This year, the 11th grade students in their required History of St. Louis class have enjoyed a variety of virtual panel discussions with local experts. Scott Small, Head of the Upper School, introduced the program to students. “How can you recognize and weigh the ethical consequences of your decisions and actions, not just for yourself, but for those around you? We know how inextricably connected we are, how valuable we are to one another, and that begins and ends with your commitment to each other. What better way to start that promise to each other, but to understand the place that we live—our community.”
Humans of St. Louis
The class’s first speakers were Lindy Drew, co-founder and lead storyteller of Humans of St. Louis (HOSTL); Chloe Owens, storyteller at HOSTL; and Ava Mandoli ’21, intern at HOSTL and current MICDS senior. HOSTL is a nonprofit organization that shares first-person stories and photographic portraits of people and places all across St. Louis. The project started as a creative outlet and grew organically, building a large following on social media second only to the Humans of New York page.
HOSTL focuses on storytelling to connect people with multiple perspectives across St. Louis, stressing the importance of understanding all of St. Louis, including people who are from different areas and who live different lives.
Xavier Asher ’22 said, “When I think of St. Louis, I have the same thoughts that I think most people who aren’t from here think; that it’s a dangerous place. This presentation changed my perception of the city to a more positive one. It made me realize that there are still plenty of people in these communities who are trying to inflict positive change. St. Louis is a place with plenty of good people, but that doesn’t seem to make headlines.”
Necole Cheung, Executive Director of the Christian Hospital Foundation; Dr. Naveen Krishna, a doctor and COVID-19 specialist (and current parent); and Amadou Yattassaye, President of Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield (and current parent and trustee) offered a vibrant discussion about healthcare in St. Louis.
Dr. Krishna spoke about how St. Louis is blessed with two large universities and multiple community hospitals, but segregation between St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County and a rise in mental health issues due to isolation can present challenges.
Cheung said social determinants can cause communities to be unhealthy. “In North County, there are a lot of food deserts,” she said, in addition to a lack of access to care.
Yattasaye said the digital environment has allowed many to continue working, learning, and maintaining connections. “We need technology infrastructure to be robust and available to everyone,” he said. “Digital [technology] will create more access,” he said. “The pandemic has paved the way for telemedicine,” agreed Dr. Krishna.
“Look around you and leverage that to create significant opportunities. If you have an innovating mindset and you go away to college, don’t be afraid to come back here and leverage that,” Yattasaye said. “The future is in your hands, and we have confidence you can deliver. Be bold.”
Krishna said, “No matter what field you get into—medicine, business administration, economics—you can affect healthcare. Try to adopt being a global citizen.” Cheung encouraged students to explore local organizations. “There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities and tours. Volunteer, pick up the phone, shadow; there are great ways to learn what’s new.”
Social and Cultural Issues
We welcomed Cami Thomas ’11, a documentary filmmaker; Dr. Art McCoy, the Superintendent of Jennings School District; and Dr. Tim Huffman, Associate Professor at St. Louis University to discuss social and cultural issues in our community.
Thomas expressed her love for St. Louis and admitted that there are issues. “Going to school in one part of the city, living in another part, and seeing still other parts through volunteer work with my family, there are stark differences,” she said. McCoy spoke about the importance of reflection. “The most important social and cultural issue right now is knowing who we are, knowing our role in where we are and where we’re going, and knowing what basic rights and privileges everyone should have.”
Dr. Huffman talked about how restrictive and racist housing laws in St. Louis created ongoing issues with intergenerational wealth, and how inequity in policing and economic development impact housing. “Homeownership has a profound effect across generations,” he said.
McCoy said it’s important for students to know who they are in this moment, and where they are going, so they can help be a part of where they are going. “We are not just being, we are becoming,” he said. “As we do more, we become more. It’s important to have resources because a dream without resources is just a hallucination.” Huffman advised, “As a young person, you can align yourself with communities and be a contributor all over the world. Don’t just volunteer. Volunteer in the way that develops you and calls on your greatest skills.”
Thomas spoke about Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs, saying, “When basic needs are taken care of, people have freedom to imagine and create and think about what they want to do. That’s when you get a vibrant city. That’s the version of St. Louis I want to see.”
“The speakers shared a unique perspective of their own experience and the experience of others which definitely shaped how I think about St. Louis. We all have different interests and talents, so there are many unique and creative ways to help others and improve a situation,” said Cate Cody ’22.
Two different political panels offered students perspectives on politics at the local and state levels. The State Representatives Panel included members of the Missouri House of Representatives: Representative Phil Christofanelli (Republican, District 105), Representative Shamed Dogan ’96 (Republican, District 98), Representative Ian Mackey (Democrat, District 87), and Representative Tracy McCreery (Democrat, District 88).
After introducing themselves, sharing their backgrounds on how they got into politics, and describing which districts they oversee, the panelists covered three main questions from students. They talked about educational reform, implementing online sales tax, and the state’s lack of growth. Regarding the need for growth, Representatives Dogan and Mackey said that changes start at the individual level with embracing diversity (of race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, thoughts), being more forward-thinking, welcoming the technology and energy industries, and making changes as individuals. “We need to create a culture that is welcoming and a place where people want to be,” said Representative Mackey. “More than policies is how we talk to and treat each other.”
