Power Building, Trust, and Relationships: Supporting Movement Beyond Moments of Reckoning

How can building trusting relationships and sharing power between philanthropy and community-driven efforts spark and sustain movement building? Ten years after Ferguson, this plenary session explored how grassroots organizers and other community leaders in St. Louis are partnering with funders to sustain the movement for racial and economic justice.

This plenary session was held on May 1, 2024 at the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.


  • Charli Cooksey, Founder, WEPOWER
  • John Harper, CEO, FSG
  • Jesse Lee, ASL Interpreter
  • Kerry Patterson, ASL Interpreter
  • Dr. Jason Q. Purnell, President, James S. McDonnell Foundation
  • Courtney W. Robertson, Director of Programs and Partnerships, Collective Impact Forum

    Please see further down this page for related resources and a full transcript of this discussion.

Related Resources

Discussion Transcript

Courtney W. Robertson: As a reminder from yesterday’s plenary, movement building is building the collective capacity of communities to collectively address and transform the root causes of social injustices. It involves organizing people to take action, building solidarity, cultivating generative relationships with each other and the land, and creating sustainable change. When conceptualizing this gathering we knew we wanted to bring the voice of funders into the conversation around movement building and collaboration, but we didn’t want it to be centered around funding alone. Now, we all know that funding, of course, is critical to all of our work, but we wanted to dive deeper into the role that funders can play in advancing collaborative work and movement building beyond their dollars.

We also wanted to dive into what a strong partnership between funders, community organizers, collaborative practitioners, and other stakeholders should look like in doing this work. So today we have the pleasure of hosting this conversation with a dynamic group of folks all based in St. Louis, Missouri. Now, again, as a reminder, we will disable the chat during the conversation to invite everyone’s full presence, but you will be able to offer any questions that you have for our panel in the Q&A function.

Here to moderate this conversation and introduce you to this dynamic group is the FSG CEO, John Harper. Throughout his career John has been a thoughtful and inclusive leader with a deep commitment to advancing equity, shifting power, and uplifting the voices of historically marginalized communities. With a strong commitment to place-based approaches, John has supported efforts in cities like Cleveland and St. Louis, he has enabled cross-sector collaboratives to achieve collective impacts and sustain meaningful change. Ladies and gentlemen, John Harper.

John Harper: Thank you so much for that warm intro, Courtney. It never gets normal to hear folks reading off your bio like that. Well, we will ignore that point.

Hello folks, my name is John Harper. I am CEO of FSG. On behalf of FSG, one of the cohosts of the Collective Impact Forum with our colleagues at Aspen, I just want to extend a huge thank you and a welcome, and I hope that you’re getting something out of both today, yesterday’s time, and the time that we’ll spend together tomorrow as well. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know St. Louis in a different way over the course of the past year and being in relationship with my co-panelists even more deeply. It’s kind of hard to believe that 10 years ago this August, Michael Brown was murdered just outside of St. Louis, and we all know what happened with the uprising that occurred in Ferguson and the work. It was a moment in the movement.

Today, we’re going to have a conversation to see 10 years later how have things changed? How have they stayed the same? What are we looking forward to and what’s been challenging? Through this conversation I invite you to keep in mind that St. Louis is not unique. We’ll hear about a lot of goings on and what’s been going down in the St. Louis region, but trade out the players, trade out some of the names, and this could be many other cities across the country. So I hope that you’re able to take away something from today’s conversation and apply it to your work moving forward. With that, I’m excited to welcome two folks that I consider to be friends in the work.

First, I have Jason Purnell, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a family foundation seeking to advance inclusive growth and shared prosperity in St. Louis. They’re doing work in workforce development supporting small and midsize business growth, wealth building and protection, and perhaps relevant for today’s conversation, focusing on cultivating a bit of civic infrastructure and we’ll talk a bit about what that looks like.

I’m also excited to welcome Charli Cooksey. Charli is the founder and CEO of WEPOWER, a grassroots organization working in both St. Louis and East St. Louis to build power and shift systems to create measurable improvements in the lives of marginalized folks, specifically the Black and Latino families, Latinx families in East and traditional St. Louis. With that, maybe let’s dive into the conversation.

Hey, Jason, hey, Charli. Looking forward to being here with you all today. Hope that we can get some insights out of our conversation throughout the course of the next hour or so. I know that folks have your bio so I’m not going to go into all the weeds of the awesomeness that you are. I might start with a question that takes us back a bit. Take me back to 2014. What were you working on then to advance racial and economic justice? And how would you describe your role in that movement today? How have things shifted? Jason, let’s get started with you.

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: Thanks, John. It’s a pleasure to be here with you and on this panel with also people I consider friends. Back in 2014 it seems hard to believe that it’s been 10 years already. Ten years ago, at the end of this month we had just released a report called For the Sake of All on the Health and Wellbeing of African Americans in St. Louis. We were seven Black scholars from St. Louis University and Washington University where I was based at the time on the faculty at the Brown School. That report was an attempt to uncover the factors that led to significant disparities in health that we observed.

