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Invest STL – Reflections On 2020

Invest STL takes a moment to pause, breathe and reflect on the year that was 2020. We are growing steadily, both internally as an organization and through our impact in St. Louis neighborhoods. Getting to know and grow our relationships with community partners and neighborhood leaders are key to how Invest STL is showing up. Download the Reflections On 2020.pdf to get the whole story.

Invest-STL-Reflections-On-2020.pdf

Neighborhood Reflections On 2020, O’Fallon — Growing and Developing Community on West Florissant

This spring Invest STL is taking time to lift up voices, stories and neighborhoods to help us reflect on 2020 and celebrate some of our brighter moments of connection and impact in St. Louis neighborhoods. We sat down with some of our partners to look at their highly collaborative and responsive work spawned by the newly created Neighborhood Solidarity Fund and the urgent needs 2020 amplified in the community. Each Monday, over the next few weeks we will introduce a neighborhood leader to share perspective on what 2020 looked like in their neighborhood and how they were able to remain hopeful in the face of challenging times.

Karen Greer, a Small Business Lift investee is the owner of Angels Within CDS Home Health Care, LLC. Karen is working out of the 21st Ward in North City, St. Louis, which is also in an Opportunity Zone. It is a challenging place to own a business, but Karen sees a lot of potential and she is expanding her footprint as a result. Despite the nature of 2020 and how the pandemic affected her, Karen has a deep commitment and drive to be a positive force in the O’Fallon neighborhood.

During the rise of the pandemic she used her business, resources, and connections to supply clients, staff, and the community with critical PPE. For Karen the value goes beyond the immediate health and safety support her organization provided — there is a bond in giving and receiving,

“The benefit was that we got more trust from people. To know that they had support, a resource, that the door was open. It’s building growth, it’s social growth and it’s a resource, so they know exactly where to go.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND GET THE WHOLE CONVERSATION WITH KAREN

“The people pulling together! I mean, just the connectivity, you know, when there is a cry for help, I’ve seen a lot of people come together.”

— Karen Greer
The following conversation took place over Zoom in mid-February of 2021, between Michael Pagano and Karen Greer, who is a business owner and community developer in the O’Fallon neighborhood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Michael:

Thanks again for spending some time with me today. As you know, Invest STL is connecting with neighborhood partners and community leaders to join us in reflecting on 2020 and part of our emerging philosophy is really to step back and listen to our community partners and help amplify and lift up the good work and experiences that you have had and the work that you are doing. We also wanted to broaden the focus a little bit and really highlight your human experience throughout the year that 2020 was.

Whether you were able to adapt and really thrive, or if maintaining and surviving was the way that we can view success as well. I’d like to start with some of the basics, if you could introduce yourself and share your organization and which neighborhood you are in.

Karen:

Hi, I’m Karen Greer, and the name of my agency, it’s a home health care agency, is Angels Within CDS Home Health Care, LLC and we are working out of the 21st Ward in North City, St. Louis, which is also an Opportunity Zone. I also want to mention that I am a Neighborhood Leadership Fellowship with UMSL, the 2020 cohort. They guided and helped me grow in my community involvement. I am so thankful for that experience.

Michael:

That’s super. Tell me a little bit about your organization and the work you do.

Karen:

Right now, I’m a home healthcare agency. We are like the middle person between Medicaid and the client. They are considered either the client or the employer, they hire who they want to work in their home. We oversee that operation, making sure the employees are properly background checked and qualified to work for that client and receive state benefits from that. So we make sure that those background checks are done on a quarterly or monthly basis. We make sure that the client is getting the care that they need at their home by doing monthly checks. Making sure during this COVID time that they are receiving PPE that we are getting from the state. I am helping supply my clients and my staff as well as community. We make bags to distribute to those who are homeless and walking the streets, anyone we see we will give supplies. It is much needed in this community. The 63115 zip code was a hard hit for the underserved people in the community. We distribute those PPE supplies as much as needed. We make calls and coordinate drop offs and pickups.

Michael:

And that distribution work, you do it yourself and your staff as well? Is that kind of an all hands on deck situation?

Karen:

Yeah, pretty much. Yes. So we do it as much as needed. We are even making calls to people, if they needed anything, I was doing drop offs and having their employees come by for pick up as well. So it worked out pretty well.

Michael:

Tell me about your NSF Small Business Lift grant concept and how you were able to gain support for your business through that?

Karen:

With the grant support we were able to bring in another person temporarily to help manage clerical work, cleaning, coordinating and preparing PPE distribution. We did get some more computers in order to support that staff work and used the funds to support that COVID-19 preparation effort.

Michael:

Can you speak to the broader impact on the community that all of this effort had? The way that the community was able to benefit by your ability to maintain and grow that capacity during such a hard time.