A recurring message from all of the speakers was highlighted when each shared specific examples about reaching across the aisle to work with the other party to pass a bill or accomplish a goal. The representatives gave examples of improving disciplinary practices in schools, banning the practice of shackling incarcerated women who are pregnant, correcting outdated and discriminatory HIV statutes, and criminal justice and police reform. “This is the best job I’ve had,” expressed Representative Dogan. “People do this to serve their communities. We work across the aisle every time.” It was great for students to hear all about respectful, productive, and positive bipartisanship.
Finally, the state representatives gave advice to students whether they wanted to get involved in politics or were perhaps disheartened by them. Representative McCreery shared, “Realize you don’t have to run for office to make a difference in the world. There are many ways you can help. Do some self-reflection, figure out what you care about.” “Government is run by the people who show up and it’s never too early to show up,” stated Representative Christofanelli.
The second panel of executive and legal experts included Tony Messenger, a national columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Emanuel Powell, a staff attorney with Arch City Defenders; Willie Epps Jr. ’88, a United States Magistrate Judge on the 8th Circuit; and Ella Jones, Mayor of Ferguson, Missouri.
The panelists launched the discussion by encouraging students to always vote and participate in the census since elected officials impact so many of the issues in our country and the census helps determine how resources are allocated. Several of the panelists also mentioned racial inequality as an issue.
The panel then shared how politics plays a role in each of their very different jobs. Powell spoke about how, as a civil rights attorney, he’s very much aware of the political pressures inherent in creating and enforcing laws, and how laws passed in the 1800s continue to impact the work he does today. Epps told the students, “You’re about to see how politics impact my world,” in regard to the then-upcoming confirmation hearings for a new Supreme Court justice. He spoke about how humbling it is to be a judge, and how beyond the confirmation process, in the real work of the courts, judges follow the law based on precedent, not on individual opinions. “When journalists write, they talk about us being ‘Obama judges’ or ‘Trump judges,’ but we do not see ourselves that way,” he said. “I assure you that every single day there are hundreds of men and women like me who try to follow the law by precedent, not based on what we think. That would be chaos. Our system of law is built on precedent established over decades.”
Messenger also talked about how journalists typically do not participate in partisan politics and said that he writes about both the Democratic party and the Republican party. He mentioned that while it’s often a “D versus R” discussion, he’s also written about “D versus D” and “R versus R.” “Politics is what ultimately creates public policy, determines on a federal level who ends up on the Supreme Court and who is appointed to circuit courts, and impacts cases making their way through the court system,” he said.
Jones said that recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and keeping people safe and healthy is the most important thing for St. Louis City and County to focus on, which will lead to economic recovery. All the panelists agreed that while our region struggles with a variety of issues, there are very good people collaborating and working hard to make our community better for everyone. They are optimistic about the future of St. Louis and its citizens.
Jorge Riopedre, Executive Director of Delmar DevINe (and parent of alumni); Amy Shaw, President & CEO of Nine Network (and spouse of faculty), Torbjorn Sjogren, Vice President of International Government and Defense for Boeing (and current parent and parent of alumni); and David Steward II ’95, CEO of Lion Forge Labs & Polarity (and current parent) discussed economics in St. Louis.
Both Steward and Sjogren shared how attracting talent can be a challenge. Sjogren said, “Getting the right talent has been a challenge and, frankly, getting diverse talent has been a challenge.”
Riopedre reflected on how business opportunities in St. Louis are enormous and if the issue of systemic racism could be solved, “people would be beating down our door.” The social and economic impact that systemic racism has played is something that the organizations of all four panelists are addressing in some way.
A challenge that Shaw noted was about our own perception of St. Louis. “I think that St. Louis thinks of itself as a ‘less than’ kind of place. We have an ingrained narrative that we’re not quite as good as.” This impression needs to be shifted and there is a lot of intentional work in progress to bring about this change.
Steward echoed this sentiment. “When we built our company, it was all about [asking] how can we produce content that is inclusive and representative of everybody?” His company showcases many of the marginalized voices in the community. He also said that we need to define our city ourselves.
“We need to expand the definition of what creating value is,” Riopedre added. “It has to be about investment in the community.”
“I would say that you’re needed,” said Shaw, directly addressing students. “I also think there’s something to be said about being a bigger fish in a smaller pond; you can accomplish a lot.”
Riopedre talked about the importance of using an MICDS education to make society better. “Whatever you do…take the education that MICDS is affording you and use it to better the society in which you live,” he said.
JaKenzie Brown ’22 said, “The speakers reminded me of all the cool opportunities in St. Louis. I already knew that St. Louis was great for entrepreneurs, but it was nice actually getting to hear business from their perspectives. With hard work and dedication, any idea can blossom into an amazing idea.”