Probably the marquis finding from that report was an 18-year gap in life expectancy between two zip codes separated by less than 10 miles. One of those zip codes, 63106 in north St. Louis, the city of St. Louis, and 63105 in an affluent inner ring suburb called Clayton. An 18-year gap in life expectancy, but also disparities in terms of eight to six times the poverty rate, the unemployment rate, and 63106 had one-sixth of the median income of 63105. The rest of the report was really around unpacking how we got here, what were some of the other health and really life course disparities that we observed, and then recommending six areas of recommendation in terms of what we could do.

So it wasn’t just a report on disparities but really a call to action for the community to invest in everything from early childhood to mental health, to health in the schools, economic opportunity, and a focus on preventing chronic and infectious diseases, and of course, we had no clue that several years later we would have a COVID pandemic that highlighted even more starkly for the nation what those disparities looked like and what were the factors that led to those.

I’m fortunate now to be the president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation and actually have the opportunity to work with our board and our team to put some resource behind several of those areas of recommendation, so I feel very grateful and gratified to be able to do that and grateful to you and your team in helping us to develop what that strategy looks like. But it really is around including people who have been intentionally, on purpose, excluded from the economic mainstream of the St. Louis region, both as a justice activity, but also because it’s the only way we can grow. We’ve got to tell both of those stories at the same time.

John Harper: Thanks for that, Jason. You opened up some things I’ll come back to, but before that, Charli, I want to get you in here. Take us back, 2014, describe the work you were doing there and then bring us to today. How do you describe your role in the local movement happening in St. Louis?

Charli Cooksey: I’m good to be with you all today. It’s an honor to be on this panel on site, Dr. Purnell and John. Nice to see you virtually this week, John, for yet another important summit. So 2014, I get on my mom’s nerve when is say this, but I was living my best life. I was serving as executive director and cofounder of the Educational Access and Leadership Development nonprofit, which I cofounded while serving my two years through Teach for America, and we were celebrating our first cohort of high school scholars graduating from high school and preparing that summer to matriculate to four-year institutions and life really was great. We were exceeding our fundraising goals, our impact metrics, our team culture was awesome, and we were actually headed back to St. Louis from a team retreat in Grafton in Illinois, as I call it balling on a budget, and we had just grounded ourselves in our vision for the year and our big tasks to better support and further support young people or scholars of color, and that same day that we were wrapping up our retreat was the exact same day that I was scrolling Instagram and saw that poster that said “the Ferguson police had just killed my unarmed son.” That day went quickly from us rooting our future in celebration to a moment that completely transformed all of our lives.

Fast forward, by probably a year later into the Ferguson uprising, I was navigating that same org that was exceeding impact metrics, that was doing great financially, really against my wishes was sort of forced into merging, integrating into another very well-resourced but also, I would say, questionable on its commitment to equity, merging into that organization and so by day I was in board rooms with older, wealthy White men. At that point I was young and 30, the only person of color in the room, the only woman in the room, and they had a clear vision for the future of our young people and their families that didn’t align to my values, and by night, I was on the streets of Ferguson as a protester. So it was a real moment of reckoning for me where I saw the way that White wealth and power played out in board rooms and impacted all of our lives in the region. I saw the way that Black political power was suppressed even when we put our bodies on the line for the sake of speaking up for racial injustice. I started to question what is the root of this? How do we respond to this moment in a long-term sustainable way?

I landed on this concept of power. We in St. Louis and I would argue across the country we have a power problem, and I don’t have the data, but I hope to get it one day. I think that if we would measure the correlation between the power or lack of power among suppressed and marginalized communities and correlate that to racial disparity, I think we would see communities with limited economic and political power have a high disparity rate.

That led me to come up with the idea for WEPOWER. We are designed to hold space for Black and Brown folks to dream a better future, but not just dream of them, building and wielding enough power to bring those dreams to bear. I was preparing to launch WEPOWER the spring of 2017, had a really unique opportunity to serve as the interim executive director of Forward Through Ferguson which was birthed out of that Ferguson uprising. I was supposed to do that for six months. Turned into a year and had a really amazing opportunity and honor to work with tons of other folks to facilitate a regional plan to make sure the Ferguson Commission report which was developed by some amazing St. Louis leaders didn’t just collect dust on a shelf, but it was turned into a set of strategies that we could wrap our arms around as a region post-uprising.

Now, was able to launch WEPOWER spring of 2018 and it’s been a wild ride, but we have a really deep commitment to early childhood, systems change, economic systems change, and we do that for a lot of leadership development, training folks on how to run for office or how to advocate or organize for change, and also supporting entrepreneurs with growing, thriving businesses so that we can have healthy families and thriving economies.

John Harper: Thank you both. I think you both know that I was a teacher in another life so I’m going to take a little bit of moderator’s grace and just highlight something that I think showed up in both of how you just described your work. We often think about movement building and we think about where you were, Charli, on the streets, sort of making things happen, protesting and advocating for what we would like to see. But what I think I want to make sure that folks take away is Jason as researcher also saw himself as a part of this movement. Jason, today as a funder also sees him a part of this movement. Charli spoke to multiple organizations that were present then and are continuing to do the work today that are also a part of this movement. So as you’re thinking about the work, as you’re thinking about your local ecosystem, who’s engaged in your movement? Is it only those folks out in the streets? Have we ostracized them as separate, or have we invited in the researchers, the funders, and others who will be necessary in order for us to actually achieve the goals that we’re working toward? Just wanted to offer that up even just based on what Jason and Charli have already shared. Appreciate those reflections about 10 years ago. Let’s fast forward to today. A lot has happened, right? And in some ways, I think a lot hasn’t happened. Charli, would like to start it off with you here. What’s happened over the course of the past 10 years? How are things different? What’s working well, and what would you say has been challenging?

