Connect the Dots

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2014 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande, Ph.D.

One of the few gems of good news in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson was the announcement from Centene Corporation that it would open a claims processing center in the troubled city. The center will create up to 200 full-time jobs with health benefits.

The announcement is a shot in the arm for the predominantly African-American community that has wrestled with relatively high levels of poverty and unemployment—even before the riots.

Poverty, lack of access to good paying jobs, and feelings of economic and political marginalization are often triggers for unrest. We applaud Centene and its CEO, Michael Neidorff, for taking steps to uplift this community.

However, Centene can’t do this alone. Revitalization requires the teamwork of corporations, foundations, nonprofits, universities, churches, current and former elected officials, and an assortment of other community leaders. Together, they can examine the root causes of the riots and ensure that those underlying problems are eliminated. They also should examine other economically disadvantaged communities that are potential trouble spots, particularly in the North County area.

Here are a few other areas they could work on together:

Job creation: Unemployment is disproportionately higher among African-Americans than whites in the greater St. Louis metro region. Area corporations should consider following in the footsteps of Centene by creating jobs in Ferguson or making commitments to hire residents who live within that zip code. They should team up with the local school districts to offer internships or part-time jobs to promising students, and develop pathways to steer them to college or the vocations. They also could make financial commitments to the city, such as paying for the installation of cameras in patrol cars or renovating or building recreational facilities.

Take the ivy tower to the streets: The greater St. Louis region is home to a large number of colleges and universities, many of which offer job-training programs. St. Louis Community College, which operates a campus within a mile of the neighborhood that was at the heart of the riots, offers numerous job-training opportunities, but participation by Ferguson residents needs to be increased. This could be a great opportunity for the college to partner with community organizations, corporations and the city to attract young people. Some of these partner organizations could consider underwriting some or all of the educational costs for these students.

The other St. Louis-based colleges should consider working together to study underlying problems like crime, unemployment, underemployment and poverty issues dogging Ferguson – and devise solutions to vanquish them. They could also use their unique resources and programs to benefit the community. Locally based universities and colleges could use Ferguson as a testing ground for the implementation of many of these innovative ideas. Other universities should consider picking individual issues and focus on tackling them. Academics specializing in public administration and law enforcement, for instance, could study the idea of encouraging a merger of the 24 police departments that serve North County municipalities in an attempt to create a more diverse law enforcement agency.

Develop a collective voice: Corporations, foundations, community organizations and leaders could work together to lobby the federal government for financial resources, such as economic development funds and disaster recovery funds. St. Louis is the home of the some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies. It also is the hometown of some respected former elected officials, including Dick Gephardt, John Danforth and John Ashcroft. Their talents—and clout—should be enlisted in this effort.

An investment on the part of all will not be a one-way street. A community that is safe, vibrant and financially healthy is good for business.

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D., is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.