Karen:

The benefit was that we got more trust from people. To know that they had support, a resource, that the door was open, and they shared the resource, so anybody that needed masks, instead of going to pay for them, they were able to get them for free. As well as a spinoff of doing a toy drive around the holidays. It’s building growth, it’s social growth and it’s a resource, so they know exactly where to go. 

Michael:

That’s excellent. That’s just the type of insight that we want to lift up and highlight and share. I think a lot of the work that we are doing to improve our communities, that trust is a foundational piece of that. And anywhere that we are able to put our actions behind our words, I think that’s a big piece of how trust either gets built or repaired in different cases. So I appreciate hearing that.

Karen:

There were a lot of collaborations and bonds that were formed through sharing these resources and knowing that in this time of need everyone was pulling together. We had a lot of the smaller organizations that I was able to learn about. Because I don’t live there, in O’Fallon. I am a business owner, doing a big development now in that community. I am learning to connect and collaborate with these other organizations and be a resource to them as well. 

There was an organization giving out school supplies at the YWCA, and the YWCA was another partnership where I collaborated with the 77th State District Rep. Kimberly Ann Collins, she did the first toy drive there, I assisted with that as well as provided some of the supplies that I had. It was really fun that we were able to collaborate and give the kids gifts during that time. That is how I ended up doing my toy drive, to use the surplus. We wanted to make sure that the kids in the community were happy during this time. I also met people like Pastor Rebecca Smith, who  does a lot of work with the homeless, I met here through the school supply drive as well.

Michael:

Those all sound like wonderful ways to serve and connect and grow in the neighborhood, in the community that you are with as a business owner and developer. What inspired you the most throughout the process? Can you take a second to step back? Is there an anecdote that kind of sums of that inspirational quality?

Karen:

The people pulling together! I mean, just the connectivity, you know, when there is a cry for help, I’ve seen a lot of people come together even though there are some differences, we all have that common goal to make sure that everybody in the community is okay or to check on people to make sure their needs are met. So I think that pulling together is it. And seeing that the kids are benefiting, that’s the joy, so they won’t get “crowded” with all this pandemic.

Michael:

Seeing the kids benefit really does bring you joy. I can see that. As a business owner, it has got to have been a very dynamic and tumultuous year full of a lot of stress and unknowns, but where were you able to find hope throughout this last year?

Karen:

That was hard. Just keep pushing through, I pray. Thank God that I wake up everyday, to have the strength to do it again. To help somebody else because it could be me. So as long as I have breath I am going to keep doing it everyday.

To look and see so many people around me that are affected by this pandemic and whether it’s the pandemic or mental illness, a lot of people just can’t handle it. It’s a tear breaker. For me, I have clients who are going through it as well and I have to give them some comfort as well, so I have to be strong even though I had COVID. Mine was not severe, but the scare of it, that it could be. So I know that feeling of knowing that someone will actually be there for you. 

Michael:

That support is essential. I’ve just got one more question for you here before we wrap up. Were there any surprises or unexpected challenges you faced as a business owner?

Karen:

Growth in real estate. During my journey as a business owner I experienced bankruptcy, hardship, especially as a single parent, a single mom, and I’m still a single mom of two. I have struggled being a business owner in a low income area, where it’s divided, but I work to overcome that and still have a vision to help the community, beautify it, bring in resources, and whatever help that I can.

I obtained one city lot from the LRA before COVID hit and then right as COVID was hitting, I closed on the second lot, which gave me 6 out of the 10 lots on the block. I already had my agency there and another lot there. Fortunately, I closed on the last building on that block, so now I own 8 out of 10 lots on that block. So that’s pretty much 90% of that block. So now I’m developing that for the community to turn those lots into a farmers market where any of the local residents that are growing their own food, the urban growers, when they have a surplus of food that they want to sell, and they want to make a living by selling that produce, they can do it right there on that lot. So they would have first opportunity to lease space and then we would fill that space with outside vendors to serve fresh fruits and vegetables and what not. It’s to give them an opportunity to earn some money in that space. And then with the building, that community doesn’t have any office space. It’s a two story building, on the top two-thirds is going to be leased office-shared space, and one apartment.

On the lower level, is going to be a banquet hall because two blocks over, right before you get to the now historic O’Fallon Park there is a growing community of residents and soon to be a variety of businesses. So there is plenty of space to host and hold events. On that last corner of the building is going to be a soul food restaurant that is going to serve healthy food as well as the fresh produce that is coming right off that lot. It gives the community a boost of economic resources, bringing more people into the community, bringing people together in one location to socialize and have a bond. Start building bonds, start building trust with each other and then be able to network and grow out of that. 

Michael:

That’s excellent. Can you just refresh my memory? The block you are talking about is on West Florissant?