Charli Cooksey: It is so wild to imagine that’s it been 10 years. I would say one of the biggest things that has happened is we now have the language to speak about what we have been experiencing as a region for so long, pre–Mike Brown’s murder and the uprising. I think there’s now this level of—the uprising was so blatant that it was something we couldn’t hide behind our kindness anymore as a region. We had to confront and acknowledge that the deeply seated sort of history and racism that has impacted us. I think one big thing is we see more traditional organizations having those uncomfortable conversations using language to grapple with the awareness that we have a lot of work to do. I would say the other really big thing that has been encouraging and beautiful even though it’s super challenging is that we have a lot more infrastructure for grassroots orgs to build and wield political power. Forward Through Ferguson analysis, we have organizations like Action St. Louis. We have orgs that were at a different point and different level resource that are now able to lean into their full mission. We see a really amazing group of Black-led orgs coordinating and collaborating to cast a vision for Black folks in St. Louis and to do work whether it’s electoral work, economic justice work, or some other type of issues, doing that work in ways that I had never seen before pre the Ferguson uprising.

John Harper: Jason, we’d love to get you in here. What’s transpired over the course of the past 10 years? What do you feel like is working well? Then also I want to get to the other side. What’s been challenging?

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: I think we really are at an inflection point in St. Louis. I think there’s a recognition that the longstanding disparities and inequities that we have as a region are leading to a loss of population, a stagnation of economic growth. I think that there are—Charli talked about the view from the grassroots. From my view from more of the grasstops, there are more of those institutions making rhetorical gestures towards equity and making some structural changes within their own organizations. But we need to translate rhetoric into action and outcomes. That’s why my focus is so tightly on how are we changing the material conditions of people’s lives rather than just engaging in racial equity theater and how do we create the conditions for collaboration among a diverse set of actors. I’m beginning to see that capacity at least come into focus and it’s one of the things that we want to support as a foundation is building that civic infrastructure.

I’ll also say that there are a lot of different people in different seats. We have the first Black woman elected as mayor of the city of St. Louis in Tishaura Jones. We have a very dynamic leader of something called the St. Louis Development Corporation in Neil Richardson who’s put out an economic justice plan for the city of St. Louis. We have people who are not only sitting in the right seats but also coordinating with each other, collaborating with each other in relationship with one another. That looks different. The challenges that—I often say that the double helix of the DNA of St. Louis is fragmentation and racism. We’ve got to find ways to create institutional infrastructure that bridges those divides and it’s going to require people to show up with greater humility. It’s going to require resources. One of the things that I’ll also note is we had no funds to enact any of the recommendations of For the Sake of All, and neither did the Ferguson Commission. We need to organize as funders the resources that it’s going to take to have meaningful collaboration that leads to those outcomes that I’m talking about.

John Harper: Yeah. I appreciate you for going there, Jason. I was going to lead you there if you didn’t go yourself. I want to dig a bit deeper here for a moment. When we were in the process of helping to reset your strategy, myself along with Erica Henderson who’s not on the call today, shout out to Erica and keeping her in our prayers right now. Erica did a lot of engagement with folks in the street. As we were talking about, hey, Jason’s in this new role, the foundation’s starting to pivot their work and move in this direction. What are you excited by? What are you energized by? In talking to folks like Charli and many of her peers what we heard was excitement, hope in many ways from where you were going, but at the same time I think skepticism. Charli spoke to the ways that philanthropy has not always shown up effectively over the course of the past 10 years. You’re both naming that. We got the reports. We got the language. We got the studies. We don’t always have the collective action that one would like to see on top of that. So as you’re now in this pivot, this unique moment, what comes to mind for you knowing from a sort of trust building and repair perspective or relationship building perspective, what’s top of mind for you as you actually try to advance this vision towards moving forward on inclusive growth?

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: Top of mind for us is what we learned not just from the research folks like Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor but also from talking to stakeholders and learning from what you all heard from national stakeholders and what we learned from local stakeholders was that none of the work that we want to see around inclusive and equitable growth happens without strong civic infrastructure, without people who can collaborate and coordinate their activities. When we think about that, some of that is building from the ground up, some of it is enhancing existing infrastructure. We need to both organize folks at the grassroots and the grasstops in their own sort of collaborative in coordinating structures, but we also need those bridges between the grassroots and grasstops.

We need more of the lived expertise of people closest to the problem informing the people who have the resources. But we also need to be able to have, we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. People who speak equity need to speak growth. People who speak growth need to speak equity. That’s the only way we’re going to get to a sustainable and reasonable set of outcomes for the most people.

