disadvantages…that you can’t bootstrap your way out of.”

St. Louis is not going to suddenly have new mixed income housing in Clayton or Ladue, he said.  But he thinks St. Louis “can we come up with a more equitable way of developing at the regional level?” 

“Minnesota distributes its tax revenue so that more disadvantaged parts of that metro area get resources,” notes.  “The zoo here is not free. I’ve checked my property tax bill.  We pay for the zoo.  But we’ve decided that’s a public good.  What if equitable development were a regional good.  What if we decided it’s not okay that there are parts of our region where there is no grocery store or no affordable housing or no safety from gun violence or no job? It wouldn’t cost us that much….We’re talking about dollars and cents of an assessment into a general pool to make St. Louis a livable place. To make St. Louis a place where we don’t rank 42 out of 50 in economic mobility. 

“Overall that is not sustainable.  We are paying a price for segregation….and the bill is going to come due sooner than we think.”  

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Police-reform crusade