Karen:

Yes, 4108 West Florissant Ave. And actually a week ago I just found out that 81 Million Development is in the O’Fallon neighborhood. It’s 10 blocks that they are going to be redeveloping and I’m right there in that area.

Michael:

Fantastic. It sounds like you are in a really good position and showing quite a bit of leadership as well.

Karen:

It was all unexpected, so that’s the good thing about this growth out of a bad situation. 

Michael:

Karen, thank you so much for your time today and sharing your story with us. I look forward to keeping the conversation going. I’d like to check back in with you down the road and hear about the developments and how things are progressing as you continue to nurture the block.

Karen:

Yes! I’m excited and I’m energized. That’s another thing that gets me up and keeps me up.

I’m ready to see the community shine.

JVL — Centering Community in Jeff-Vander-Lou, Neighborhood Reflections on 2020

JVL — Centering Community in Jeff-Vander-Lou, Neighborhood Reflections on 2020

Pastor Andre Alexander, President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation, serves the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood and in 2020 leveraged that heightened sense of urgency and accelerating energy to grow TCDC in a multitude of ways. Forging ahead with ongoing strategic partnerships, the NSF Stability grant, supported TCDC’s operations infrastructure and provided room to think through with others, imagine, and breathe into these relationships, It allowed us time to begin deepening current relationships that we already had, like with Mission St. Louis, Urban K-Life, the Block Unit Federation that’s under the Urban League. Those all are things that have been able to grow as a result of looking at the pandemic going, “What’s the best way to strategically connect and utilize what we do great and what others’ do great?” 

The TCDC also grew their physical footprint in 2020, acquiring a few additional properties, stabilizing those buildings, and readying them for families. Pastor Andre speaks with joy about their love for preparing these spaces to be the site of a family’s own stabilization and transformation process. He understands the nature of home and community, how they are critical to our well being. Andre also shares what it’s like to come through the chaos of 2020 having caught a glimpse of something promising. “I learned how creative and innovative, as people, we can really be.”

“When the time comes, and I think about, “How do we harness that to really solve some of the challenges we face in our communities?” It taught me that we’ve got answers and the ability to come up with answers. It’s just figuring out how we do it together and implement.

Click here to read the whole conversation with Pastor Andre

For us the pandemic didn’t bring these things to our awareness, it just highlighted them and accelerated them. These were issues people face even if COVID never came into existence they are still there. They are still very real.

The following conversation took place over Zoom in mid-February of 2021, between Michael Pagano of Invest STL talking with Pastor Andre Alexander, President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation, serving the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. 

Michael:

Thanks again Andre for joining me today. We’re interested in hearing about the NSF Stability grant and its impact, but also the human story and your experience of 2020 and that of your community that you are a part of and serving and collaborating with. I’d like to just start with some of the basics. Can you tell us your name, organization, and the neighborhood or neighborhoods that you serve or are in?   

Andre:

Sure. I’m Pastor Andre Alexander and I am serving as President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation. We serve primarily the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, but we also touch a fragment into the de Ville, Greater-Ville, and O’Fallon neighborhoods. 

Michael:

Take us back to last spring and share your perspective on the impact you were hoping to achieve in the neighborhood and how the Stability grant supported your efforts.

Andre:

It came at a time when everybody’s pivoting and trying to shore up resources to continue the vital services that we provide as nonprofits. In particular, we primarily focus on housing and creating other community spaces for people to live, work, and play in. So it was imperative that we stay not just a float, but that we were able to thrive. 

This grant really helped with our operations because the biggest thing that many experienced, including us, was a couple of events that we simply didn’t get to have, which of course impacts the bottom line in terms of revenue. And saying revenue in nonprofits sometimes makes people uncomfortable but the reality of it is it takes funding to make us function, like any other entity, right? For us, we utilized the grant not to only function, but to thrive. It was a part of helping all of our operations stay functional and look at ways to strategically serve people well and even look for ways to grow. 

Michael:

I appreciate what you are saying there about the necessity at that time to not just stay present, but to actually increase support and grow. Can you tell me a little bit about what that growth looked like? Are there any specifics that you can point to? 

Andre:

Yes. For us, it centered on a couple things. We acquired a few additional properties. That then,  brought in more families for us to begin serving. As well as bring stabilization to those properties because the previous owner was not the greatest landlord. So you had that. You also had the continuance of the rehab of vacant structures. That’s one of the things that we love to do and we got to bring a few of those online last year, even in the midst of the pandemic. Again, to move families in and help families become stabilized. And also to begin to think through infrastructure, towards the end of the year with this assistance and assistance from a couple of other foundations we were able to add some staff. Which we were desperately needing. All of that infrastructure put us in a position for this year to really engage more projects and look at really building more partnerships because we don’t try to be all things to all people. Those are some of the ways, property wise, infrastructure wise and influence we were able to grow as an organization through last year and now into this year. 