When I think about what it’s going to take to move us forward it’s both that infrastructure piece, a dedication of resources and people and time to collaboration. We’ve all been part of the meeting that gets called, we’re going to collaborate on this. The first meeting is real excited. People are ready to go. By the fourth meeting only half the folks have shown up. Nobody’s gotten any decision-making rights and there’s no resources to support the work. Collaboration has to be somebody’s job and it has to be a well-resourced part of somebody’s job or else it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. So those of us who have resources to bring to bear have to be more intentional and quite frankly, have to redirect some of our resources to what can sometimes seem non sexy, but it’s the setting up of infrastructure, the last people to coordinate their efforts. And that’s what happens in regions that have equitable growth. That’s what we have to support.

John Harper: Charli, I’m coming back to you, but I want to sort of dig into our resident academic for a little bit longer to better understand this term of civic infrastructure. So at the Collective Impact Forum, collective impact is a process, the structure. You’re preaching to the choir on everything you just named, Jason. What might be a gap in folks’ understanding though is how does the coordination of programs and services or some of the traditional ways that collective impact has taken shape, how is that relevant to this vision that you have for inclusive growth, for shared prosperity. Can you share a little bit more about the research? What’s the relationship between the civic infrastructure or the backbone support that many folks on this call today are actually doing daily so what it means to advance a vision for inclusive growth.

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: When we look at the regions that have had more success and inclusive growth there is some institutional entity that is drawing together a diverse set of actors across sectors where people are looking at data, looking at the same data and making similar conclusions about what the data are telling us. But they’re also coming together to deliberate and to determine what is the shared narrative that we have around the destiny of this place and how do we act together and move together and learn together as we’re advancing the region towards that. The kinds of institutional infrastructure and knowledge and experience that people on this webinar have is directly relevant to what it takes to move, but it goes beyond just coordinating the activities of various nonprofit organizations and it has to include business, government, philanthropy and other actors all rowing in the same direction.

John Harper: I appreciate that clarification. Again, building the case for funders on the call specifically why does one need to engage in collective impact. It’s not just about this coordinating of services and impact, it’s also about how do we reach towards those larger objectives towards inclusive growth. It’s another frame that I think resonates deeply for a lot of the other stakeholders in our community, and so to your point, not just doing racial equity theater, I appreciate that term, but understanding how do we walk and chew gum at the same time. How do we both talk equity and talk growth as a part of the same? Charli, coming to you, what does this look like in your work? Talk to me, reflect a bit about the collaborative table that you sit at. What’s working well and what’s been challenging?

Charli Cooksey: Yeah, I think when I think about collective impact and the different stakeholders and the ecosystem and ecosystems, I envision concentric circles and Venn diagrams. I think that there are and there should be more tables where there, for example grassroots folks grappling with big problems together, and there should be grassroots folks at tables with grasstops folks grappling with things together. There might need to be some tables where grasstops folks are just together so there is this messiness I don’t think we talk about enough when we think about collective impact and ecosystem work and movement-building work that is inherent even though we want it to look and sound clean, and so one example I think about is the examples that Dr. Purnell gave, and now we have our first Black woman mayor who is serving in the city who then appointed Neal Richardson to lead SLDC. We have the unseating of the attorney that decided to not indict the murderer of Michael Brown, Jr. because of grassroots Black political power building, and yet I would say if we were to just aggregate the data about where that money came from, I bet you less than five percent of the resources to support getting this amazing Black woman elected to unseat that attorney in St. Louis County did not come from St. Louis, and so there continues to be moments where we have big wins and it’s not resourced in a coordinated, collaborative way at the regional level, and that has a lot of repercussions.

I do think it makes it hard for folks to even come to the table to do really meaningful collective impact work. I think an example that makes me really excited about the pivots to new leaders and new seats and new leaders in some of those more traditional seats we’re engaging in or actually about to wrap up a community design process to reimagine our local economy, and we are launching, planning to launch some pretty bold recommendations in this playbook that we are releasing this summer, and we have an advisory board, and that advisory board is made up of leadership from our two largest anchor institutions in the region, and they are sitting next to some of our most radical Black political organizational reps in the region, and sitting next to philanthropist, and so we’re having these really complicated but rich conversations around the pros and cons of things like pilots, and city-county merger, and worker ownership, and democratic economies. I don’t think that would have ever happened pre-2014 but I think those are the type of tables we need to see more of.

We need to see, as Dr. Purnell said, more diverse folks sitting at a table, staying there and leaning in when things get hard, and having both uncomfortable conversations, leveraging of resources, and I do want to amplify/double-click or whatever language you prefer, the challenge I do think exists as we—there’s a lot of action but it’s not aligned and coordinated towards a clear set of priority outcomes, and so even as we celebrate new leaders, new leaders are just one small input. The outcome is not new leaders. The outcome is closing the racial wealth gap. The outcome is Black folks’ life expectancy increasing, and so what I hope to see over the next—really, I’d love to see it tomorrow but realistically over the next year or two is that we have a really diverse set of stakeholders come to a table and say these are the three outcomes we’re going to commit to as a region and we’re going to go all in in our respective areas of expertise to shift these outcomes. Philanthropy is going to put up this amount of dollars, grassroots orgs are going to focus on these electoral campaigns, social service agencies are going to triple the number of folks served in this area. I think it’s really hard right now for our region to see impact because while I think we do want to see the region get better, we haven’t agreed to the outcomes and then we haven’t said we’re going to commit to those outcomes.

