When I moved to St. Louis twenty years ago this fall, I was excited to move to a midsized Midwestern city with beautiful neighborhoods and museums and gardens and parks. I still remember looking for my first studio apartment, settling into the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood within walking distance of Washington University where I would complete my graduate studies in architecture two years later.
Even now I can distinctly remember many of those first conversations I had with St. Louisans. Oftentimes, within five minutes of meeting someone, I was already schooled on this city – where to live, where to eat, where to explore – and, where NOT to go. I knew about the Delmar Divide long before I ever signed that first lease or walked into my first classroom. St. Louis sized me up upon arrival and presented itself to me in a neat little compartmentalized package. There was an organization to this city, and rules that should be followed.
When I think back to those early days, I force myself to imagine a variety of responses that I could have had to those initial interactions regarding how this city draws its boundaries along racial lines. I could have been grateful for the free advice. I could have allowed that insider information to guide my future choices, to shape my social circles, to inform me as I moved out of academia and into my early adulthood. I could have drawn upon it when making that initial call to a realtor, or when we filled out that first application for kindergarten. I’m grateful for that buffer period that graduate school afforded me – it gave me the space to listen and observe and draw my own conclusions about how this region is divided and what my role in that division could be, for better or for worse.
I draw on the language that was used in my family growing up that pointed out or explained these institutional and historical patterns of segregation and racism. These weren’t always lengthy in-depth discussions – oftentimes they were just observations (and statements) of our privilege – when pulled over erroneously by a state trooper on a Florida highway, or when noticing the redline lending maps framed and displayed on the wall of my grandparents’ bank. They were snippets of history pointed out on our annual trips to visit family in the south, and sometimes they were more heated discussions following the vitriol spewed from a visiting pulpit.
I draw on the friendships that I had in my later high school years, in a majority white school, but within a relatively diverse tightknit group of students in the college track classes, conversations around academics and affirmative action and race. I draw on the experiences at a large public university in the south, the way my ears were listening, the very names on the buildings giving me pause and then a reason to dig deeper into the history of the institution. I draw deeply on the mentor relationships that I had in the summers of my undergraduate education – strong women who invited me into their circles and conversations that brought a level of awareness and openness that really pushed me in ways I needed to be pushed.
These conversations might seem like small things on paper – bits and pieces here and there, insignificant. But they weren’t. In a childhood that offered me plenty of mirrors – reflections of what talent and success and hard work and passion could look like for people that looked just like me – I was also given windows to a bigger story beyond the small towns where I lived and traveled and studied. I craved the world outside those windows and knew that the only way I could be part of that was to understand the role I play in how those barriers are either strengthened or weakened / replaced.
Our family supports We Stories because we see it as an actionable extension of our family’s mission to live within, and learn from, diverse communities. We live in a hyper-segregated city and region, and research tells us that conversations about race and racism are not happening equally across the board. The most important thing that we can do for our two girls is to challenge this system of division by rooting ourselves in diverse communities, teaching them to notice the systems of power and priority within them, and arming them to work diligently at breaking down those systems that divide us.
And as a white family, that work begins first and foremost within our own home; it sits squarely on us. Supporting We Stories means supporting this work in living rooms and kitchen tables and bedtime rituals throughout our region. The work can feel small in the moment, but I am a firm believer that those conversations are vital and lasting and important and necessary to changing the conversation in St. Louis. It challenges those very rules that were presented to me twenty years ago as a new arrival. It sets the stage for a more equitable future in the city where my girls were born. They will be the ones greeting newcomers to this place one day. I believe in them and the new story they will tell.
I hope you’ll join our family in supporting We Stories today.
Celebrate and learn more during this Give STL Day on the We Stories Facebook Page.