Michael:

Got you. When you talk about partnerships, I think that has been a key thread that we’ve been weaving into the storytelling around the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund and how folks are working together. Can you tell me a little bit more about the growth in partnership in 2020?

Andre:

Sure. For example, we were able to finalize and secure a relationship with Catholic Charities which represents technically 8 different alcoves from St. Francis Community Center, St. Patrick’s Center falls under that, Mary Grove, etc. Then what that allows for us is additional assistance with case management, and I don’t really like the term case management, I like people engagement, so it allows resources for people engagement. And then to bring in expertise in counseling, transitional housing, it may be legal aid, benevolence assistance in terms of rent or utilities, this whole host of things that, you know, we right now, TCDC [Tabernacle Community Development Corporation] do not do, don’t feel necessarily called to do, right. Now we have brought that into a set place in the neighborhood so now this year we are really marketing that to the community saying, “Hey this is accessible to you through this relationship.” So that’s what I mean when we look at okay, and not that we don’t work with other housing organizations but man, that just added a whole litany of resources, that we don’t currently have, don’t have the resources to manage, instantly. Certainly,  I’m proud to make it known and put it out there. It also just allowed us time to begin deepening current relationships that we already had like with Mission St. Louis, Urban K-Life, the Block Unit Federation that’s under the Urban League. Those all are things that have been able to grow as a result of looking at the pandemic going, “What’s the best way to strategically connect and utilize what we do great and what others do great?” 

Another one is CHIPS which is another in health care, they primarily serve people who are without insurance and we are not too far from each other geographically. So we began to work it out and go, okay we’ve got space and we’ve got a little bit more dense neighborhood than where your facility is. How can we work together? And now we have an MOU that is signed between both parties.

That’s just some of the ways over these last twelve months that relationships have really grown between us and other entities. And I’ll mention one more that we are waiting to see how it comes out. We partnered with Trailnet on a grant from Flourish STL. If we are awarded, it will allow us to work on traffic and mobility, helping African-American moms have access and walkable spaces to health care, to jobs, etc. by improving the bus routes, the bus stops, the ability to connect technology and figure out the best routes and optimizing the times as well as creating safer streets in the neighborhood right around our facility. 

Those are just some of the ways of partnership(s) and how we approach them. I think if you listen to all of that you will notice how all of these things complement each other but yet they are not identical. 

Michael:

Sure. They kinda help build out an environment and a structure along with the relationships that connect and work within there. That makes a lot of sense. I like when you tie together the partnership and then the African-American mother who can experience the different traffic situation, so that she has access, not only in proximity and things being close by, that there are safe walkable streets and inviting environments where you would want to get out and take advantage of that. I appreciate you kinda blending the partnerships, the environmental structures being created and how one would benefit within that. Specifically that kind of image of a young mom navigating the bus routes and dealing with health care and things like that. I think that kind of speaks to the next question that I have for you.  

It sounded like 2020 was a lot of growing and laying the groundwork and getting prepared to deepen the serve in 2021. But in that effort in 2020, can you talk about the wider neighborhood   response for some of the things that you were forging or putting together around those partnerships and around those developments too?

Andre:

Neighborhood wise, I think a lot of people, just from our interactions were, I think you saw a lot more internal focus in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood specifically, I can’t speak to across the city. But I definitely think you’ve seen more of an internal focus to say, “How do I remain safe? How do I not only stay safe but, how do I keep a roof over my head?” So anything we did that could help with that was well received I think just because of the climate of what all was going on.

A lot of what we are working on and partnerships expanding, really goes back to relationships and ideas and asks of our community well before the pandemic even showed up. For us the pandemic didn’t bring these things to our awareness, it just highlighted them and accelerated them. These were issues people face even if COVID never came into existence they are still there. They are still very real. It’s just that COVID amplified them and made them accelerate due to the nature of which we had to shut down, employment impacted, housing impacted, food impacted, schooling impacted, health care impacted. All these different things just happened at a much faster pace and all at the same time. So anything that we’ve been able to do has been well received because one, people are looking at it, okay they’ve been at this a while, they’ve proven that they are not going anywhere and two, they’re doing what they are doing now at least continues to bring a light of hope into our community as well as some resources into our  community. Because it helps create jobs, it helps make things available and more accessible to where I am in terms of a parameters standpoint. So it went over well I think people did kind of miss our presence because at the height of things especially, we weren’t out and as visible, as much. Just trying to be good neighbors and love our neighbors well we weren’t out as much as we normally would be with some of the personal interaction even. And I think our neighborhood missed that and so as we begin to open up and be more boots on the ground again, you can tell that people are excited to see more of us at times when they were used to and accustomed to seeing us versus kind of being more sporadic or us doing things at an off hour. And we shared with people that we were doing that to be a part of the neighborhood fabric and keeping it safe. I believe that was well received and appreciated. 