John Harper: I’m appreciating the honesty of this conversation, the reality that we’ve got new folks in new seats, many of them Black, that’s a small win to count along the way but that is not success just yet. How do we actually get this alignment on outcomes. This all resonates. I invite folks to put questions in the chat. There are already some great questions in there. Jason, just saw you come off mute. Do you have more to add on what comes next? OK. I want to go deeper with you, Charli, and actually taking a question from the chat. There’s a question from a funder that says how do we actually build the capacity of folks to engage at these tables? When we’re thinking about folks with that lived expertise and their lived experience, standing up and advocating at one of these collaborative tables with leads of some of your anchor institutions is not always part of many a lived experience, right? You have to build the comfort in navigating into those spaces. For a funder who’s interested in supporting this work and wanting to get more folks engaged like yourself or organizations like yours, what are some of the capacity-building needs or capacity-building elements that you think are most important? Where do you encourage folks to invest?

Charli Cooksey: My immediate reaction is capacity building for who? I think I would argue that funders need to build their capacity for creating culture for tables to be diverse and broad. I think that—and also just do it. I think some of it is we talk about it, and we build our muscles and our strength by practicing. In the practicing, we’re going to mess up, we’re going to learn but we’re going to iterate. From my experience in the way that we’ve approached it is we provide stipends, and we’re not a funder so our stipends are much smaller, but we provide stipends for people’s time if we know that they have a resource challenge. So we do a lot of early childhood work. If we know that we need folks’ time, expertise, and presence, we’re going to do the best we can to say we know that, one, there needs to be more trust building here, two, you’ve been working all day running your child care center so we’re going to try and recognize the sacrifice you’re making for being here by putting some resources just for your time and presence which I think is really important.

I think the other part is in terms of capacity building, I think there’s opportunity. I think I’m struggling a little because I think capacity building needs to be true for impact to people but funders just as much if not more need the capacity built to lean into this more, but I think I’m total team Collective Impact Forum and all you all’s tools, and so we use the Water of Systems Change. We have everyone that participates in WEPOWER read the article. We do trainings that we’ve gotten from FSG on what collective impact is versus isolated impact, and we use those tools to ground folks in like there is a new different way to operate in relationship to one another, and there’s language and tools, and so when we do trainings, we hold space for funders to be in the same room as impacted people so they can grapple with these new tools and language together. I think about leadership as well so often we know most advisory boards or ecosystems and coalitions have chairs and cochairs. There’s a way for a cochair to be one of those grasstops alongside a grassroots person so I think there’s a way to democratize who’s at the leadership level. There’s a way to build space for shared capacity building, and there’s a way to acknowledge like we know you’re under resourced so here’s a few resources for your time. My hope and expectation as someone who is resource strapped is to know at the end of some type of planning process or collaboration conversation, that there are big dollars there for folks to truly implement what’s agreed upon.

John Harper: Yeah, Charli you opened up this so I’m going to keep going down this path with Jason. To Charli’s point, the grassroots folks, the lived experience folks aren’t the only ones that need some capacity building in this space. Jason, how do you think about what it actually takes to get grasstops folks to the table? This question is in the chat of this is kind of amazing. It’s great to hear but it’s challenging to bring those folks to the table inside many regions. Both in your current role and some of the collaborative work that you’ve done previously, Jason, what have you seen that’s impacted that work of bringing more of those folks to the table, and what capacity building would you say that they need to stay there?

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: I think what we underappreciate is the importance of relationships, the formation of relationships, the maintenance of relationships, the extent to which people know each other as human beings, and the way that that fuels future coordinated action and collaboration. So we have to actually be intentional about the relationships that exist between organizations like WEPOWER and people in the community but also that exist between grassroots and grasstops leaders. If our default is that we are adversaries and we are always doing battle, then it makes it a lot harder for us to coordinate our activities. I remember in the height of Ferguson, I was on the faculty of the Brown School, so we had social workers in training and public health practitioners in training who met at the home of one of our faculty members, and they were nervous about going home to talk to their families about what they had experienced. Some of them had been in part of the protests themselves. How were they going to talk to their families? How were they going to be received? What were they going to go back home to?

And one of the things that I said, and it may not be popular but that’s never stopped me before was that, you know, you’ve grown up on a diet of this notion that no one can understand my experience as a Black man unless they’re a Black man. I said if that’s true, then why should you care about my experience? If you can never understand it, if there’s no bridge that you can cross into my experience, you’re not going to care about my experience, so we have to find ways, and I’m so glad that this plenary started with the arts because that’s one of the ways that we do bridge.

That’s one of the ways that we do enter into the experience of someone else. I don’t think that you can discount or shortchange that process. You have to have—we had Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor come and talk to us about what is necessary to build this civic infrastructure that has worked in other regions, and they said, you know, you need a handful of these grasstops people to have some epiphanies, and you need to set up experiences in which those epiphanies happen. So there’s got to be some intentionality around both the exposure and the education of some people around certain issues but also then entering into relationships.

