St Louis:

Crossing the Divide in Racial, Gender Inequities in Organizations

By Lashana LewisJan. 27, 2021

I originally grew up in the housing projects of East St. Louis. So to me, St. Louis was the “big city.” As a young black girl, I looked at the shiny, silver Gateway Arch as a beacon of progress and hope for the region. I often walked from the front steps of my home to the downtown St. Louis area to enjoy the many festivities that adorned the riverfront. To me, this was freedom.

But after moving to St. Louis, becoming part of several local community organizations and even founding a few, I began to uncover disparities within the region that were often untold stories from those without power. 

In fact, according to an article by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2019, “African Americans in the St. Louis area are 3.23 times more likely than whites to live in poverty, the eighth-highest disparity out of 48 metro areas.” And while St. Louis has the highest number of female entrepreneurs, WalletHub still lists Missouri as No. 35 out of 50 (50 being the worst) in the“Best & Worst States for Women” — while not the worst, it’s certainly not the best our state can do.

But what was the solution? In our city, we needed to do more than just lip service to advance the collective consciousness of the region. We had to do more than talk and plan. We needed the concerted effort to grow and evolve. With that collective thought in the minds of St. Louisans across the area, new efforts were born.

Forward Through Ferguson (FTF), for example, was created out of the Ferguson Commission, a coalition that was created after Michael Brown’s death in 2014 to study the racial disparities and segregation within the city of St. Louis and its surrounding counties. FTF enacts the change set forth by the Ferguson Commission’s report and recommendations via interactive accountability tools, grants, and racial equity training. 

In another example, Rung for Women, a nonprofit opening this year, is dedicated to helping women out of poverty via a free membership and career training center, where cohorts (referred to as members) gain access to a personal mentor, community support, job training and credential opportunities. As part of the program, women also gain access to counseling, health care, financial education, onsite childcare, and grab-and-go meals to remove any other barriers their members might have to success.

I’m intimately aware of St. Louis’s ability to rally together for a cause. An opportunity opened  in late 2019 for a leader of a local equity collective that was to combine the strengths and services of entrepreneur support organizations, particularly those that served women- and people of color-founded businesses. I leaned into the position with the hope that many within the community were aligned with the problems I saw these business owners face every day. Throughout 2020, COVID-19 ravaged many of them, forcing some to close permanently and almost all of them to rethink their financial strategy.

That is where the St. Louis community really stepped in. A few calls and conversations later, and a few of us, including members of the collective’s steering committee, formulated a financial series that focused on government-specific grants and loans targeted to those suffering during the pandemic. We were able to bring together leaders from the financial, legal, and local chambers of commerce to address the immediate need.  

Organizations and corporations began to step up with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and, when possible, fund burgeoning businesses to keep them afloat. It is sad to say, but I think the racial unrest and pandemic were needed to open the eyes of many who assumed that the lack of representation was due to a lack of interest, talent, or drive. I was surprised yet pleased how St. Louis City and the surrounding county came together and stepped up during the more dire times when some regions were at their breaking points.

When addressing the issues around inequities, I would often think about my days as a child. I thought that being an adult meant that I would have these long conversations about ideas and concepts. And that those talks would turn into more diatribes and, eventually, plans taken into action. 

Having had the opportunity to sit at different tables, I realized my younger self was right: preservation of freedom is foremost important. And St. Louis, in its own way, has ensured that for the future.

About the author

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LaShana Lewis

CEO of L. M. Lewis Consulting
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LaShana Lewis is a technologist working in the diversity space with over 20 years of experience. She is currently CEO of L. M. Lewis Consulting, a company which aims to make employers more diverse through recruitment, hiring, and retention best practices. She recently served as Director of the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, an organization focused on building systems of race and gender equity for St. Louis' early-stage, entrepreneurial ecosystem.