Michael:

You mention hope and I think that is just a critical theme and part of 2020. In light of all the struggle and as you said, things happening all at the same time, so just this compounded challenge, but speaking to hope. Do you have any anecdotes or can you think back to a part of 2020 or some moment that sort of encapsulates that promise of hope for you?   

Andre:

(Deep sigh)

That’s a good question. For me personally, I have to lean into my faith and what brings hope and holds me together is this short verse 1 Corinthians 13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Well, hope is anchored in love, right. And when I love somebody well I care about their well-being and that casts hope about what’s to come even though we don’t know what the outcome will be. So my faith says hope is the substance, the evidence. That’s what my faith is, it’s the hope that things won’t always be the way that they are. 

One of the things, one of the, I call her, one of the mothers of the neighborhood says all the time, she is almost 80, she’s been there 50 years, she’ll say, “Well, well we just have to do what we can and trust God with the rest.” and I figure you know what, if she’s lived by that and she’s made it to 80 and she’s been right here and has a love and respect from a whole entire community, then something about it has to work. I’m going to trust what she says.  

Michael:

Beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for going there and just sharing from your heart and from scripture and from another image. This time of an older woman, a woman who has been in the community for a long time. As you say, if that’s the type of attitude or vision that can sustain her then yeah it’s a good idea to follow suit perhaps. 

I think I’ve just got one more question for you here, this one will hopefully invite you to reflect a little bit and find a moment in 2020 that maybe resonates with this. Obviously 2020 was full of surprise and unexpected challenges related to the pandemic, but if we are thinking about your organization and the growth and the sort of newness. The things on the horizon, the partnerships you’re building, the developments. When you think about it in those terms, were there any unexpected challenges or surprises that defined your year? Or that you bring to that reflection? 

Andre:

Yeah. I can think of one major one. So, like everybody, mid-March, the world shuts down. My son’s sixteenth birthday was in the first week of April, we didn’t get to celebrate it. He didn’t go, he didn’t get to do the traditional thing of going and getting his license because there was no place open. This was before the drive by parties and putting the signs in the yard, before that was a thing, right. If you had seen too many cars in the neighborhood you’d call and say hey they’re breaking the protocol. So everything we had planned, (snap) like that shutdown. 

Then you add to that, a couple of weeks later my daughter gets an ear infection and my wife takes her into the doctor. Well it’s not at our normal doctor’s office because our normal doctor’s office is only seeing well patients. You know they split things up, again COVID rules at this point. We are only a month in and we have no idea what it is or is capable of at this point. So we go to a site we wouldn’t normally go to. It wasn’t as nice as what we would normally walk into and as orderly. I have a special needs child and my daughter’s mask becomes soaked, so my wife does what any mom does, she took her mask off and put it on our daughter. As they are leaving, the place with people being sick and stuff, my wife contracts COVID. And she is confined to a room for three weeks and the only time we could talk was through facetime.

Totally threw our whole house off. We were trying to do virtual learning with both of our kids. Totally surprised. There was a moment in there where she left here for the ER by EMT’s. Didn’t know honestly if she was going to live or not. So when you talk about surprises and things throwing you off and in the middle of all that still trying to serve people in our neighborhood, serve my home well, serve my children well. It was a huge shocker. 

I look back and go wow. How did I? How did we make it through that? Hold in tact as a family–it’s one of the best semesters my son had in school! I mean when you start talking about that word surprise and being totally caught off guard — I have no other way to describe the situation, other than to say totally caught off guard. Knowing that it was God who sustained us and walked us through it.  

What I learned on the other side of it is, of course I think all of us have a greater appreciation for life in general, right. I think beyond just that, I learned how creative and innovative, as people, we can really be. When the time comes, and I think about often now, Michael, about how do we harness that to really solve some of the challenges we face in our communities. It taught me that we’ve got answers and the ability to come up with answers. It’s just figuring out how we do it together and implement. That would be for me the moment of reflection on challenge and the unexpected. 

Michael:

Wow. Excellent. And your wife has recovered?

Andre:

Recovered? She still has some, you know, she is one of the people, she has had some lingering health impacts as a result of it. We are hopeful again, that as they learn more about it, it would help them address some of the things she has experienced and technically recover from it. 

Michael:

Great. I just wanted to check in on that point because your story kind of, what an arc from, like you said, your sixteen year old’s birthday. It is a big thing to miss out on when you are sixteen and then that getting eclipsed by an ear infection that becomes an entire situation, like you said it just kept sort of compounding. 