The last thought I’ll share is I was made aware—I sit on something called the Roundtable on Population Health Improvement of the National Academies, and we had a workshop in which a group of folks who’ve been working on poverty alleviation in the state of Washington came and presented, and their entire process was led by people with resource constraints. We heard the most eloquent person in the room was a woman from the state of Washington who’s talking about her hopes and dreams for her son. That’s where I learned the term lived expertise but when I talked to the team afterwards and asked them how did you do this, they said, well, we know her. We’ve sat at her kitchen table. We know her child’s name. We know her family. You don’t get to the kind of—and you certainly don’t weather the storms of this kind of work without strong relationships, and there’s got to be the same intentionality that we place around building infrastructure and making sure the financial models work. There’s got to be that same dedication and intensity to how are we making sure people know each other because that’s how we get through anything as a species. We do it together.

John Harper: Yeah, so much of this—go ahead, Charli.

Charli Cooksey: I would add one thing to that. I think that there’s a role for peer-to-peer accountability, and I’ve been experiencing this a lot lately where—I mean if I drop the ball, I know that there is someone who I’m in a relationship with who is my peer who’s going to call me, grab coffee, and say, hey, Charli, this is what’s up, and there’s been times where I had—last week someone called me and said I dropped the ball and I just want you to know, one, here’s what I did and where I went wrong, two, I’m sorry, here’s what I’m going to do differently. I’m curious how often funders do that among one another. How often is it like, you know what, we really need you to show up in that moment and you didn’t, and here’s a way you can do it differently, and here’s been the impact of you not showing up.

I think in order, and I think about the question I think that funder posed, in order for us to truly get coordinated, there has to be a level of accountability, and I do think accountability is rooted in relationships, but it can’t just be we’re sitting at a table together. It has to be naming this is where the ball got dropped, what we can learn from it, and how we can do it differently because there are weird power dynamics when someone like me has to call out a funder. One other thought actually is I think in order for impacted people, grassroots orgs to keep showing up, we are constantly on defense.

I mean in this early childhood space right now, every other day there’s a crisis that’s happening. We have a group of providers filing a lawsuit. I just literally, a few minutes before I got on this webinar, I found out there might have to be another lawsuit but there needs to be coordination and planning. It’s crisis after crisis after crisis, and I think a role that funders can play to even support our ability to be doing equal system and coordination work is rapid relief and like emergency funds because there’s always an emergency, and some of those emergencies, if they don’t—if the harm doesn’t get mitigated or slowed down, there’s no way to even do that generational work. I think there’s a way to think about philanthropy where grants are given where it’s like one third of this grant is for rapid relief, emergency, miscellaneous. One third of this grant is for organizing and power building, and another third is just for general operating or your direct service programmatic work because all of those things are true, whether we get funding for it or not.

John Harper: Yeah, I’m appreciating these reflections that is both the opportunity for the funder to fund differently. Certainly, it’s about a set of capacity-building activities that you named but, Charli, what I’m hearing in this is how are you demonstrating it? How are you owning some of the mistakes, some of the transgressions, some of the ways that we’re hoping to be better together? I want to pivot a little bit to something that Charli opened up and certainly something that came up in the conversation as we were supporting Jason and his board which is systemic racism didn’t show up overnight, and as much as we would want to solve it tomorrow, we know that that is highly unlikely. So if the metric is not just we got more Black folks in leadership seats across the city, how are you thinking about measuring and advancing toward success? If that long-term vision is improved outcomes for Black and Latinx families across the region, what are the things that you are pointing to, that you are tracking in order to measure progress, and importantly, in order to sustain commitment towards the work as a part of that measurement of progress. I’ll go to either of you to take this one first.

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: For me, it’s real brass tacks. I’ve rarely seen an unemployment number where the Black unemployment rate is less than twice the White unemployment rate in St. Louis. Closing that gap. We’ve got, you know, a lot of people talk about income inequality. We’re interested in wealth and income inequality. Wealth inequality dwarfs income inequality so we’re looking at net worth. How are we improving the net worth of Black and other historically marginalized groups in the region? To what extent are people able to participate in wealth-generating activities like the formation of businesses, the growth of businesses, the ownership of homes but also the ownership of a diverse set of assets? We are not in the business of determining for people what their ends and dreams in life are, but we know that with a dollar in your pocket, you’ve got choices, you’ve got self-determination in a way that isn’t there when you are just trying to make ends meet.

I tell people, I’ve told people quite a bit lately, I don’t want to hear about another financial education program that doesn’t have any finances attached to it. So we’re proud to be supporting something called the Rooted Initiative here in St. Louis through an organization called Invest STL where 50 households randomly selected as an attempt to stabilize a community that’s seen some gentrification get $2,000 for that immediate need, and then $20,000 more for the investment in home repair and business creation or they can invest it directly in the market, and they’ve got all the advisors arrayed around them to help them make those choices. So we’ve got to think much more creatively, and we’ve got to think at scale about the ways in which we move people, and our lane is around economics. It’s around how, you know—and to your other point about how you sustain it, you’ve got to be very clear and evidence based and strategically communicate the fact that St. Louis which is losing population, which is growing economically at a fairly anemic rate, cannot succeed by leaving 30 to 40 percent of the population on the sidelines. Those people have to be incorporated into the economic mainstream, and we have to attract more people to St. Louis, and we’re not going to do that unless we’re a welcoming and inclusive place.

John Harper: Yeah, Charli, what about you? How are you actually measuring progress? We’re not going to solve or transform systemic racism tomorrow, what are those signs that you look for to know that you’re making progress?

