- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2020

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) - Alice Moore has an unyielding love for East St. Louis.

It’s the place she’s called home for nearly 60 years. It’s also the place where she raised her four children. Most of her fondest childhood memories, including shopping in the city’s downtown, were spent in East St. Louis.

Now, Moore travels outside of East St. Louis to do her shopping because of the lack of businesses in the area. She yearns for a return of the East St. Louis that raised her. She’s hopeful about the city’s future, which is why she’s involved in a new campaign to bring more employment opportunities for East St. Louis residents.

The initiative, aptly titled Elevate ESTL, was launched through WE POWER, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that uses grassroots activism to empower Black and Latinx people to make changes in their communities. The group is composed of 23 Black East St. Louis “power builders”, WE POWER’s nickname for residents who are interested in learning how to create effective policies for their cities.

“I wanna see East St. Louis not go back to where we were, but go even higher,” Moore, 67, said. “My love is here. I’ve had four daughters who I’ve raised out of East St. Louis. They’ve all been a part of the district.

“Yes, there’ve been some changes and there’ve been some things that has happened, but I know what it was and I know what it can be.”

Nearly 40% of people in East St. Louis live below the federal poverty line. Additionally, as of September, about 16% of the city’s labor force is unemployed, which is more than double the national rate, according to the latest available figures from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

The Elevate ESTL campaign, which launched last month, is mainly centered on creating more jobs for people in the city. That’s why they’re advocating for the East St. Louis City Council to adopt a community benefits agreement, which would require the city to seek the approval of residents, through a community committee, before entering a contract with a private developer.

The agreement would ensure that East St. Louis residents are reaping the economic benefits of any potential changes to the city.

“If you come into our city to develop it, we want our residents to be able to get some of those jobs, even if it means that they’re gonna have to be trained, because we know that when a city is economically strong, everybody gets along,” Moore said.

Kamina Loveless, one of the two campaign leaders, said it’s common for residents to get left out of the changes affecting their neighborhoods.

“You know, (for) the last couple of decades, the only thing you can hear about in the urban areas is gentrification,” Loveless said. “And it has never been good for African-American people. Like the people here deserve so much better and (there are) good people here and hard-working people here who care about the neighborhood and their homes and their backyard, and what goes in it, so I feel like they should definitely be a part of the process. It’s almost like people come into your home deciding what color you can paint it, and you’re like, ‘Hey this is my house. You can’t do that, so we’re gonna have to decide (on) that together.’”

“So (in) the community benefits agreement, it says you can bring your contractors here but only if the people get the doggone jobs and get to decide where the money goes.”

Danielle Washington, another leader of the campaign, said not thoroughly including residents in the development process ultimately forces them to seek employment elsewhere. She has firsthand experience. After moving back to East St. Louis in 2014 after graduating from college, Washington said she struggled to find a job in the area.

“I had been out of school for a while and (had) expectations of a certain pay rate, and not to mention, I lived in a bigger city,” Washington, 33, said. “I’m coming from Seattle back to East St. Louis, and so when I was trying to find a job, there was nothing in the city other than the gas stations that were hiring, a few of the grocery stores, like Schnucks, had an opening.

“But these were jobs that I worked when I was in high school, and I don’t want to work them now, so I literally got frustrated. I went to Belleville and applied for a couple of things. My first couple of jobs were in St. Louis.”

Washington is a parent educator and case specialist at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis. Although she’s grateful to finally work in her hometown, she said it took her a while to find that job.

“That took several years to get there, and that’s crazy, so I can see how people get frustrated when they’re trying to find a job or you went off to college and can’t work in the field that you studied for.”

Washington said her personal experiences with finding employment in the area made her want to get involved in the Elevate ESTL.

“When people hear about where I’m from, it’s always that (negative) stereotype, and I don’t like that because this city is so much more,” Washington said. “We’re a special people—-smart, intelligent, talented. I just feel like for this city to not have the resources and the blooming, flourishing community that it used to be back in the 70’s and all of that, that’s crazy. That we have to go elsewhere in order to get a job and all of that, that bothers me because I should be able to live and work in the same city I think.”

Along with the adoption of a community benefits agreement, other goals of the Elevate ESTL campaign include the following: getting the city to develop a hiring program to ensure that developers are abiding by local hiring requirements set by the future community committee and creating a workforce development fund for local developers to pay into in case they don’t meet those requirements. Washington said the group doesn’t exactly know what that process looks like right now, but she said it’s something that a future community committee will work on with the City Council, if the policy solutions are approved.

Jo Ann Di Maggio May, director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center for the Metro East, thinks it’s wonderful to see East St. Louis residents working together to support each other. She said the group’s proposal of a workforce development fund is a great idea. The Illinois Small Business Development Center has a location at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s East St. Louis Center.

”I think it’s a great initiative to help young people and those who are transitioning employment with any opportunity, and I think it’s going to make the community better and build East St. Louis up,” Di Maggio May said. “If they can hire local talent, then that’s wonderful. If for some reason they can’t, maybe the goal is to help with some training so that those individuals can become hireable. Otherwise, just contributing to a fund for the overall benefit of training the workforce, I think it’s a win-win.”

The campaign is in the planning stages, and its leaders are mainly focused on educating people in the community about the policy solutions.

Earlier this month, the group hosted a virtual teach-in to emphasize the need for their demands. They’ve also had a preliminary meeting with East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III to discuss their ideas. Additionally, the group is planning to present their ideas to City Council during the first week of December.

Although Eastern said he’s happy about residents creating the campaign for the city, he said he has to look more into the specific policies to ensure it’s the best course of action before presenting it other council members.

“I’m very excited about that,” Eastern said. “The unemployment rate isn’t only high in East St. Louis, but it’s high across the country, and COVID didn’t really help that situation because a lot of small businesses had to close and a lot of medium-sized businesses had to close.”

“What we’re trying to do here in the city of East St. Louis is try to procure more jobs and try to become more of a friendly business environment and being receptive to those who are trying to do business (here).”

Since the summer, the city has hosted weekend cleanups in various parts of the area. He said that’s one of the ways he’s trying to bring more businesses to the area, although he’s working on other plans to foster more business activity.

“As we go through the city and we try to make it a more aesthetically-pleasing environment, that also gives people ideas of maybe wanting to put their business here,” Eastern said.

The Elevate ESTL team doesn’t have a target date for when they’d like to see the City Council adopt their demands, though they’re hoping to see some changes by April. For now, the group wants to inform as many people as possible about their ideas.

“We want the community to support us…I’m hoping that they hear more about WEPOWER, and it’ll inspire somebody,” Moore said. “It will get a fire burning under them.”

“We want them to know that this involves all of us. I had a choice to live here or to move. I chose to stay and fight for something I believe in, and WEPOWER has given me that fire that I needed. Now we want others to come onboard and take a look at it for yourself.”


Source: Belleville News-Democrat, https://bit.ly/2Vn6U5I

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