And I really love what you said about beyond the general sense of finding an appreciation for life that we all sort of experienced, the way that you highlighted creativity and connectivity. Like you said about your neighborhood, and we have been hearing from other neighborhoods as well, but that idea of turning inward to support and fortify yourself, your home, your neighborhood, your community, and how inspiring that can be. And that great question of, “How do we carry this forward?” Now that we really have seen that collectively we can, sort of, turn on a dime and reformat our priorities, like within weeks we can change our collective behavior. A lot of that is very inspiring and I think that what you speak to there and putting that type of question out, is exactly the type of tone we want to share with St. Louis and with the region when we tell the story of how the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund, how investment in neighborhoods and investment in people and investment in the organizations that are crucial key components of on the ground work in those neighborhoods, how that can be lifted up and bring other people to this notion of inspiration out of that stunned sort of moment.

Andre: 

Absolutely 

Michael:

It’s great to connect with you and I look forward to talking further to try to deepen and broaden the scope of what we can share coming out of Jeff-Vander-Lou and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Pastor Andre Alexander, sharing development plans for the Tabernacle Community Development Corporation serving the Jeff-Vander-Lou and the adjacent neighborhoods.

Old North – The Doors of North St. Louis, Neighborhood Reflections on 2020

Old North – The Doors of North St. Louis, Neighborhood Reflections on 2020

Dr. Paulette Sankofa, founder and CEO of Peace Weaving Wholeness, reflects on 2020 and the Doors of Old North project that she produced with artists Andrea Hughes and Luisa Otero Prada. Doors of North St. Louis is a dynamic and powerful expression of the convergence of art, wellness, and neighborhood improvement. It’s this type of emergent action that sprung up in 2020 through the Neighborhood Innovations in Connectivity grant, one of three separate opportunities created by the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund, a COVID-19 funding response developed by Invest STL in consultation with community partners and neighborhood leaders. 

Dr. Sankofa and the women of the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) in the Old North neighborhood put a joyful spin on the work of looking out for each other, bringing together beauty and strategy to respond to community needs. The wonder of the imagery, the color, the themes, the Doors of Old North have a lot to offer us, if we pause to look. We sat down with the artists team to learn more about the project and how the challenges of 2020 pushed them to fall back on their creative powers. 

We grew leaps and bounds because we were able to meet what our population that we serve needed at that particular time.”Dr. Paulette Sankofa

Click here to read the whole conversation with Paulette, Andrea, and Luisa

So even out of that wilderness, something phenomenal emerged

The following conversation took place over Zoom in mid-February of 2021, between Michael Pagano and Shannon Dickerson of Invest STL talking with Dr. Paulette Sankofa, Andrea Hughes, and Luisa Otero Prada, who work and reside in the Old North neighborhood. 

Michael: 

Today we’re here to explore the concept of connectivity and how it inspired you all to push this creative effort forward and to bring this vision to life, and we also want to make that frame a little bit broader and invite you to speak about your human experience throughout 2020. So while our conversation is connected to the Doors of North St. Louis project, feel free to go beyond those boundaries and speak to neighbors you interacted with or even personal struggles or personal inspirations that may have cropped up throughout the experience of the work. 

So I just want to put that on the table as we get going here. I guess to start, I’d like it if each of you could introduce yourselves, tell us your name, organization, and neighborhood we are in.

Dr. Paulette Sankofa:

I’m Dr. Paulette Sankofa, founder and CEO of Peace Weaving Wholeness, we are located in Old North, but we serve the north corridor of St. Louis City  

Andrea:

I’m Andrea Hughes, I’m a neighbor in Old North St. Louis and I’m with Paulette Sankofa and Peace Weaving Wholeness. I am an artist and serve as the president of Zuka Arts Guild, also in the neighborhood. 

Luisa:

Luisa Otero Prada, I am a visual artist, I am independent, but also a member of Zuka Arts Guild and work with Paulette and serve on the board of Peace Weaving Wholeness since 2018. I have been involved in Old North since I met them in 2017. I live in North County, but I am really attached to this part of the city in the Old North neighborhood. I love it.  

Andrea:

I think we should also say that we are all CAT’s (Community Artists Training Network)- aren’t we?

Michael:

Four CAT’s plus Shannon.

Shannon:

I have not done the CAT program, so I need to go get educated and then I’ll come back. I want to. I am definitely interested.

Andrea:

We will nominate you. We are behind you 100%.

Shannon:

Thank you.

Michael: 

Paulette, will you start by telling us about the project concept? How you conceptualized the idea and what impact you felt it would have on the neighborhood and the folks in the community?

Paulette: 

Starting in February of 2020, I contracted COVID-19. That was before people really knew what it was, there was no place to go, I had to stay at home. Andrea was delivering orange juice and hanging it on my back door. It was just a whole process. 