Charli Cooksey: First, I’ll start by saying part of this current reimagination campaign is to collect people’s visions. So we collected a little over 500 vision statements, especially from Black folks in the city, and it was so humbling because when I think of vision, I think of something big, bold, innovative, and I can’t tell you how many times I read people need food, transportation, street lights, safety, and it was—it was overwhelming frankly to see that people are simply asking for St. Louis’s future to include them being able to simply survive, just to have food that they can access in their neighborhood.

So I wanted to lift that up because I think oftentimes, we can start with the big outcomes that are going to take generations to achieve, and we are in a moment where things are so dire for Black people that as much as I want to focus on just those big, bold outcomes, I think we’re going to have to have some simple outcomes around are people’s basic needs met. Do people have food in their neighborhood that is relatively quality, and I’m aligned with Dr. Purnell, we are finalizing some outcomes right now and we’re thinking about three to four key metrics that can really measure the health of our economy.

One is around are we closing the racial wealth gap. Another set of metrics are around power. Are we seeing more marginalized communities have power and wield power, and I think embedded in some of that is also public perception. Going back to the Water of Systems Change, the most fundamental condition is mental models, and so we have to shift hearts and mindsets if we care about the longevity and effectiveness of policy and practice change.

Then that other bucket that we’ve been getting pushed on from the advisory board and others is measuring the wealth and effectiveness of collaborative coordination. That is probably a key first step for us to even close those racial wealth gaps or to build and wield power among marginalized communities.

So it’s something we’re still grappling with right now and hoping to collaborate with folks like Dr. Purnell and others so we can say these are the few outcomes we want to shift over the next generation, and then the other one that we are deeply committed to is closing the quality affordability gap in early childhood. Right now there’s about 90,000 children—this is old, pre-pandemic data—only about 19 percent of them have access to quality affordable seats. We want to know, are we closing that access gap and are more folks living in poverty, babies living in poverty, getting access to the seats that are quality and affordable.

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: Can I just pick up on a couple of things there? In total agreement. I don’t think meeting people’s basic needs is in competition with a strong economic focus. I think there are—and one of the exciting things to see quite frankly in the St. Louis region right now is people collaborating in the food system and thinking about ways in which everyday individuals can monetize food businesses, food innovation, and give that back to the community in ways that are accessible and affordable and culturally appropriate and also healthy. I know this isn’t what Charli was saying but I think there are ways that you can do both. But I also want to say that, you know, philanthropy is at best a start. It’s a foot in the door. It’s a way to get things tried and tested. It has no ability to compete with the power of government and the power of the private sector, so we have to find ways to harness those engines.

Two examples, we shrunk elderly poverty to very small numbers through the passage of the Social Security Act. Now we excluded large swaths of people in the 1930s when it was first passed but when you look at what elder poverty looked like prior to the passage of the Social Security Act and what it looks like now, it’s night and day. And more recently during the pandemic we had a Child Tax Credit that reduced child poverty by something like 40 to 50 percent. There’s not enough philanthropy in the world to compete with that so we have to have also as our North Star both how do you make the market work in ways that accrue to the benefit of people in community.

We’re very excited about something called the St. Louis Anchor Action Network which is one of our grantees that is large anchor institutions in the region committing to a 22 zip code footprint, and increasing their local purchasing and hiring within that footprint that’s characterized by majority Black populations and at least 20 percent poverty rates, and could have an economic impact of 50 million dollars with just a 10 percent increase in both hiring and purchasing in places that haven’t seen economic activity. Those are the kinds of ways that we can harness the power of the private sector, and then we have to think about what are the policy levers that can be pulled. When you look at something like baby bonds and some analyses showing that that could close the racial wealth gap by some 40 percent if designed and enacted in the right way, so we’re interested in the full menu of activities. I’ve said it multiple times here, but we’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum. We’ve got to be able to take care of people’s immediate needs, couldn’t agree with that more, but we are not going to social service our way out of these gaping chasms of disparity that we have.

Charli Cooksey: Can I quickly build on that? I think a great example of that is something we’re navigating right now. To me, philanthropy is a catalytic resource that to me should get leveraged to activate the power and potential of government. It is so hard to fundraise in St. Louis. We have one major donor that gives over 10K. WEPOWER has existed for six years. We’ve won almost every single campaign we have launched. The only one we didn’t win was I would argue, there is a lot of political stuff going on and it was the height of the pandemic so we couldn’t even gather petitions. Also in the height of the pandemic we ran a business accelerator with Black and Latinx folks. Forty percent of Black businesses closed during the pandemic. Our entrepreneurs that we support experienced a 3.5x growth in their revenue, and so we have these proof points plus I have a decent track record from previous organizations, and it is close to impossible to raise money here in St. Louis from the major gift side besides some foundations. The return on investment when philanthropy can invest just a few dollars into advocacy is just off the charts. Right now we’re pursuing two ballot measures because we have to—city and county are separate, that’s a whole other topic. It will cost at most 1.5 million dollars to win these ballot measures. When, if/when, I’d say when these ballot measures get won, it can (broken audio) million dollars per year forever.

John Harper: Oh, Charli, I think you’re frozen on our end. Are you back? Charli is still having some technical difficulties.

Charli Cooksey: Can you hear me?

John Harper: Yeah, hear you now. Try again.

