About the Project

Twenty-two leaders in the Saint Louis region were selected to join the inaugural cohort of FOCUS Impact Fellows. They united to apply their leadership skills to produce a tangible outcome in achieving racial equity in the St. Louis region using the Ferguson Commission report as a guide.  From these St. Louisans emerged a group of 10 leaders focused on making an impact on the elimination of out of school suspensions for Pre-K through 3rd grade.  The team was directly inspired by the Ferguson Commission report’s Youth at the Center call-to-action. Over the next several months, their time together would require that they come completely out of their comfort zones in order to forge ahead on a courageous journey. The team would gain a deeper understanding of the history of local racial inequities, learn of efforts currently in place to dismantle these inequities and rely heavily on one another to make a collective impact on our region.  

In the spring, the experiential learning began. By May, the full cohort toured St. Louis with local gem and scholar Dr. John Wright, and broke up into teams, one focusing on Youth at the Center and the work ahead. It was time to develop a framework and engage the outside community by sharing ideas for the project. The energy and trepidation of that day at the Filament was palpable.  But through it all the team decided that its project was to create a video and other tools highlighting the voices of the children that experience the negative impact of out-of-school suspensions. Student voices first. One key tool learned that day which would guide the direction of the group’s journey:  the unreasonable ask.  Family, friends and colleagues encouraged them, ensuring an enduring and impactful piece of work that required courage and sacrifice.

In June, the team met with Brittini Gray of Metropolitan Congregations United and as a result, partnered with Regional School Assembly, a multi-partner coalition focused on keeping our kids in school. The activism work began, for some of the group for the very first time.  Team members spent the summer meeting with superintendents around the St. Louis region, asking them to commit to eliminating out of school suspensions.  

With the help of Bishop Luther Baker of Men of Valor and Caleb Wylde of Wylde Brothers Productions, in August the team finally began the process of video production, which included interviewing students, narrowing down messaging and researching local and national statistics. 

In October, the full cohort of the Fellows traveled Denver, Colorado on a best practices trip, where great work is being done to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.  The group met with and learned from the representatives from the Mayor’s Office, Colorado Competitive Council, Denver Economic Development Corporation, Aurora Health Center, Denver Public Schools and an incredible activist organization, Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United).  

This learning experience was just for the finalization of the video and the Regional School Assembly in November. The Youth at the Center group was proud to play an integral part in the planning and roll out of the Assembly. As a result of the hard work of several organizations coming together, THREE local school districts agreed to start the process of eliminating out of school suspensions for our youngest learners!

As winter approached, the team continued their efforts to build a digital platform including a microsite and infographics memorializing the work. After all they had learned and experienced, they developed the project’s call-to-action, with the acronym LEAD: Learn, Engage, Advocate and Dismantle.

Over the past several months the team came together, planned, strategized, shared thousands of emails and made many unreasonable asks.  The local community responded by saying YES we will help.  The team leaned on the expertise and wisdom of local community leaders including Dr. John Wright, Khatib Waheed, Nicole Hudson, David Dwight and Karishma Furtado of Forward through Ferguson, Norm White,  Becky James Hatter, Joshua Saleem, Brittini Gray and Julia Brucks. Wells Fargo and Regional Arts Commission St. Louis graciously provided funding for our projects.  Thank you to all of these individuals for their graciousness and support!

The goal was to inform the public of the impact of out-of-school suspensions through a multimedia campaign that would make the voices of the children a priority.  Although there were many no’s and work schedules were very busy — but the team’s bond was so tight… holding one another up during the turbulence, that the wheels never stopped turning.

It is their true hope that the video and other resources — provide the St. Louis region with tools to inspire, communicate and activate change, on behalf of ALL of our children, our future.

Team Members

  • Melanie Adams, Senior Director, Guest Experiences and Educational Services, Minnesota Historical Society
  • Cassandra Brown Ray, Director of Finance, St. Louis Zoo
  • Desiree Coleman, Vice President of Community Relations, Wells Fargo Advisors
  • Beth Damsgaard-Rodriguez, CEO, Interfaith Quest and Interfaith Consultant
  • Liz Haynes, Director of Special Programs, Maryville University
  • Tameka Jones, Digital Marketing Manager, The Salvation Army Midland Division
  • Sue King, Executive Director, Covenant House Missouri
  • Tom Noack, General Counsel, Commerce Bank
  • Stephanie Regagnon, CEO, AGR Advisors LLC
  • Greta Todd, Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Affairs, St. Louis Children’s Hospital