In the midst of that, we had originally looked at another grant where we were going to buy billboards to create images about peace and well being and try to create a culture of peace in North St. Louis as a part of our overall program for Peace Weaving Wholeness. 

Andrea and I had talked a number of times and I had talked about doors. How could we create something public? Having your grant as a catalyst encouraged other organizations and businesses to partner with us too, so that they could be a part of this whole thing. Trying to have these images [in the public view].

I talked to Stephen Acree at Rise and I said we wanted to do a couple doors and he said, “What about all of them?” I said then you need to match the money that we got from Invest STL. And they did! They kicked in some money. It kind of snowballed from there. 

Luisa and Andrea were the lead artists. Luisa was responsible for coordination and they became the anchors. I could fall into the background and support, but they were the real life of the project. They came up with designs and ideas, and took the idea of creating a culture of peace and wellness and what could that mean, because sometimes people could only come out to go to the store and when they came out they would be able to see one of these images.

Andrea:

I like doing the project in Old North because the idea is for Old North to be an arts center. There are little pockets of art all over the place in Old North, so this is a perfect place for the neighborhood doors project. I love being involved in projects in the neighborhood, especially when it has to do with art. It made it feel really special to be there and be a part of it.

You know, come to my neighborhood! Yeah, I did that, I did that, I did that! I bring my family in from out of town and it’s a good feeling to walk around and show some of my artwork without having to actually go to a gallery. 

Luisa:

It was one of those projects that just came at the perfect time. As Paulette mentioned, she was thinking about doors. Maybe a couple years ago, when she painted her door, everybody was asking about it in the neighborhood. Curious about how much it would cost, wanting their doors painted, things like that. She painted her door a couple years ago and it caused some attraction and she kept thinking, “I want to do the doors of North St. Louis.” And this was the perfect time because it was an outdoor project, it improves the neighborhood, it does many things at the same time. Everybody was indoors, but we were outside painting. It was a way to interact with the neighbors and neighborhood. It was an uplifting project for ourselves and for the neighborhood at the same time. 

Shannon:

What was the response from the wider neighborhood? What were people saying about the project? 

Paulette:

There is always, in the news, we get a lot of negative press in North St. Louis. And in one of the clips in the video, Andrea talks about how there are lots of wonderful people here. We are literally an artists colony in Old North St. Louis and we now have a public art museum, people can come to the neighborhood and now there is a new narrative that is emerging from [the doors project]. It’s not going to end, we are hoping to do it again this summer. Maybe even partner with the Heart Association and other people who are doing doors now, or the Cancer Society. I think that there are other ways to expand it, but for me it was important that I was able to employ local artists. Whatever funds we get into the program, we try to share with local artists and other people in the local community. So that the money turns over in Old North before it goes out of the community. There were a lot of things that grew out of that seed money that you all gave. You all [Invest STL] invested literally, and through that investment we were able to get dividends coming back to the community. People look at those doors and people don’t mess with those doors. Nobody is coming along and doing anything to them, they respect them. That’s a big deal, that is a huge deal. And we’ve got plenty of graffiti artists in the neighborhood, so next time I am hoping too, to add that dimension. I know that there are other neighbors who want their doors done. Some private citizens paid for their own when we ran out of money. 

Luisa:

The response was incredible. It’s a response to the message we are sending out. The message is the color, the message is the theme. We are trying to do something without telling the people, don’t do this, or do this. So as we worked, we decided to find a theme for every block and would see what people on each block were telling us. So we have the garden block, a block where we decided to do music, the wellness block, and diversity. So that was the idea to have a few themes and the message of art, color, and beauty. That’s it, without any other agenda! The response was amazing, people telling us thank you, this is beautiful, curious why we were doing the doors, always positive.

Andrea:

When we were doing some private property, we did the Bee Center, right there at the corner of 13th Street and St. Louis Avenue. We call it the Beehive. I did the door with the bees and all the flowers, that one was one of my personal favorites. It led to another project where they wanted signs with bees in the front yard. 

Another woman has a fence on Market and Blair, she wanted an African theme, so Luisa and I came up with a concept and we combined everything that she asked for. She wanted something to speak to the neighbors to say that this is unity and this is something beautiful. So we did requests, something we had never done before on that scale. It was tremendous. 

One woman wanted something in green and since we were doing the themes of entertainment, prosperity, and peace, I painted Josephin Baker with a green dress on. The woman was just over the moon with that! Downstairs from that the woman wanted something elegant so I painted a chandelier for her and she was really happy. It was a good combination of speaking to the neighborhood, plus making the people who have to go in and out of those doors happy too

Paulette:

It helped a lot of businesses to come out of their comfort zone too because I think they were afraid of putting up images, you know. I suspect that eventually they are going to want some color on the front doors of some of their places. The whole idea is to help them reach the point where they can say, “this is going to help my business because tourists are going to want to come and see the place that has the most painted doors and the most beautiful public art work. 