Charli Cooksey: OK, what was the last thing you heard?

John Harper: We heard that the ballot measure will require 1.5 million to get the campaign going but what it’s going to unlock long term is what I think you were—we didn’t get to hear yet.

Charli Cooksey: Oh, yeah. I don’t know if we have confirmed any local funders of it because the risk eversion tied to ballot measures so there’s so much potential with government, but we have to activate philanthropy to be willing to invest in some of these efforts that could make their bucks so much more impactful.

John Harper: I appreciate these reflections from both of you. Just a little overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’re dropping as well as the set of questions that are in the chat. Maybe one final question to offer up because I’m sensing the optimism, the hope, the excitement for the future but, Jason, we’ve spent a lot of time together. I can’t remember which conversation you said this but we’re using this term ecosystem, and ecosystems have predators, right? Say more on how that applies in this work. As you think about some of the potential threats or predators in your ecosystem, how do you actually go about navigating?

Dr. Jason Q. Purnell: It’s a great question and that is an observation that I make quite often because we do talk about ecosystems as if they don’t include predators. Part of our work in wealth building is also wealth protection, and we as funders but we as people who care about equitable growth have to be cleareyed about the fact that there are actors who don’t want more inclusion. There are actors who benefit from exclusion. In fact, a lot of wealth in St. Louis was built on exclusion when you think about the property values and exclusionary zoning and residential segregation.

We actually followed up For the Sake of All in 2018 with a report called Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide, and that’s generational accumulated disadvantage. We have to—we heard from national philanthropic colleagues who were interested in helping Black-owned businesses acquire other businesses, and the people would not even respond to their requests. So there was a philanthropy that just made an end run around that, set up their own entity to act as a go-between and made sure that those transactions were able to happen.

That’s the kind of nimbleness and flexibility and sophistication that we need to bring to protecting some of this nascent economic activity so that people can actually benefit from both their labors and the ways in which they are building and owning new assets. That’s the kind of blocking and tackling that we have to be able to do, and you know, there’s a lot of folks who are worried about the backlash against DEI. I mean there was never some groundswell of universal support for any of these concepts in the history of the United States.

I used to tell my students Martin Luther King never enjoyed a majority of support during his life even from Black people. This has always been an uphill battle. It’s always been a slog, and we’ve got to stay the course. We’ve got to when roadblocks are thrown up, we find ways to navigate around them, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time wringing my hands or worrying about some of these, you know, some of the new rhetoric to counter the old rhetoric. It’s put your head down, put the systems in place to make sure that people get what they need and keep moving forward.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from A. Philip Randolph, the venerable leader of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who said, at the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything. If you can’t keep anything, you won’t hold anything, and you can’t take anything without organization. I think that speaks to the power of coordinated action, but it also speaks to the reality of those predators in ecosystems. The only way that we advanced as a species was through cooperation. We’re not smarter. We’re not stronger. We’re not a terribly impressive species but we can cooperate, and that’s the hallmark of our success.

John Harper: Grateful for this time today. I was going to say something inspiring, but I don’t know that it’s necessary for me to follow up when you start invoking A. Philip Randolph so I’m going to let that be and let that be the way that we wrap up today. I want to say thank you so much to you, Charli, and thank you to you, Jason, for your time today. I appreciate the specificity that you all offered up, real reflections, real ideas that I think folks are excited to be able to move forward inside of their communities. Again, we had a conversation about St. Louis and it’s special to you all, but I would argue we’ve seen what’s going on in St. Louis happening with many cities across the country so I’m excited for folks to hear from, to learn from you all and then be able to take those learnings back with them. With that I want to say thank you again to both of you and I believe I’m going to hand this back over to Courtney to take us in, get us ready for the next session. Is that correct, Courtney?

Courtney W. Robertson: That is correct. Wow. The word that comes to mind right now and I was actually reflecting on the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago when all of us got together to talk about this panel, and that in itself could have been recorded and played today but this was just as powerful so thank you, John, for your excellent moderation, and thank you so much, Dr. Jason and Charli, for just imparting so much wisdom.

I would love to uplift just a few things that are resonating with me, and I’m going to start with this one because hopefully we have a lot of funders in this space, but collaboration has to be a well-resourced part of someone’s job. As Dr. Jason uplifted, it’s not often the sexiest part or it’s not the thing that I think people are able to wrap their heads around as much but it’s critically important to moving collaborative work, having someone who’s dedicated to supporting and sort of helping move folks along the way. This idea of translating rhetoric into action and then to outcomes really resonates. The idea around growth and equity and having a mindset around both of things. This thing that Charli lifted up around multiple tables that are aligned and moving and reinforcing each other’s work, so having tables that are cross-functional, having tables that are role specific or sector specific, etc., but all of those tables sort of iron sharpening iron if you will is really important. I’ll just end with this one, that there is a role for all of us, and I like that John highlighted that. Dr. Jason, you know, in one role still saw himself as a part of this work, right? And now is a funder sitting in a very different position, still sees himself as critical and important to the work and so I hope that we all, even before this conversation, but even more so after this conversation, see and understand that we play a critical role in this ecosystem, and watch out for those predators in the ecosystem as well.

So those were a few of my reflections. I have tons. I have so much stuff written down.


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