I have been trying to raise money to buy Peace Polls. Which is the next level because I did a Peace Polls project in Minnesota and even though I wasn’t doing research at the time, it was funded by the state of Minnesota Injury Prevention. And what we found was that the liquostores started to report that people didn’t bother their flowers, where these Peace Polls went up violence went down in the community. And again, those are all public health issues. So if we can continue to use our funds to support well-being in the community and find ways of expanding that to help artists and other people in the community find ways to be engaged, then I think we are meeting our goal.  

Michael:

Speaking to what inspired you the most about the projects, where you were able to find hope throughout this year, and the connectivity between residents, the larger neighborhood, people coming into the neighborhood, and the effect on business as well. Then that forward looking vision for how you can continue to grow and utilize what you have learned through the project and the response that you have gotten from the neighborhood. 

I do just want to quickly highlight that I thought it was interesting when Luisa brought up that really, part of the main concept with this, came out of the fact that Dr. Sankofa, you had a door painted before, and that neighborhood response was baked into the initial concept that you put out. I want to celebrate that moment, because learning that really speaks to the values of community engagement, community beautification, and the style of empowerment that you all are walking in. 

So I want to ask one more question and then we will get to our closing question. Where there any unexpected surprises? Are there any individual anecdotes that you can share about something related to 2020 and something you didn’t see coming out of this project or some impact you didn’t expect? 

Andrea:

For me, a lot of people complain about 2020, I mean it wasn’t the best of times, and I don’t know if this is the artist in me or what but, I like change, I like challenges, and everybody wants to go back to a so-called-normal and I like to meet whatever we are right now and respond to it right now with whatever I have. 2020 wasn’t as bad for me as it was for everybody else. Yes we were secluded from everyone else, but when I got outside and got to paint and meet neighbors I never met before and get to paint with Luisa and have fun with Paulette because she is right down the street. We are very close neighbors, it was joyous. It gave me a reason to just hang out in the neighborhood. This way I’m sitting outside and actually having conversations even though we are socially distanced. I’m still having conversations with my neighbors and people are enjoying what we are doing. People are coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I didn’t know that you could paint, you’ve really got some talent there!” It’s kind of a nice sharing there. It was a good feeling. So, I don’t want to dismiss that because we are in, “2020” and we had the president that we had. I just took lemons and made lemonade sort of thing, it was fun for me. 

Paulette:

For me, I won’t even say it was bitter sweet, it was phenomenal, 2020. Out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it causes us to have to think outside of the box, and fortunately, because I work with a lot of artists and I am an artist myself, and our organization is small, that works to our advantage because we could turn on a dime. We didn’t have to go through a bunch of bureaucracy, all I had to do was talk to a couple people on our board, and I called all of our funders. We were normally a face to face program, providing programs for seniors. I called them sick with COVID and told them what was going on and that we needed to switch from face to face and that I wanted to buy computers. So the funders changed and gave us money to buy computers and a van to make sure that we were mobile and that the artists had what they needed.

So even out of that wilderness, something phenomenal emerged and we grew leaps and bounds because we were able to meet what our population that we serve needed at that particular time. Because they were isolated, having the ability to do things virtually, when they could get outside, they could see the visual art, when they were inside they had the ability to do things virtually. 

For me, even though there was a little bitterness, there was a lot of sweetness in 2020. I got a chance to know the artists a lot more than I did before, because they were my friends and colleagues at Zuka [Arts Guild] and we had worked together before. But we worked together in different ways and we met some other artists that helped us to grow and expand. So many opportunities came out of this, we learned about Invest STL. New things were coming up, one person would tell you to call this person… a lot of people were starting to network and share in ways that they hadn’t shared before. Once you said that you would do something and you did it, then people started to reach out to you because we are in a pandemic. We are a family, we are not a closed family, because we take in everybody to connect with, but we are a family and we serve our community. We are servants who serve through servant leadership and servant artistry. 

Luisa:

I was amazed by the way the piece worked in 2020. Just to see seniors learning how to get on a Zoom call at 75 [years old]. By getting them computer access and virtual learning. We did virtual painting classes with them once a month. That was something that really surprised me in a positive way. Everything that Paulette was pushing for bloomed in 2020, that was for peace, it was great.

Michael:

Excellent. Thank you all for the lively conversation. We look forward to connecting with you again as your efforts evolve.

Click here to watch a video about the Doors of North St. Louis by HEC Arts

Andrea Hughes and Luisa Otero Prada, lead artists for the Doors of North St. Louis, a Neighborhood Innovations in Connectivity grant, one of three separate funding opportunities created by the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund.